Pioneering Digital Scholarship in Mexican academia

11 Sep 2018 - 15:45
Story Carmen Louw  Photos Theresa Schoeman

Dr Pena presents digital projects on the UNAM website

Dr Peña shares insights on digital projects on the UNAM website.

UCT Libraries was the venue for the workshop Digital Humanities - Pedagogy and Practices in the Library Environment organised by South African Centre for Digital Language Resources (SADiLaR), and presented by Dr Miriam Peña Pimentel, from the Institute of Bibliographic Research of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

Dr Peña shared some models used in Mexico to develop a teaching program in Digital Humanities. She included a brief history of two projects, the obstacles they faced and later presented a best practices guide for the development of digital projects and shared some visualisation tools.

What is Digital Scholarship in an academic context?

Dr Peña began by stating that she has no library background, and explained how pursuing her doctorate in Hispanic Studies at the University of Western Ontario, led her to digital scholarship through a thesis she was writing. At the time she had no idea what digital scholarship was, and it was the first time she was exposed to data, especially coming from a literary background.

In Dr Peña's presentation, she described the term Digital Scholarship as being misinterpreted as “training to use technologies” but rather, it includes also the critical thinking needed to conduct research in humanities or social sciences.

Since the use of technology was no taught within Mexican academia, Peña and fellow researchers felt the need to teach what they have learned abroad by creating a methodology to teach digital scholarship to students using "self-taught" tools. However, the disparities between students from various economic backgrounds meant the introduction to digital concepts had to be put aside and to first equip students with necessary computer skills.

Within this context, Peña stated that it made no sense looking at "Global North" models for teaching Digital Scholarship as an approach was required to respond to needs locally. As such, there is "no unique model to do Digital Scholarship", said Peña as the response changes according to the teaching need.

"There is no unique model to do Digital Scholarship"

Pertinent to the adoption of digital scholarship is technology and assumptions were made according to where technology was created in Mexico. It was found that poor communities had embraced the use of technology, and at a more advanced level, than the affluent technology hubs in Mexico. For instance, rural villages saw the benefits of digital preservation by protecting their indigenous heritage using tools such as Wikimedia.

Digital Projects and challenges faced

Peña outlined the steps to getting digital projects off the ground - from conducting background research, gaining institutional support, to the final stage of development.

Many issues centred around the financing of digital projects, teaching spaces and the slow adoption of digital resources within the library. With most public funding going to the greater university, funding depended heavily on whether digital scholarship was embraced by the particular academic department they sought funding from. As such, academics were key to the continuation of projects at the university.

"There is still resistance to consider digital media as part of the academic reflection of the Humanities"

Dr Peña then discussed eLaboraHD and OpenLabs, both innovative academic and social inclusion projects in Mexico.


The project was developed by a research and production team from a private Mexican university, who created digital tools for social innovation and education. The team also conducted digital literacy workshops within the community. For example, in response to community safety concerns, a Geotagging app was created to inform on safer routes while avoiding potholes. Digital workshops taught children how to use a cell phone and how to use social media responsibly and understand issues around privacy and location tracking.


The project started in UNAM's History department by Peña and her team to teach 3rd-year students how to use digital tools in their History studies, with a requirement to employ them in their theses.

A teaching website was created with the assistance of the IT department, which provided numerous digital tools and resources for academic use. The research outcomes of the project resulted in presentation opportunities and journal submissions, and numerous teaching manuals on digital scholarship.

From earthquakes to vanishing websites

Devastatingly, the absence of digital preservation planning came at a high price as Peña finally shared that in 2017, one and a half years of research, 20 manuals and training videos were lost when the eLaboraHD website "disappeared", and with no backups. She admitted that "we did not have a plan for digital preservation" and took it for granted that the IT department ensured that their research data was protected.

"We did not have a plan for digital preservations"

The OpenLabs project shared a similar fate in that the private university withheld the right for the team to publish their data freely, and subsequently lost everything during an erroneous website deletion. Tragically, this university was eventually raised to the ground during an earthquake.

Through content recovery efforts from students and academics, they are looking to rescue and host the website with their own resources to guarantee the permanency of the website going forward.

Growing Digital Scholarship

With only five academics dedicated to digital scholarship, it was decided that it is "more effective to teach the teacher how to teach the student" said Peña. With this, her team currently holds Digital Scholarship workshops with academics from various universities around Mexico. In addition to teaching, her team also manages digital projects; fixing abandoned projects and publishing new digital projects.

Current Library collaborations: Oceanic Exchanges (OcEx)

Peña and fellow UNAM library colleagues have undertaken an international collaboration on a project called Oceanic Exchanges. The project aims to trace the global connectedness of 19th-century newspapers, among six partnering countries including Mexico. Through continued digitisation of newspapers together with accompanied ontology creation, research is becoming possible across large-scale digital newspaper collections.

Peña concluded that they are now striving to gain recognition from UNESCO for this cross-border initiative.

Dr Pena presents to UCT Libraries staff on Digital Scholarship

Best Practices in Digital Humanities Projects

Peña shared a checklist they used when assessing new Digital Project requests at UNAM and stressed the importance of commitment to a proposed project, this by insisting that a team consist of the researcher, a student, librarian, an expert in the field and a researcher from another faculty. A resource on Best Practise Guidelines for the Development & Evaluation of Digital Humanities Projects was also shared. So far there are about 50 digital projects in the UNAM Library's digital collection.

Dr Peña presented some open source visualisation tools namely, StoryMap and Timeline, both created by KnightLab from Northwestern University.

In closing, Dr Peña reiterated that digital literacy is the first step and they are dedicated to teaching basic computer skills once a week to students. She added that librarians have access to the entire Library collection and are being encouraged to publish papers to ensure discoverability in age of Google.

About the Presenter
Dr Peña works at the Institute of Bibliographic Research of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), where she develops enriched publication protocols for the creation of digital objects from research and the collection of the National Library of Mexico.


Story Carmen Louw Photos Theresa Schoeman