June 5, 2024

by Pedro Meira Monteiro

New Collections, New Archives

On May 15, 2024, Ana Flávia Magalhães Pinto (director of the Arquivo Nacional and professor at UNB), Fernando Acosta-Rodríguez* (librarian for Latin American literature at Princeton University’s Firestone Library), Paul Losch (field director for the US Library of Congress in Brazil), João Marcos Cardoso (curator at BBM-USP), and Mário Augusto Medeiros (director of the Arquivo Edgard Leuenroth and professor at Unicamp) met at the Biblioteca Brasiliana Guita e José Mindlin at the University of São Paulo (BBM-USP).

The purpose of the symposium was to discuss how different institutions for the preservation of memory deal with new topics and new actors that require a redrawing of the national, regional, collective, and personal categories that have traditionally guided the formation of collections and archives. 

Also on the agenda was the ever-growing scenario of community libraries and archives and the question of how major institutions respond to the changing profile of researchers and how they position themselves in relation to the countless themes that emerge in the context of social mobility affecting contemporary society, both inside and outside universities in Brazil and beyond.

Audience in a large classroom listening to speaker photo taken from in front of the group

Photo taken by Pedro Meira Monteiro

The audience was diverse and extremely qualified. The debate brought together institutions such as USP and Princeton, but also fostered dialogue between all the other institutions present, as well as between the representatives of the initiatives and community archives that were part of the audience and who actively participated in the debate that followed the presentations.


The debate at BBM-USP goes back to a previous meeting in 2023 when I took part in a curatorial team that organized a series of academic activities as part of the FLUP (Literary Festival of the Peripheries) programming, which at the time took place at the foot of Morro da Providência in the harborside of Rio de Janeiro, a key site for Afro-Brazilian memory in Brazil.

four people looking at an open book on a table one person holding it open

Photo taken by Pedro Meira Monteiro

The curatorial team (Júlio Ludemir, Maurício Hora, Anaïs Fléchet, Ana Flávia Magalhães Pinto, Silvia Capanema, and Pedro Meira Monteiro) put together a program that included a discussion about the history of the place we were at, where the first community known as a “favela” emerged at the beginning of the 20th century. The program also included discussions on memory, cultural politics, emerging literatures, slam, hip-hop, and poetry. (In parallel to the activities, FLUP hosted a World Slam Championship, which took place with contestants from all over the world slamming poetry in every language imaginable). When it came to the program we organized, we made sure that among the “experts” there were not only established academics but also local intellectuals, as well as young scholars coming from the affirmative action programs that have been changing the cultural landscape in Brazil over the last two decades.

In these discussions in Rio de Janeiro, the strength of community archives, housed in organizations such as the Museu da Maré, among many others, became all too clear to me.

Then in 2024, as a Researcher in Residence at the BBM**, still during my sabbatical in Brazil, I proposed to my USP colleagues that we host our librarian from Princeton on a visit to the University with the goal of exchanging experiences between the two libraries. During Fernando Acosta-Rodríguez’s visit to São Paulo, we invited colleagues from the institutions previously mentioned as well as representatives of community archives from São Paulo and the surrounding areas to hold a public discussion. The meeting eventually created several bridges, bringing together people who in certain cases already knew each other but who now were meeting at USP to discuss the underlying meaning of their activism and their pioneering role in archival practices and the dissemination of collective memory.

The Politics of Collaboration

4 people sitting in a room one of them speaking into a microphone with others listening

Photo taken by Pedro Meira Monteiro

Both the Arquivo Nacional (AN) and the Arquivo Edgard Leueronth (AEL) have undergone substantive changes in their practices and rationale for preserving memory. For example, the current director of the AN has expressed great interest in including community archives in the scope of the national archives policy currently under discussion in the Brazilian Congress, which she examined at length in conversation with the audience at our meeting at USP. In addition, I’d like to point out the true “Black Turn” that the AEL has undergone since black and hip-hop movements entered the radar of its researchers and directors. Through this change in perspective, the AEL, known as a leading archive of the history of the working classes in Latin America, has overcome the old notion that this population can be seen almost exclusively from the point of view of social classes, as if gender and race weren’t also fundamental social markers for the history of resistance and struggles of the working class, as we learned that afternoon.

Meanwhile, the representatives of the Library of Congress and of Princeton’s Library spoke about the history of both collections as well as the decades-long collaboration between the two institutions, which led to the creation of the Digital Archive of Latin American and Caribbean Ephemera. Expanding his presentation beyond Latin America, Acosta-Rodríguez also shared with the audience the initiative of a colleague of his, who is responsible for a collaboration with Iranian artists and activists who have resisted their government’s repression, and which has resulted in the creation of the Woman Life Freedom Movement: Iran 2022-2023 digital collection.

The BBM curator, for his part, spoke about the scope and limits of the notion of a “Brasiliana” and the need to think about a new, more comprehensive, and inclusive “ecosystem” for the formation of new collections that also incorporate the artistic and literary productions (often intertwined) of black and indigenous people who are traditionally present in “canonical” collections more as objects of curiosity and study than as producers of knowledge. The very logic that made possible the existence of the fine building we were standing in was debated in a healthy discussion about the quandaries of institutions like the BBM-USP. Many novelties and potentialities were therefore explored.

New Archives, New Collections, New Communities, and a New Encounter

The very notion of an archive (what it is and what it should be) was at the heart of the meeting we had at BBM-USP. The urgency to work towards bibliodiversity as well as towards a culture of open sharing and horizontal international collaboration at all levels were some of the topics discussed the day before when Acosta-Rodríguez and Losch met in private with the staff of the Mindlin Library.

In the public debate the following day, what was most memorable was the chance to meet and get to know representatives of community initiatives, some more established, such as the Casa Sueli Carneiro, the Geledés Instituto da Mulher Negra or the Casa do Povo, and others relatively newer, but no less powerful in their work, such as the CPDOC-Guaianás, the Centro de Memória Queixadas and the Acervo Bajubá. Representatives of these and other organizations brought their testimonies and questions, creating a remarkable and very productive atmosphere for reflection.

Pedro Meira Monteiro along with 5 other scholars posing for a selfie that Pedro took

Photo taken by Pedro Meira Monteiro

Among the many topics discussed following the presentations, I was particularly struck by some of the young archivists’ discomfort with the relative vagueness about the nature of their work, which is carried out in spaces that often function not only as an archive in strict terms but also as a local museum if not as a community center. My question is: what is gained and what is lost with this “lack of definition”?

After all, it’s unfortunate that the government doesn’t provide adequate means for the technical conservation and production of materials for memory. On the other hand, the question remains as to whether the existence of such hybrid spaces, which at the same time are and are not “just” archives, would not in the end make them much more interesting and alive than those relatively aseptic spaces that we normally identify as “true” archives. Metaphorically speaking, the question would be: what is lost when the gloves come off and the materials are no longer untouchable relics, but rather a collection of objects and memories that can function as pieces in a game that will be played by the community in a mundane celebration of its plurality and collective identity?

I was also thrilled to hear Mário Medeiros talk about his own experience as a young researcher during his doctoral studies almost two decades ago when he stepped into the homes of elder black activists and was introduced to genuine treasures whose value not even their guardians knew how to estimate. The ability to transform private and family materials into public collections in which the community can recognize itself represents a fundamental leap forward in the construction of archives. And it’s a beautiful thing that this movement takes place in a kind of domestic half-light, as if the “valuable” object were hidden from the view of its own owners only to be rediscovered in all its brilliance by young researchers and archivists interested in the history of those who preceded them. In many senses, new archives are being brought out of the closet, so to speak.

The meeting at BBM-USP had several moving moments. As the vice-director of the BBM, Hélio de Seixas Guimarães, pointed out at the end, the occasion was a unique and important one. Such significance has prompted us to plan a new conference, which will take place next semester at USP, most likely in October during Princeton’s fall break. At this new meeting, however, the positions will be reversed. Those who were in the audience will this time be in the spotlight, telling us about their own experiences, from the daily hardship to the advances and findings on how to handle community memory, thereby creating new paths to learn about both the individual and collective histories where each community can recognize and reinvent itself.


*Fernando Acosta-Rodríguez’s travel to São Paulo was funded by Firestone Library and the Brazil LAB at PIIRS.

** Pedro Meira Monteiro will keep remotely his Research-in-Residence position at the University of São Paulo until October 2024, when the new colloquium will be held at BBM-USP.