Digital Resources: Researching Coffee in Latin American History
- Mario Samper KutschbachMario Samper KutschbachIndependent Scholar, Costa Rica
Given its historical and present roles in Latin American societies, coffee has generated substantial interest and information. Documents up to the mid-20th century have been partly digitized by researchers or generated in electronic format by inter/national organizations after 1960. Digitized information at first primarily focused on time series, censuses, and other quantitative data to address economic and technological aspects, and on other primary and secondary sources for social and political ones. Historical and cultural geography and environmental and rural history of coffee-producing areas have resorted to scanned or digital maps and geographical information systems (GIS), together with aerial photography after mid-century and satellite images since the 1990s, as well as datasets on climate and diseases, and scientific or technical reports. Digital collections of audio/video recordings, paintings, and photographs expanded the range of sources and topics. Digitizing research involves critical and creative source work; it is also more than digitizing sources. Creating and linking databases containing nominal information, together with archival sources and oral history, has allowed researchers to further integrate quantitative and qualitative methods. Software for network or content analysis, genealogy, and timelines has been used increasingly. Machine-learning, exploration of big data, and historical/spatial data mining are still incipient for Latin American coffee. Digital resources—combined with other sources and methods, guided by appropriate research questions in a theoretical/epistemological framework—are key for meaningful and systematic comparative discussions of national/local processes within a regional/global context. However, many digital resources are not publicly accessible or require payment; historical datasets should be public goods. Much work is yet required to digitize documents such as accounting of coffee estates, customs records, and associations’ minutes, as well as multiple secondary sources. Digitalizing historical research on coffee is a learning process and requires additional expertise; convergent and cross-disciplinary methodological approaches are needed to comprehensively address the economic, environmental, social, political, and cultural history of coffee.