Building Electronic Bridges
When I began my term as president of the Latin American Studies Association one of my priorities was to explore ways for LASA to make better use of electronic resources. I also wanted to make the Association useful to members sharing common interests and concerns. With these objectives in mind, I encouraged the formation of so-called Sections. I also sought funds for virtual LASA Congresses, for putting the Association’s main scholarly journal on-line in a manner allowing search services not possible in the “hard copy” version, and for developing electronic bridges between LASA scholars and other communities of people interested in Latin America.
Now, a year and one-half after my presidency began there are 22 so-called LASA Sections. Their focus varies considerably. Some focus on specific countries and regions. There are, for example, Sections on Peru, Cuba, Haiti, Venezuela, Brazil, Paraguay, and Central America. And there are Sections that focus on such themes as Latinos, Gender, Environment, Scholarly Resources, Gay and Lesbianism, Medicine and Society, and Business and Politics. These Sections, many of whose members met collectively face-to-face for the first time at LASA’s 1998 Congress in Chicago in September, now conduct their everyday existence in a virtual swirl of e-mails, on-line forums, web pages, and electronic bulletin boards. LASA members already belong to an average of l.5 Sections, and some Sections have hundreds of members. Any 25 or more LASA members can form a Section of their choosing.
Given the expense of phone calls and faxes, the time-consuming process of printing and mailing regular letters and paper newsletters, the delays of even “airmail” to Latin America, and long turn-around times, e-mail makes it possible for sub-groups in LASA to easily share information and regularly keep in touch.
“There is no doubt that the availability of e-mail has increased the organizational activity and intellectual exchange among Section members, “observed Suzanne Oboler, who co-chairs the LASA Latino Section with Pedro Caban. “And, of course, it has also served as an outreach tool since it has allowed us to increase the Section’s mailing list.” Then there are members of the Colombia Section who like exchanging bibliographic suggestions with one another, for research and teaching purposes.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch, LASA Central American Section co-chairs Harry Vanden and Tommie Sue Montgomery sent out hundreds of e-mails, disseminating disaster relief information, interesting news reports, letters to sign, and website data. The Central American Section, swamped with some 230 names ranging as far afield as Japan, recently created a listserve, a kind of collective electronic mailing list.
The Latin America-Medio Ambiente (LAMA) Section is perhaps one of the most veteran international listserves in LASA. “For LASA members interested in the environment, the initiative to form a Section was a natural extension of our earlier decision to create an international listserver on environmental problems in Latin America; this emerged from a suggestion by members of a LASA working group on the environment,” noted David Barkin, an economics professor at the Universidad Autonoma. Members of LAMA regularly communicate electronically with over one thousand people concerned about Latin American environmental issues, including individuals and groups that do not belong to LASA. Through electronic means members share information and discuss environmental problems. Barkin adds that “discussions are sustained electronically in at least three languages and we can trace at least five books and more than a dozen collaborative research projects to communications initiated on our listserve.”
The energetic Web Manager of the Section on Venezuelan Studies, Margaret Martin, reports that they use electronic communications to keep in touch both with developments in Venezuela and with each other. They offer on-line a directory of members, with information about members’ current research, as well as minutes of their LASA Section meetings for those unable to attend. In addition, they provide links with other groups concerned about Venezuela. Much of their communication is bilingual. They see their function to be a community resource for their membership, for research and teaching. They highlight sources of data, and they have an on-line calendar where they post calls for papers, conferences, and other activities of interest to members. They even provide links and information about chat rooms where news on Venezuela is discussed. They find that not only LASA members but individuals in government and business have been visiting their homepage.
Meanwhile, the Labor Studies Section has set up a listserve. It is planning a webpage, and has begun compiling a member database that will categorize members by research interests, recent publications, and research projects. The Peru Section also has a listserver, and is thinking about a webpage. So is the Latino section, with the specific goal of “bridging the national and cultural `gap’ between Latin American and U.S. Latino members of LASA.” According to the Latino Section’s Oboler, the soon-to-be-designed webpage would contain information specifically related to Section members, as well as information about Latinos in the United States and links to other Latino websites.
Ronald Waterbury, chair of the newly formed Rural Studies Section, perhaps best summed up the LASA electronic effervescence with his comments: “In summary, the creation and operation of this Section was enabled almost exclusively electronically. Of course, it could have been formed via snail mail, telephone, fax, etc. However, could is one thing, would is another. I don’t think it would have been formed were it not for electronic communication. I certainly would have not done it.”
And there are possible new frontiers for Sections in the near-future. Sections might oversee their own chat rooms. Discussions might revolve around specific issues with periodic public debates.
In addition to the electronic frontiers being forged by the Sections, the Latin American Research Review, LASA’s longstanding scholarly journal, will soon be on-line. LARR is the premier international interdisciplinary journal dealing with Latin America.
With support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, LARR will be placed on the World Wide Web. People around the world will be able to access the journal in a manner that many now cannot. And the Internet will allow for new LARR services.
On a newly formed homepage, LARR will post information on forthcoming articles and review essays, multi-lingual abstracts of current and upcoming articles, and other information about the journal (including subscriptions). The web page will also have links to other sites useful to persons interested in Latin America.
In addition, back, current, and future issues of the journal will be put on-line. Readers will be able to search for keywords, article titles, authors, and publication dates, to retrieve articles of interest. This service will allow LASA to provide a new and extremely useful research tool.
One of our goals is to use advanced information technology to generate and coordinate Latin American scholarship, to broaden the range of people who can benefit from it, and facilitate communication and information-sharing about Latin America. Another goal is to provide more services and more rapidly than in years past.
Thus, LASA plans to conduct increasing amounts of its business, and to develop new services, on-line. LASA’s homepage will include information in a timely manner. Its hard-copy newsletter comes out only quarterly. Forthcoming conferences, research and study opportunities, and job listings will be posted as information is received. LASA also plans to develop a searchable research database on the current interests and activities of its over 4,000 LASA members. This database would be accessible to members and nonmembers alike and help build bridges, for example, between journalists, academics, and the business community around shared concerns. The database should also foster cooperative research among scholars globally. Both members and the wider public will thereby benefit.
Last but not least, LASA plans to produce routinely “virtual Congresses,” based on the digitization of papers presented at our Congresses every 18 months. This service makes papers written by LASA members around the world available, through the LASA homepage, to specialists unable to attend Congresses or unable to obtain copies of papers at the meetings. It also extends the reach of scholars who present their work at the Congresses quickly–to anyone interested anywhere in the world.
These Electronic developments and others should serve to transform LASA. They should also strengthen and broaden communications among the community of people and groups worldwide interested in and knowledgeable about Latin America. Our knowledge and understanding of Latin America should improve in the process, and our capacity to faciliate human rights, economic developments, and other resources there should improve in turn.
Susan Eckstein is the 1997-1998 Past President of LASA, whose presidency was hosted by DRCLAS. She is a Sociology Professor at Boston University.
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