Center for Research Libraries - Global Resources Network

Resources for

John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Colloquium

Bernard F. Reilly, Jr.
President, The Center for Research Libraries


Partially destroyed documents from the office of the Serious Crimes Unit of the United Nations Mission of Assistance to East Timor. Courtesy of the British Library.

In late 2006 CRL began informal discussions with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation about the increasing loss and destruction of human rights-related documentation and evidence. The purpose of the discussions was to determine whether there was a larger role that libraries could play in protecting and preserving such materials. Our interest was prompted by the October 2004 conference at Duke University—History, Memory and Democracy: Collaborative Digital Access to Research Resources on the Southern Cone. The Duke conference highlighted the growing challenges human rights organizations in that turbulent region are encountering in their efforts to maintain the records of violent political oppression they have collected and provide appropriate access to those materials.

In February 2006 the MacArthur Foundation convened a small group of experts for a day, to consider issues involving the collection and preservation of such evidence. The organizers wanted attendees to address three aspects of evidence collection and preservation:

  1. How is human rights data collected so that it can be used for a number of purposes such as in truth commissions, civil litigation, or criminal litigation?
  2. Once collected, how is the data stored or maintained to ensure reliability and accessibility?
  3. Once data has been presented as evidence, how is it preserved and made accessible for research and other purposes?

Attending the MacArthur meeting were representatives of several activist organizations, including Human Rights Watch, International Center for Transitional Justice, and the National Security Archive; technology organizations working with activists, including Benetech and Global Voices; the Berkman Center for Internet and Society (Harvard Law School); and representatives of Yale University and Columbia University libraries. Also in attendance was Trudy Huskamp Peterson, consulting archivist and former Acting Archivist of the United States, and Bernard Reilly of the Center for Research Libraries.

Attendees identified a number of areas where libraries and archivists might in fact be useful. They noted that the organizations engaged in collecting and compiling documentation and evidence of violations do not have adequate access to the standards, best practices, legal advice, and tools necessary to enable them to maintain those materials for purposes of reporting and litigation. Three areas in particular seemed worthy of attention:

1. Collecting the documentation and evidence
Tools and standards are needed for NGOs, investigators, and others that collect and compile documentation and testimonies. The tools and standards must be basic enough to match the situation and resources of those engaged in the collecting activities, and there must be adequate incentives for activists to use them.

Possible action: Create a best practice manual on how to collect human rights documentation.

2. Managing the materials collected
Those in charge of collected human rights-related materials face threats stemming from the sensitive nature of the information contained in those materials. They must be able to prevent unauthorized disclosure of private information, maintain chains of provenance for the materials, authenticate potential users, and update electronic data as software platforms for reading and presenting electronic documentation evolve. Larger NGOs especially may have a disincentive to keep records because of the legal risks, e.g., libel suits. Such records can also potentially jeopardize witnesses and victims identified in same.

Possible action: Establish regional human rights data centers to provide resources and best practices to groups around the world possibly with an emergency response capability.

Possible action: Create “dead drops” for storage of electronic information that would not allow for access or use of the information until legal issues are resolved.

Possible action: Commission a paper identifying the sources of legal risks to donors of information and recommend how to mitigate such risks.

3. Developing local archive infrastructure
While some governments have the capacity to establish and maintain human rights archives (or include human rights information in existing national archives), many other governments do not have such capacity or might not themselves be trustworthy guardians of such information. On the other hand, information should be archived in or near the locale where human rights violations took place if at all possible. While this needs to be balanced against the need to maintain copies in other locations to prevent loss from localized natural disasters and politically motivated threats, attendees believed that such “safe” repositories should avoid drawing attention, or resources, away from the originating archive or group.

Possible action: Promote best practices manual for security of and access to digital human rights information, and other tools and resources that will help local, national, and regional archives build capabilities for protecting and managing sensitive documentation and evidence.

Possible action: Promote guides in countries to identify where human rights documentation can be found.