Trudy Huskamp Peterson

Certified Archivist

Commentary, Archives under threat in Argentina, Bolivia, Hungary, Japan and Russia.

The Human Rights Working Group of the International Council on Archives has been closely following reports of threats to archives in Argentina, Bolivia, Hungary, Japan and Russia.

In December 2016 the Government of Argentina issued Modernization decree No. 44/16, transferring the responsibility for appraisal away from the national archivist and to the directors of government agencies.  This took the crucial decision-making power out of the hands of the professional archivists who are trained to judge what documents must be preserved as constituent parts of that nation’s documentary heritage. Fortunately, after protests by many people and organizations, the government repealed the transfer of authority and reaffirmed the role of the national archives. Now the authority of the national archives should be reviewed and strengthened to ensure that it can effectively identify, appraise, and accession not only paper records but also the growing mass of Argentine government digital records.

The Centro de Documentatcion e Informacion Bolivia (CEDIB), begun in 1970, has been based at the state University Mayor de San Simon since 1993. In 2012 its document and news archive was declared “Documentary Heritage of the city of Cochabamba.” In March CEDIB was told by a notarized letter from the university’s rector that it had to leave in two days, reported the Guardian, because “a Chinese institute must be installed here immediately.” The CEDIB website says, “We are in the need to move our Archive and Library, which is 45 years old and has systematized more than 11 million news items, 60 thousand books and other documents on the recent history of Bolivia.” The CEDIB’s director said, “It’s a trove of historical evidence to which members of the general public can turn to if they need to know things involving them, particularly those concerning human rights. For example, using a CEDIB dossier, victims of the dictatorships were able to back-up their demands for reparation from the state.” ;

In Hungary the Open Society Archives is part of Central European University, which is the focus of a new law that targets it for critical changes if not complete closure. On April 26, the European Commission, “on the basis of an in-depth legal assessment of the Hungarian Higher Education Law of 4 April” said “the law is not compatible with the fundamental internal market freedoms, notably the freedom to provide services and the freedom of establishment but also with the right of academic freedom, the right to education and the freedom to conduct a business as provided by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, as well as with the Union's legal obligations under international trade law.” The Hungarian Government has one month to respond to these concerns. The Archives holds a wide variety of records and personal papers related to human rights and the rule of law; what would happen to the holdings in the event of a temporary or permanent closure is of great concern. Ironically, the Archives, now threatened, has been seen as a safe haven for important materials from the Balkans and Eastern Europe.

Two events caused concern in Japan. In early April The Mainichi reported that the Chiba Prefectural Archives “discarded about 500 volumes of documents related to World War II, including names of the war dead and registry data of bereaved families.” After protests by “groups specializing in history” the disposal work has been halted and the archives is reconsidering the selection process. The same newspaper next reported that government ministries are said to be preparing to destroy documents designated as “special state secrets.” The Public Records and Archives Management Act covers documents that include special state secrets; they “can be disposed of after they undergo checks by the Cabinet Office once their storage term is up.” It is not clear that the Cabinet Office is checking to see that records designated as permanent are not being destroyed; the National Archives apparently has no oversight role. “However, according to implementation guidelines of the State Secrecy Law--or the Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets--documents that have been around for over 30 years after the information they contain was designated special state secrets are considered highly important, and must all be transferred to the National Archives of Japan and elsewhere for storage.”;

Finally, in Russia “a curator at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg has claimed that government authorities have seized archives and books . . related to the Soviet’s sale of art nationalized after the Bolshevik Revolution to Western collectors.” In a Facebook posting he wrote that archives have been taken not only from the Hermitage but “similar operations have taken place at the State Historical Museum and State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow.” The Hermitage and the Pushkin denied the allegation.

These worrisome cases are simply the ones that have made the press in recent days. The Human Rights Working Group knows that more archives in all parts of the world are under pressure. Only constant watchfulness, as occurred in Argentina and Japan, can protect our vital archival heritage.

Commentary, DNA as Documentation

Body parts are part of archives. A court case may include a mummified finger that was part of a damage claim. Strange circumstances can lead to an archives holding cremated remains until a suitable, dignified solution can be found. To be sure, these are unusual archival situations, but not unknown.

Now, however, as DNA testing has become routine in many parts of the world, archives are starting to hold both test results and samples—the part that comes from the body. The archives of the International Committee of the Red Cross holds DNA samples from Chile and is starting to take more from Lebanon.  Major forensic anthropology organizations, such as the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, have large archival holdings of DNA samples and test records. For forensic purposes DNA is taken both from discovered remains and from family members of persons who have disappeared in the hope that someday remains will yield a match. For example, an area outside the city of Veracruz, Mexico, the remains of more than 250 people in 125 separate graves were discovered since excavations at the site began in the summer of 2016. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, the killers had “routinely” removed “all traces of ID on their victims” so DNA is the best clue to their identities.  Officials are collecting DNA from relatives of the missing, and the first two sets of remains have been identified.

Forensics is perhaps the most famous use of DNA, but more DNA samples are taken and stored for medical reasons. The use of DNA and genetic testing is an issue so complex that a committee of the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine has just completed an examination of “how evidence is generated, evaluated, and summarized” and developed a framework for the evidence needed for evaluating the “validity and utility” of genetic tests.  DNA samples are useful for a burgeoning number of medical studies, but they also provide evidence of kinship. A large industry has now sprung up to allow people to find their “roots,” whether an adoptee trying to find a birth parent or a man who simply wants to know whether he should wear lederhosen or a kilt to a family reunion.

Storing DNA test samples and results is a long-term concern. With the rapid growth of the DNA “industry,” archivists will have to become involved in the issues of preservation and access. Managing DNA archives will require straddling investigatory and medical archives techniques.

But the most astonishing news about DNA and archives is this: researchers at the New York Genome Center and Colombia University have discovered they can encode digital documents on DNA. According to Science magazine, “DNA has the potential to provide large-capacity information storage.” The researchers say: “DNA is an attractive medium to store digital information. . . a storage strategy, called DNA Fountain . . is highly robust . . . Using our approach, we stored a full computer operating system, movie, and other files .   . in DNA oligonucleotides and perfectly retrieved the information.”  Could a future reference question be: “If I give you my cheek swab, could you store all my family photographs on my DNA?”

Commentary, Dare to Know

Grandma Chaem was listening to Buddhist talk radio when the journalists found her. The case against her had just been dismissed by the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia, where she had been charged with responsibility for mass murder, enslavement and crimes against humanity.  Court observers and scholars were convinced the evidence was solid, but no matter:  Im Chaen’s neighbors in her town,  want to know none of this. The New York Times wrote, “Villagers emphasized that an important part of local culture was never to pry into other people’s pasts. ‘Everyone knows Grandma Chaem, knows that she is living in the village, but we don’t know her background, what she did,’” said a village man.  The archives of the Court, assuming they are protected and preserved, will tell the story to those who do want to know.

It is easy to dismiss the concerns of someone living in a Cambodian village where knowing too much could lead to disappearance.  But many people living in safe places don’t want to know, either.  The famous Austrian writer Peter Handke went to the 2006 funeral of Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian president who died while on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, accused of genocide and war crimes. Handke, who calls himself a hater of history, delivered a speech at the funeral, saying, “I don’t know the truth.” And yet the broadcasts from the court and the archives of the ICTY, including the massive background material that was accumulated, make knowing possible. 

And then there are the uncomfortable truths to which many of us are willfully blind:  the above ground nuclear testing by the nations with nuclear arms, which harmed people and environment from the Algerian Sahara to the Marshall Islands; the money from the U.S. slave trade that funded prestigious colleges; the extent and complexity of the Holocaust; the crimes of colonialism. 

“Sapere aude”--dare to know--was a motto for the Age of the Enlightenment in Europe in the 18th century, although its first documented use seems to have been by the Roman poet Horace in 20 BCE. With the swamp of information on social media and the internet, daring to know must include daring to know what truly happened—sorting facts from false facts. We must dare to know what is in the archives, both the information that makes us uncomfortable as well as that which supports our beliefs. A healthy society supports those who dare to know.


Commentary, Archives and Accusation

Archives and accusation. They go together for more reasons than the first letter of each word. Archives have been used to accuse persons and institutions for millennia: what a person or institution did or didn’t do, what he or she knew, who he or she was or is. In January an official report by Poland’s Institute of Forensic Research in Krakow said Lech Walesa, the leader of Poland’s anticommunist Solidarity movement and later the president of Poland, was a Communist paid informant in the 1970s, based on analysis of the handwriting on nearly four dozen documents. As the New York Times reported, “The accusations against Mr. Walesa have been made for more than 20 years, and he has long maintained that they are a result of a vendetta by former Communists.”,Information-on-the-experts-opinion-on-the-secret-collaborator-Boleks-files.html  The Lustration Commission in Macedonia, which reviewed massive quantities of government archives, accused some 300 people of cooperating with the Communist-era secret police. Many of those named challenged the accusations, even when backed by documents, and eventually the government closed the controversial commission.  Activists use archives to name and shame corporations for causing environmental damage or for marketing unsafe products. And while archives are good, often very good, evidence, they are not always either complete or easy to use in that way.

In fact, for purposes of proving an allegation, archives are often much like the tesserae that make up a mosaic. Each document contributes its bit, and with skill a researcher can arrange the information into a persuasive picture. If the research is simply whether or not a person signed a card pledging adherence to a group of political party, the assemblage of tesserae is probably not required. But for lots of questions it is, and that’s one reason academic interpretations of events can differ so widely.

Items in archives usually are either smoke or a gun but not a smoking gun. I have, in my lifetime in archives, seen two written documents that seemed to be clear, unmistakable evidence of a crime that was committed. But I was skeptical of both documents. One looked very much as if it had been created using false information and placed in a file to get someone else into very serious trouble. The other seemed authentic, but may simply have been the writer making an evil, cynical joke about the kind of work that a unit was doing. 

This is not to say that there are no facts in archival documents; there most certainly are. The law from antiquity to the present has wrestled with how to validate evidence in court, and countries have developed elaborate rules on the issue. But archivists aren’t judges and interpreting the records is not our mandate. Our work is the trust we are given to preserve the records in our care honestly and faithfully so that others may judge their veracity. As Demosthenes (who knew rather a lot about accusation) argued in his oration On the Crown, “You stand revealed in your life and conduct, in your public performances and also in your public abstinences.” We archivists abstain from accusation, but we make it possible for others to accuse.