Trudy Huskamp Peterson

Certified Archivist

Commentary, Climate Change

“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul,” wrote 19th century U.S. poet Emily Dickinson. Some dinosaurs (we now know that they had feathers) might disagree. But hope and the ability to flee from gales, hot lands and stormy seas is all that people living in nations impacted by climate change have. At the U.N. climate talks in Bonn, Germany, the vice chair of the Alliance of Small Island States said “unless emissions can be drastically and quickly curbed, efforts by small island nations to adapt to climate change may be in vain,” Thomson Reuters Foundation reported.

The scientific evidence for the human contribution to climate change is substantial and increasing. “Last year’s record global heat, extreme heat over Asia, and unusually warm waters in the Bering Sea would not have been possible without human-caused climate change, according to new research in Explaining Extreme Events in 2016 from a Climate Perspective,” a special supplement to the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society issued on 13 December.  No matter where we live we are affected, but locations near the sea are especially vulnerable. Ask Dominica. Ask Barbuda.

Around the world there are “a growing number of lawsuits against governments over their failure to act swiftly to curb climate change,” Thomson Reuters Foundation also reported. A group of 21 people between 10 and 21 years old are suing the U.S. government, arguing that “through its actions that drive climate change” the government “has violated their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property.” Two environmental groups are suing Norway for “breaching the constitutional right to a healthy, safe environment—and violating it pledges under the Paris climate agreement—by letting energy firms explore for oil and gas in the Arctic Barents Sea.” Irish citizens are challenging the Irish government, and Dutch citizens have filed a case against the government in The Netherlands.  But lawsuits are not enough.

Communities, even entire populations may be forced to relocate to escape the global forces (see the U.S. story below). But as an nation like Kiribati contemplates removal to Fiji, where it has bought land (, it will need also to move archives—of government, business, faith-based organizations, civil society, personal papers. This requires planning and resources, now not later. While some wealthy countries may be able to solve these problems themselves, others will not. The International Council on Archives and UNESCO should convene a special meeting of the national archivists of nations in danger from countrywide climate change, with a special focus on island nations, to discuss the risks and develop strategies for preserving archives. ICA and UNESCO should help archivists, archival institutions, and their governments understand the impending changes, the threats to archives, and the options available. They should help nations find funds and partners to take such steps as the country believes are necessary. This is no less than preserving the memory of the world in the largest sense.

And, while we do that, it is essential that archivists everywhere ensure that the records documenting the scientific evidence for climate change and the actions citizens take to lessen its impact—including those lawsuits--are safely preserved. Hope may be a thing with feathers, but remember the dinosaurs. It takes planning and action to make hope molt its feathers and develop into real archival preservation.

Commentary, Release all government records created before 1946!

Old news keeps appearing. Regular readers of HRWG News will know that in the past few issues news items about World War II records are grouped under the heading of the war, simply because there have been so many of them. But we are also seeing a lot of stories about old records that are not open. “Good reads” in this issue has a complaint by a Turkish historian over lack of access to Turkey’s World War I era-records, a complaint that would be echoed by researchers trying to understand what happened during the period of the Armenian genocide. Turkey is not alone, of course. For example, in November 2014 Spain’s defense ministry refused to declassify records from the 1930s Civil War and the Francisco Franco dictatorship, saying it had “insufficient resources to analyze their contents.” A case before the European Court of Human Rights was brought by Mikhail Suprun who, along with the archivist who provided him the records, was convicted in a Russian court for violating ‘personal and family secret’ information while studying cases of ethnic Germans who were repressed and committed to special settlements in Arkhangelsk oblast during and after World War II. The records of the Japanese military during World War II are only selectively available.

Other countries and international institutions are opening early twentieth century records without problems. In 2014, for example, the United Nations opened the WWII War Crimes Commission records; the World War II era records of the French railroad, which transported victims to roundups that led to German extermination camps, were opened; the Vatican promised to open its World War II records. The personnel and related records of the NSDAP(Germany’s Nazi party) and its affiliated organizations and activities from the founding of the Party in 1920 until 1945 have been open at the U.S. National Archives for two decades.

Think of the issues that could be at least somewhat clarified by the release of all government records through World War II. Today the intellectual actors behind the wars of the first half of the 20th century are long dead, and most of the participants still alive were youths hauled into service. If we could agree that the government records through World War II would be opened without further review, consider what would be available: we could better understand the slaughter of the Spanish Civil War, the Turkish point of view during the attacks against Armenians, the Japanese Army’s organization of the “comfort women” stations throughout Asia, the purges in the Soviet Union. Although we would not have the records of the often bloody end of colonialism, we would know more about the administration of the colonies than we do now. And even if we continue to close records relating to pensions for people who are still alive, we would know far more about the people who lived during those turbulent decades.

As Melanie Altanian points out in her recent publication for swisspeace, “Archives against Genocide Denialism?” opening records does not at all guarantee that the records will be understood or believed: there are both selective use of archival material and the denial of particular evidence to contend with. But surely, surely it is better to argue about records that everyone can use than hypothesize based on partial evidence and records we can’t see. Nearly a century since the end of World War I, 72 long years since the end of World War II, it is time that governments open all their records through 1945.

Commentary, "Fake News"

Fake news seems to be everywhere. The President of the United States calls the work of the mainstream media “fake news.” Mainstream media such as the New York Times have reported extensively on the hundreds of thousands of fake Twitter accounts that flooded the public with anti-Clinton messages during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and posts that comment on current controversies “by simultaneously sending conflicting messages to different users segmented by political and racial characteristics.”  Even Pope Francis is concerned, announcing this month that the 2018 World Day of Social Communications will focus on fake news, as will his January message. In making the announcement, the Vatican said it “wishes to offer a contribution” to the discussion of fake news, “proposing a reflection on the causes, the logic and the consequences of disinformation in the media, and helping to promote professional journalism, which always seeks the truth, and therefore a journalism of peace that promotes understanding between people.”


Of course, fake news and fake messages, ranging from satire to propaganda to outright lies, have been with us for a very long time. The 1905 publication of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” which purported to show a Jewish plan for world domination, is a hideous example that the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum calls “an important part in the Nazis' propaganda arsenal.”  But the ease with which fake news can be produced and the speed with which it can be spread today make it enormously troubling. Add to this two trends that appear to be growing and we have a particularly virulent climate.


First, we see efforts by a number of countries to reshape or ignore history. Here are a few:


*The 50th anniversary of the 1965-1966 Indonesian state-sponsored purges of those suspected of being communists or communist sympathizers not only was not commemorated solemnly, but, according to Reuters, “a mob opposed to public discussion of Indonesia's 1965 massacre of communists tried to force its way into a Jakarta building where they believed communists were meeting, injuring five policemen.” Twenty-two people were arrested.  “The Indonesian government and its powerful military and security forces have failed to confront the darkest chapter . . and in fact continue to actively suppress public discourse about the massacres,” the New York Times wrote in the wake of the mob attack.


*A legal scholar who examined two Chinese digital platforms “found that two of China’s main online database for scholarly articles had removed dozens of articles” from the 1950s that “questioned the Communist party’s commitment to the rule of law at the time,” the Financial Times reported.


*A long-time student of Russia reported that the current Russian government “has selected particular events to which it has given a meaning very different” from that of the archival record. Officials in the North Caucasus recently commemorated the “460th anniversary of the voluntary inclusion of the Kabards within Russia.” A Kabard activist points out that while in the 16th century the Russian and the Kabard entities concluded a treaty, the Kabards “later joined other Circassians in fighting the Russian military conquest of their land.” Writing in Eurasia Review, the scholar says that ultimately Russian citizens “will have to unpack and reject” these conflicting interpretations “if they are to have any hope that “they can coexist [with their neighbors] in a positive way in the future.”


*Forty years after the Vietnam War ended, the U.S. public is still arguing about whether the war was a “noble cause,” as former president Ronald Reagan said, or good for absolutely nothing and a tragic conflict for Southeast Asians and the U.S. and other non-Vietnamese who fought in it. A new television series on the war, generally praised by media critics, has drawn much sharper responses from historians of the war. (For a sample, see the “Members Forum” of the American Historical Association at


*And in Japan many peace museums “face difficulties, including insufficient storage space and staff, in accepting” donations of materials from World War II. A professor told the Japan Times, “Japan has yet to reach a public consensus on how we should view its role in the war, so we do not have a budget set aside for collecting war-related materials for public memorial museums.”


The second trend is even more ominous. Archives contain the records that can help counter these pernicious trends toward dissimulation and falsehoods about history. Access to archives has long been a major issue, but many people have advocated for freedom of information laws to overcome at least government barriers to archives. What is now happening—see the items on India and the United States below—is that people who seek information are attacked or forced into expensive litigation over the legitimacy of the request. 


While we resign ourselves to the fact that fake news will forever be with us, we must not resign ourselves to any interruption in access to the archives that provide the evidence to counter it. A 19th century U.S. president said, “Government resting upon the will and universal suffrage of the people has no anchorage except in the people’s intelligence.” Archives provide the material—the heavy iron—for the anchor for the people.

Commentary, Human rights documentation disappearing on social media

Awful August is over.  Hate-fueled killings from Turku to Barcelona to Charlottesville. Violent protests following elections in Kenya and Venezuela. Wind and water destroying communities from India and Bangladesh to Texas and Louisiana. Rohingya refugees struggling through the mud in search of safety, as violence in Yemen and the Middle East creates yet more displaced people. North Korea launching missiles. Records will document all of these, but civil unrest and furious weather also destroy existing archives. What a month.


Much of what we learn about unfolding events comes from social media. Almost unnoticed among the August chaos was YouTube’s use of new technology to automatically flag and remove content that breaches its content guidelines. In June Google, the owner of YouTube, “announced it would turn more to technology to identify extremist and terrorism-related video,” CNN Business News reported.   Since that time, according to the New York Times and to several activists I contacted, “thousands” of videos have been removed from the YouTube site.  Gone are things like Islamic State execution videos. And there is the quandary.


Certainly casual internet users do not want to see snuff videos. The International Organization for Migration complained that people smugglers are using Facebook to “broadcast the abuse and torture of migrants in order to extort ransom money from their families” and called on the company to “police the platform and help crack down on traffickers.”   Sex traffickers use social media sites to offer the services of those trafficked; jihadi recruiters post hate speech “come hithers.” In the aftermath of the Barcelona killings, a video appeared threatening, “Spanish Christians, don’t forget the Muslim blood spilt during the Spanish inquisition.”  Surely these postings are abhorrent.


And yet: The International Criminal Court, as noted below, has indicted a senior Libyan commander; some of the evidence against him is video that circulated on social media. Groups who monitor the conflicts in Syria and Iraq compile social media postings as evidence for future use by justice institutions. As one person told me, small groups of activists rely on the storage capacity of the huge corporations to keep evidence they need alive.


Even with the best of algorithms, social media companies will not be able to eliminate all hate speech and violent videos. And if one post is taken down at one location, it is likely to pop up on another, less policed site. Perhaps a warning symbol affixed to the videos selected by the algorithms as hateful, much like a copyright mark, could at least provide a way to identify and sort but preserve the violent video streams.  Documenting violence has never been easy, but it is important that all possible tools are available for those who would assure accountability for the violation of human rights.

Commentary, Forum Shopping and Court Records

Forum shopping? That’s not buying food in old Rome. It is, rather, the practice of lawyers choosing the court to hear a case, based on the attorney’s belief that a particular court is likely to provide a favorable judgment for the client. Often the “shopping” is within the country, but at other times it involves looking at courts in two or even more nations. For example, the United Kingdom is known to have libel laws that favor the plaintiff, which is why the famous case by Holocaust denier David Irving against U.S. academic Deborah Lipstadt (now the subject of the film “Denial”) was brought in the U.K. 

Bringing a case in another country does not always mean that the judgment will be enforced at home. In 1995 victims of human rights abuses under the Ferdinand Marcos regime sued Marcos in the District Court in Hawaii, where Marcos was living after he fled Manila in 1986. The court found in favor of the roughly 10,000 plaintiffs and awarded nearly $2 billion in damages. (The Marcos family is alleged to have stolen up to $10 billion from the nation during the 21-year rule.) After the Hawaii judgment, five of the victims filed a case in the Philippines, seeking their share of the money. Two decades later, the Philippines Court of Appeals on July 7 said the Hawaii District Court was “without jurisdiction” over the claim and the judgment “did not meet the Philippines’ criteria of a valid judgment,” CNN reported. The court was particularly concerned that the complaint in Hawaii was, first, “erroneously filed as a class suit and second, therein claimants remained unidentified.” The court could have obtained the list of complainants in the Hawaii case from the district court records in the U.S. or, logically, from the attorneys that filed the original case, but clearly it chose not to do so.

A complex set of cases are those brought against international corporations, often by human rights groups on behalf of victims of environmental and physical damage. Here the lawyers for the plaintiffs can choose to bring the suit where the damage occurred or in the country where the corporation has its offices.


*January’s issue of HRWG News reported on a lawsuit that began in 1993 when a group of residents of the Ecuadorian rainforest sued Texaco, alleging that the company left behind an environmental and public health disaster from its oil venture in the Amazon between 1972 and 1990. The first suits were filed in the U.S., but were dismissed, so the plaintiffs refiled in Ecuador, where the Ecuadorians won a large financial judgment. Texaco had left Ecuador in 1992, and Texaco became a subsidiary of Chevron in 2001, so the plaintiffs turned to a court in the U.S. where Chevron is headquartered to enforce the payment. The U.S. court refused to force Chevron to pay. The Ecuadorians next turned to a Canadian court which ruled in January 2017 that Chevron Canada is a separate entity from the parent corporation and its Canadian assets cannot be used to pay the judgment against it.

*Also in January, a court in the United Kingdom ruled in a suit against Royal Dutch Shell for its alleged environmental destruction in the Niger Delta. The court held that “Royal Dutch Shell cannot be held responsible for the actions of its Nigeria subsidiary.” 

*Last month’s issue of HRWG News had an item about the lawsuit in Canada “brought by several Guatemalan men for injuries they suffered during the violent suppression of a peaceful protest” at Tahoe Resources Inc.’s mine in Guatemala. Tahoe is a Canadian company. Canada’s Supreme Court allowed the case to go forward, despite Tahoe’s argument that the case should be tried in Guatemala.


Tahoe’s argument is often made by international corporations: that the case against them in one country should be heard in another country (a forum non conveniens argument, meaning, roughly, to send the case to another jurisdiction that has a stronger link “more convenient” to the case). A judgement for the corporation can mean that the case has to be tried in a less robust legal system or even in one where bribes are routine. And this often results in cases bouncing back and forth with no resolution but draining the money of the plaintiffs. For a particularly egregious example of the use of forum non conveniens arguments, see the saga of the lawsuits brought by workers on Dole and Chiquita banana plantations in Central America for health problems linked to the use of the pesticide DBCP manufactured by chemical companies Dow and Shell, as told in the book Toxic Injustice: A Transnational History of Exposure and Struggle by Susanna Rankin Bohme.  

What does this mean for the archives of courts? Because archivists usually do not describe court records at the case level, relying instead on court-generated indexing that is accessioned with the court records, there is no regular means to link the case in one country to the related case in another. However, the International Standard for Archival Description (General) has free text fields that allow the person doing the description to note that a particular case or group of cases will have related records in another country’s archives. These mass cases for human right violations are so important that it is incumbent on archivists to make a special effort to point to them in the body of court case files in archival custody. As we know from cases arising immediately after World War II that have been revived in the last two decades, it is always possible that all the court files everywhere on a violation will ultimately be used to bring justice for victims.

Commentary, Identity Politics and Archival Action

Identity politics are rampant from the Balkan states to Bangladesh. As a professor of biology, neurology and neurosurgery at Stanford University wrote in a recent article, “Considerable evidence suggests that dividing the world into Us and Them is deeply hard-wired in our brains, with an ancient evolutionary legacy.” But carried into the national setting, where the people of a nation must agree on some things in order to live together, the drumbeat of identity can easily divide the population. Some of this division, of course, is attributed to the global media, where hateful messages can resurface again and again, passed from one device and one platform to another. And some of it, too, is because politicians have found it useful to use identity to gain votes: “Vote for me because I am one of you, I understand you, and I will protect you.”  

In the United States, the medical profession has been discussing how racism--one form of identity politics but far from the only one--affects medical treatment. Some patients shrink from treatment by doctors of another color or creed; some distrust diagnoses made by anyone other than a member of what the patient considers his group.;  In a discussion with two experienced archivists, we could not think of an occasion when a researcher distrusted or even refused to accept service on an identity basis, but it is not a stretch to imagine a researcher suspecting that an archivist not of his or her identity would not provide the same fulsome service that another person would receive. And would this be more likely to happen if the records requested are related to rights and benefits or to a personal interest in genealogy?

Archives hold the records that validate personal identity. From birth certificates to voting records to records of employment to documents showing adherence to a faith, archives have them all. Archives properly make the existence of these records known and provide the access to them on an equal basis. Archives advertise their educational services and offer courses in how to find your family in the records. But is there a line that archives should not cross, when promoting the identity records it holds is complicity with the divisive identity situation in the country? 

People were stunned when a presidential archivist recently advocated via Twitter that every household maintain an automatic weapon. in many ways, the records held in archives can be as dangerous as household guns, as they provide the ammunition for division and labeling. Archivists like to think of themselves as the neutral parties, moving between records and requester. In extreme situations, archivists have secreted archives that would provide information on personal identities to a repressive state, obviously an unusual circumstance. But it is necessary to think about the ways in which we advertise our services, walking the line between helping us all know who we are and what things happened among us and promoting the identity claims that roil our world.

Commentary, Facebook’s Deletion Policy

Why do people post on Facebook what they do? For instance, a man in Thailand live streamed himself killing his baby daughter and then committing suicide.  A man in Memphis, Tennessee, set his phone to record as he doused himself with kerosene, lit a match and committed suicide.  Videos of rapes, “revenge porn” (attempts to use intimate images to shame, humiliate or gain revenge against a person), and ISIS beheadings mingle on line with images of family feasts and frolicking kittens. And any of these can be downloaded and saved to an institutional or personal archives. 

The Guardian published a series of articles it called “The Facebook Files,” based on “more than 100 training manuals, spreadsheets and flowcharts” leaked to The Guardian that show how Facebook is dealing with violent content on its service. The company uses algorithms and is working with artificial intelligence to address the problem of content, trying to walk the line between censorship and free speech. And Facebook has a team of 3,000 people—and growing—to monitor the postings and decide what to delete. As one man described a monitor’s job: “You’d go into work at 9am every morning, turn on your computer and watch someone have their head cut off. Every day, every minute, that’s what you see.” Several nongovernmental organizations also have teams monitoring content, particularly watching for images of child abuse. All of these organizations have “safeguard programs” to support the mental well-being of the monitors who work in these psychologically stressful jobs. (When archivists must identify and redact documents for human rights lawsuits or process records from truth commissions and criminal courts, these same stresses are apparent and the same care for the health of the staff members is essential.)

Facebook told The Guardian it is “going to make it simpler to report problems to us, faster for our reviewers to determine which posts violate our standards and easier for them to contact law enforcement if someone needs help.” What is not clear, however, is how law enforcement will be able to act on the complaints—or even conduct investigations—if Facebook truly deletes the content. Or is Facebook only disabling public links but retains the content for use by legitimate investigators and prosecutors or defense counsel? We don’t know—or, at least, The Guardian doesn’t tell us. If Facebook does keep the information and it is available to law enforcement, archivists will eventually have to handle that evidence as part of their responsibility for police and attorney records. But if that repulsive information is not available for the use of those who protect our human rights, we will all be less secure and the posters—that is, the ones who are still alive—will be free to offend once more.

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.