Preserving human rights
From the Rwandan genocide to the Guatemalan police, UT’s libraries are digitally securing fragile records for research, advocacy around the world
Jan. 30, 2012
Shortly before Vice Provost Fred Heath made his first trip to Rwanda’s Kigali Genocide Memorial in 2008 to support a fledgling program at the University of Texas Libraries, a guard at the monument to the 1994 genocide was killed in a grenade attack on the facility.
The memorial is a symbol for those whose lives were ravaged by the human tragedy in Rwanda. But it also serves as the physical archive of survivor testimonies and a repository of evidence in the prosecutions against perpetrators of crimes against humanity.
An attack on the memorial is more than a symbolic gesture; it can partially erase a dark chapter in human history, effectively silencing the victims and absolving the guilty — preventing generations from learning from the failures of the past.
Against that backdrop, Heath visited Rwanda with a vision and access to the resources that could provide a modern solution to an age-old problem. He was there to spearhead an effort to digitize the country’s audiovisual, documentary and photographic archives related to the genocide. The project was intended to preserve survivor testimonies and other evidence, all of which would be made available to the world as a digital collection at the university and distributed through a website.
The Rwandan effort has since evolved into the Libraries’ broader Human Rights Documentation Initiative (HRDI), which has helped digitize and disseminate records of human rights crises across the globe, most recently Guatemala.
“It could be that things like the Kigali Genocide Memorial and its archives and other documentation centers could disappear in the future,” says Heath, “but it makes less sense for them to disappear if digital instantiations of that documentation exist elsewhere.”
The initial collaboration in Rwanda was developed among the University of Texas Libraries; the Bridgeway Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to human rights; Bridgeway partner Aegis Trust (UK); and the Rwandan government. It was facilitated in part by Libraries advisory council member Ed Nawotka and funded in part with a $1.2 million grant from the Bridgeway Foundation.
By creating a replicative archive of the documents in digital form, the Libraries and its partners set out to ensure they survive if the original record — residing in its home country of Rwanda — was somehow lost or destroyed.
“It also helps survivors to heal as they listen and share stories — and it gives dignity to the more than 1 million Tutsi who perished during the genocide,” says Yves Kamuronsi, a survivor and archive manager of the Kigali Genocide Memorial.
The Human Rights Documentation Initiative that has grown out of these efforts was born out of this previously unaddressed need. It was based on a creative scholarly structure that had proved to be a successful model for high-profile research ventures such as the Human Genome Project and the National Virtual Observatory. These were both collaborations built around research faculty, but existing primarily in a virtual space not defined by physical location.
Heath invokes computer scientist William Wulf’s description of such organizations as “collaboratories,” virtual laboratories integrating communications technologies in the interest of collaborative research.
“At the time we were struggling with the idea of changing information-seeking behaviors, changing the way people view libraries,” posits Heath. “Big libraries used to live as documentation centers for the human record at the end-product of research, at the end of that stream. So when the scholar had finished her document, her book, her article or her research, she would stake a claim out there in the universe, ‘This is what I think,’ and the library would place her claim, in book form, on its shelves; each book and each article is a stake in the ground by someone.
“People began looking beyond putting their stakes in the ground in other ways,” says Heath, “making their discoveries elsewhere. And rightly or wrongly, numbers of people started thinking about research libraries as somewhat outmoded, somewhat irrelevant.”
The University of Texas Libraries, with its specialized structure and professionals, and its proximity to faculty and researchers — especially in the area of human rights — were uniquely suited as a space in which to organize such a collaboratory.
Scholars at the Libraries understood the idea of discovering data through metadata — that is, data about the data — and applying it to save these vital records for posterity.
“In our old world it was the catalog record that led us to a book or an index that led us to a journal or article, but it was all metadata,” says Heath, “so we could scale that from millions of articles in the physical world to tens of millions of articles in the digital cloud.”
A Modern Response to an Old Problem
Embarking on a project on the stage of one of the past century’s worst genocides might seem incongruous with the archetypal view of librarians.
The dour, unfashionable, authoritarian figure wagging a disparaging finger is all-too-familiar visual vernacular. But it is out of place today — just as the print libraries of yesterday, with their miles of stacks, make room for a modern incarnation whose currency is more likely to be the ethereal ones and zeroes that represent the global information exchange of the present. And as libraries have settled into a new paradigm, they’ve also discovered that their unique structure and specialized skill sets have opened them to new and unexpected opportunities.
The University of Texas Libraries have, after all, amassed a top-ranked collection of more than nine million volumes through 10 campus branches representing all fields of study at the university. It continually expands upon its significant holdings of electronic journals, databases, ebooks and other digital resources. Along with providing the space and technological infrastructure to support collaboration and scholarship at the university, these baseline resources have allowed for the formation of creative partnerships at a broader level.
Joined by project coordinator Christian Kelleher, archivist T-Kay Sangwand and other Libraries staff members, Heath made a series of trips to the Kigali Genocide Memorial (KGM) between 2008 and 2011 to assist in the identification, preservation and digitization of materials from the survivors of the Rwandan genocide.
“They had there the only copies of a number of survivor testimonies and other recordings that KGM had produced,” remembers Kelleher. “The KGM staff, which itself includes a number of genocide survivors, realized the fragility of these records and were eager to see them protected as well as made available throughout Rwanda and the world.”
After two years, the Libraries assisted the memorial in launching the Genocide Archive of Rwanda, a publicly accessible website with hundreds of hours of survivor and rescuer testimony videos, perpetrator confessions and multimedia documenting the personal histories and atrocities of the genocide.
Libraries staffers worked closely with Kamuronsi, the survivor and archive manager of the KGM who has witnessed the impact of the partnership with HRDI.
“That the archive documents and provides access to the history of the genocide and how it happened is an important tool for Rwandans as it contributes greatly to efforts at reconciliation,” says Kamuronsi.
A Leader in the Field
In the years since the collaboration in Rwanda began, the Human Rights Documentation Initiative has settled into its home at the Benson Latin American Collection in Sid Richardson Hall on the east side of The University of Texas at Austin campus, while expanding its influence through projects representing human rights interests from across the globe.
From a logistical standpoint, placing the initiative in Sid Richardson Hall made perfect sense. It is situated among the reams, bound volumes and ephemera of the university’s world-renowned Benson Collection, and comfortably near the esteemed Teresa Lozano Long Institute for Latin American Studies (LLILAS) and the heart of resources for the Center for Mexican American Studies. As a result, the initiative has associated with the university’s prestigious centers for Latin American Studies and launched important initiatives in that region including its latest efforts in Guatemala.
The seed for that project was planted in 2008, when Karen Engle, director of the Law School’s Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice, was approached by Guatemalan officials to consult on the unexpected discovery of a cache of incriminating government documents. The representatives were from the Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional de Guatemala (AHPN) — the Guatemalan National Police Archives.
Discovered by inspectors in July 2005 after an explosion at a military munitions dump, the archive is composed of some 80 million pages from 36 years of authoritarian rule in the Central American country. The official records of state-sponsored kidnappings, torture and assassination by the National Police are all part of the massive collection that previously occupied several buildings at the military complex. Prior to their discovery, police officials had denied their existence.
Having previously worked with the Libraries on the placement of another human rights archive, Engle understood the potential benefit for researchers, the global community and the students of the university if the Human Rights Documentation Initiative were involved.
“When I was first approached about collaborating with the Archive in early 2008, I knew that there was a possibility of moving forward because of the existence of HRDI — and I knew that we could not think of taking on such a project without our Libraries,” says Engle.
“After our collaboration with the Benson Collection on the George Lister papers, I began to see the importance of using the archives of people involved with human rights to deepen our understanding of the history and development of the human rights movement, and also — through conferences and other programs — to use existing archives to facilitate the production of new knowledge.”
Thus far HRDI has received about 12 million pages of digital documents for the archive, now publically searchable on the AHPN website hosted by the University of Texas Libraries. Documents will be added as they are digitized until the corpus is complete.
“Our collaboration with UT Libraries and LLILAS on the Guatemala project is one of the best collaborations in which I have ever been involved, in part because we do not always agree,” says Engle. “We are willing to share our differences, though, and truly listen to each other. And when we move forward, we have done so only after careful deliberation for which we and the project are much stronger.”
Heath views the collaboration between the Libraries — with its staff and technology infrastructure — and university faculty — with its need for local resources — as prime grounds for mutual benefit.
“In terms of the Guatemalan project, we had a faculty that instantly saw this as a public good. We weren’t advertising to a market beyond our campus; it was immediately embraced as a priority here.”
At a time when budgets are tight, the relative expansion of the initiative is impressive.
“There’s benefit in this area of human rights, and there’s a benefit in our relations with other nations,” Heath says.
“We’re crafting a mosaic of collaborators who can scale to meet the challenges in the field of human rights. And now it’s absolutely without question that colloquy on human rights in New York or on the West Coast or globally would involve our colleagues at the Center for Research Libraries, Columbia, and Duke University, among others — and The University of Texas at Austin.”