Share resources on human rights archiving

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Share resources on human rights archiving

This discussion thread is meant to collect and share resources that are being used by practitioners to implement and improve human rights archiving.  To help start the conversation and keep the focus of this discussion thread, please consider the following questions:

  • What are some available easy-to-use tools and resources for activists and small NGOs or collectives with archiving needs?  Ie software, databases, apps, metadata schemas, resource guides, best practices…
  • What tools and resources are available that are particularly useful for human rights archives?
  • For practitioners new to archiving, what resources can help them get started with archiving?  What do they need to know when beginning an archiving project?  What questions do they need to answer before beginning?

Share your experiences, thoughts, ideas and questions by adding a comment below or replying to existing comments!

Archiving websites at risk of sudden closure

Websites at Risk – Archiving information on human rights, governance and peace, a blog post I penned a number of years ago, holds some ideas of enduring value in the context of this discussion. Followed this up with Websites the US Library of Congress and I are archiving.

We are archiving the websites

We are archiving the websites of human rights NGOs at Columbia, collected in our Human Rights Web Archive. Some of the reasons web archiving can be valuable to human rights activists is that

  1. it can be done remotely
  2. multiple copies can be created and preserved outside of the area of conflict and
  3. in the case of Columbia, all of our web archives are open to the public, so access remains available across the world to anyone with an internet connection.

One of the areas I am most curious about these days is the use of web archives as evidence.  Could an archived website and the corresponding files qualify as legal evidence?  A crawler (used to collect the sites) creates a log of its interactions with the website server, and I wonder if this is sufficient to prove "chain of custody" (I am not a lawyer--I think that "chain of custody" is the appropriate term).  For example, if documents were posted to a government website and later removed, would an archived copy of the site with the documents be considered authentic?

Chain of custody

Dear Ms. Fallon,

You may find this article useful in light of the question over chain of custody.




This is quite useful. I note that it takes a dim view of web archives from a legal perspective!

"This said, the existence of the Wayback Machine and other web operators who delight in preserving posted material can undo all the efforts you make to remove offensive material. As Fodden comments on, the person who posted the material can “undo the removal” and put the offensive material back online until the next lawyer’s letter arrives."

Admissibility of digital records as evidence

The admissibility of records as evidence depends entirely on the legal system in the country where the action is brought.  In some countries digital evidence is now routinely accepted, while in others only paper is accepted as a legally valid format.  That will change, of course, as more and more legal systems accept digital materials as evidence, but at present there is no uniform standard.

Admissibility of digital records as evidence

The CRL Electronic Evidence Study report mentioned by James Simon includes surveys of admissibility in both US and international law:

The Intl Bar Association has drafted some great short, graphical guidelines as well - which I unforntunately can't share until published but will do so as soon as I can.


Documenting and Archiving the American Civil Rights Movement

For some years now I have been webspinner of the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website at which is a project of Bay Area Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement. We document the U.S. Southern Freedom Movement between the years 1951-1968. During the school year, 30,000-50,000 people visit the site each month. The number falls to about half that during summer vacation which indicates to us that a large number of students, both grade-school and college use the site for their classwork.

Our site features people's personal stories, a history & timeline that we are slowly writing, a Veterans Roll Call where those who participated in the Movement can make their statements and provide contact information, a speakers list, memorial tributes for those who have passed on, articles about the Movement written by participants (as opposed to reporters or academics), oricinal documents, original letters & reports from the field, discussion transcripts, poetry, a bibliography, and a list of Freedom Movement related weblinks.

We do this all on a shoestring. All our labor is donated, and the $25/month fee we pay to a commercial web-hosting service is paid out of our own pockets. We do it ourselves rather than hire a web creation company. Our biggest expense, so far, has been paying to have oral history and discussion recordings transcribed. We can't afford streaming audio or video, so we remain a text-oriented site.

We don't use fancy tools. We write our HTML by hand and pretty much stick to good old version 3.5 code level which we self-taught ourselves and proved quite easy to learn. We display our docs in PDF format which we produce on a 10 year old scanner that cost us about $300. A new one would cost us about the same, but the old one works just fine.

For us, the advantage of a web-based archive is that it potentially reaches a very wide audience and the cost is very low. At the moment we have no fears of government suppression, but if that did occur backups are easy to make, hide, transfer, and revive a suppressed site on a server in some other more friendly country.


Streaming audio and video

Sojourner wrote:

Our biggest expense, so far, has been paying to have oral history and discussion recordings transcribed. We can't afford streaming audio or video, so we remain a text-oriented site.

Dear Mr. Hartford, 

YouTube is not just for video - it can also be used for audio. It is also completely free to use. Alternatively, you can upload upto 5Gb to for free ( and link to the MP3 file from your website once it's uploaded. Another option is DropBox ( which is largely similar to, though it only offers 2Gb to start with. I don't know what quality the recordings you have are, if digital, but either DropBox or should be enough for a couple of hundred of recordings, at least. YouTube even more. Transcribing them will continue to be human resource intensive and slow, but the options above can give you streaming / downloadable audio and video for free.



audio/video hosting + transcription

<p>Hi Bruce</p><p>You can also upload unlimited amounts of audio and video (at no cost) to Internet Archive (, which, unlike YouTube, is a non-profit dedicated to providing permanent public access. From there, you can embed the videos on your site.</p><p>As for transcribing, one tool that we've used at WITNESS to allow remote volunteers to transcribe and translate our videos is Universal Subtitles ( Using an simple online interface, volunteers can view the video and add subtitles to a timeline. The subtitles can then be exported in a number of text-based formats.</p><p>Unfortunately, it appears that Universal Subtitles does not support videos hosted on Internet Archive, but you can use it with videos/audio uploaded to YouTube, Vimeo, and others.</p><p>&nbsp;</p>

parallel archive

Smaller NGOs managing their own archives and with limited resources at their disposal, might find useful a freely available online tool called the Parallel Archive (PA) that we developed some years ago. Individual scholars or custodians of small, disparate archives can use PA to store, manage and share their digitized textual and photographic archival sources. Uploaded text documents are OCR-ed by default and can be described (and tagged) on the item level using the attached metadata sheet. One can annotate individual documents and start forum discussions on particular topics or documents. Each document gets a permanent handle and URL, so they are much easier to refer to in scholarly articles. Since the main idea behind PA is sharing archival sources, one can decide to make public documents instantly, or keep them in a private account up to two years, after which the system will prompt the user either to publish or remove the document.

The system is based on trust and peer review, we urge our users to register with their real name and institutional affiliation (if available), so we hope that whoever joins this community, will only upload documents from trusted sources. All uploaded documents get an electronic signature, so once they are online we can guarantee their authenticity. We plan to develop the platform to be able to accommodate audiovisual records as well in the future.

PA can be also used to create virtual collections of hr documents; one example is a current project in which a selection of historical documents relating to the Helsinki Process from The Gerald Ford Presidential Library and OSA, respectively, are being digitized and uploaded to PA.

Scope of human rights archives and rebuilding archives

Let me make two points.

1. When we talk about human rights archives, many of us have the tendency to equate that with archives that contain information on crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes.  That, however, diverts us from understanding that human rights covers all of us every day, and records relating to human rights range from birth records to records of land ownership to records of corporations that test the chemicals in cosmetics to the records of mining companies that show the pollution of rivers and drinking water.    Protecting and asserting human rights requires all kinds of archives:  government and business, church and NGO.  We of course are enormously worried about the preservation of records for the most grievous crimes, but we have to worry about the whole range of these records, too.

2. A trusted archival repository is essential.  If the current government archives cannot be trusted with the particular body of records, then an intermediate repository, managed by trusted people, should be established.  But if these are government records, they should eventually go back into government hands.  Part of the restructuring of a government to prevent the recurrence of conflict and to protect human rights has to be the revitalization and modernization of the governmental archives system.  Each country has to have the capacity to manage its court records and military records, records of diplomacy and records of land title.  As part of rebuilding government structures after a period of civic trauma, we have to find ways to persuade governments and donors that rebuilding archives is also crucial. 

Burundi example

I agree with you : it is essential to make post-conflict governments awareness of rebuilding archives. In Burundi, we used to find institutionnal archives in the market place: they are used to pack up your vegetables or fishes !! I believe it is a cultural question, Burundi is an oral tradition country, we learn through words, and the power of “rumour” is very strong. Besides, the International Documentation network on the Great African Lakes Region has been created in 1996 to fight against that rumour which can be and has been very destructive.

When I visited local NGO’s in HR in Bujumbura, the first question I asked was: do you have archives? Each time, people answered “no we don’t have that, we don’t need it!”. After few minutes of discussions, they realized that they actually possessed archives and furthermore these archives are important to defend their NGO, also for the memory, and to historical perspectives.

In a second time, most of the people I met complained about the less of comittment of institutions and government: they don’t set an example.

But initiatives are coming from governements and donnors. For example, the Belgian Development Agency has initiated a programm to enhance archives of Burundian penal court. The aim is before all to proove that it is possible to organize classify and preserve archives, even if they are in a bad conditions of conservation.

There is also a project of creation of a truth commission and many NGO's took initiatives and want to take a part prior that creation. Of course, there is that problem of confrontation between official institutions and civil society but I think consciousness-raising is coming gradually.

Céline Fouga

Case study: Memoria Abierta archiving docs in Argentina

Celine FOUGA wrote:

I agree with you : it is essential to make post-conflict governments awareness of rebuilding archives...

There is also a project of creation of a truth commission and many NGO's took initiatives and want to take a part prior that creation. Of course, there is that problem of confrontation between official institutions and civil society but I think consciousness-raising is coming gradually.

Thanks, Céline, for sharing your thoughts and experiences!  Regarding the truth commission project that you referenced in your comment above - I think we have a resources for you and your colleagues that might be helpful for this situation.

Memoria Abierta, with the help of New Tactics, has documented their experiences, steps, a challenges in implementing a similar project in Argentina.  Memoria Abierta (Open Memory), a human rights organization in Argentina, organizes thousands of documents related to the state terrorism and makes them accessible through an online database as a way to raise public awareness about the period of state terrorism in Argentina (1976-1983). 

The goal of Memoria Abierta is to improve the use of and access to the documentation stored in the institutional archives of participating human rights organizations. The program coordinates the organization of documents at each member site in tandem with a description, analysis, and preservation of materials. Each document is assigned its own file, which can then be accessed in an online database. An interdisciplinary team of professionals works directly with a representative from each organization to coordinate the archives.

You can access, download and read (for free) this 15-page tactic case study in English, Spanish, Bangla and French!  Just go to the Open Memory: Using inter-institutional cooperation to facilitate access to human rights notebook page and download the PDFs by clicking on the respective languages towards the bottom of the page.  Enjoy!

Archiving the ongoing making of democracy

Absolutely, Trudy. In South Africa, there is a lot of work to do about collecting and archiving records (predominantly through oral history) that speak to the systemic nature of apartheid, that is petty apartheid, or those aspects of the programme of racial segregation that disenfranchised the majority of South Africans in their every day life, rather than simply focussing on recording what is more usually understood to be gross human rights violations (as defined in our TRC Act)... a consideration of apartheid itself as a gross human rights violation... And of course, the struggle continues in South Africa - the making of democracy is difficult and our reconciliation efforts largely stalled - in order to more fully understand, reflect upon these transitional years, we must be ensuring that the records of our contemporary struggles for justice (for basic service delivery, land rights, education, women's and LGBTI rights, etc. in a country burdened by patriachy, and traditional / religious conservatism) and how we are building our democracy, day by day, are being kept...


Archiving text messages

A few weeks ago, the Signal (Library of Congress Digital Preservation blog) had a very interesting post on archiving cell phone text messages which could be of use to human rights defenders. It includes instructions for collecting messages from basic and smart phones:

"Saving text messages is more difficult for basic phones. You have to open the phone, remove its SIM card and display the card’s contents through a SIM card reader. A reader is an inexpensive device into which you pop the SIM card, plug the reader into the USB port on your computer, display the SIM card contents and copy the text messages over. The “Text” format of the text messages is one of the least complex of all the computer file formats, so you can display the contents of a text message file with a basic text editor. You can even display it with a browser; text files get along well with several different programs.

Smart phones give you more control over text messages. You can either transfer the files over a cell-phone cable into a computer or transfer the files wirelessly via Bluetooth. You can find special software to access, view and manipulate the files. I have a nice $1.99 app for my smartphone that displays the text messages from my phone and gives me the option to save them all off the phone as a single file (in a few different formats) on my computer."

How do human rights archivists stay connected to each other?

Hello practitioners!

I have a practical question about how to find resources for human rights archiving.  You all seem to have a pretty strong network of practitioners utilizing archiving techniques for human rights.  How do you maintain that network? 

  • Are there listservs that you use to continue to share challenges, opportunities, question with each other?  Can anyone join those listservs?  If so, please share info on how we can join!
  • Are there websites that host a community of practice around human rights archiving?
  • Are there conferences that we can attend if we are interested in becoming better connected with this network of archivists?
International Council on Archives Human Rights Working Group

Newcomers reading this dialogue may find useful the newsletters released by the International Council on Archives Human Rights Working Group/UNESCO, which are compiled by Trudy Peterson (also a participant on this dialogue).  I subscribe to the newsletter, emailed to me monthly, but I can’t seem to find the original link or contact from which to subscribe.  Newcomers might also be interested in an ongoing project by the working group and lead by Trudy, Tessa Fallon, and I called the Human Rights Directory Project where we've aggregated different HR archives and/or HR organizations with archives and created descriptions of the organizations using the ISDIAH archival standard.  The project is still undergoing iterations; Tessa and I are working on a corresponding ICA-AtoM site under construction at the moment, but visitors to the page can browse through some entries under the “Archival Institutions” page.

Maintaining a Network

I'm really interested in answers to these questions, too, Kristin. The few human rights archivists I know I have met through the Society of American Archivists' Human Rights Roundtable, but I am very interested in ways to network with human rights archivists internationally. The 2010 Archives Without Borders conference in the Hague was a great start, but it was a one-time meeting. It would be great if we could meet up in person on a more regular basis. Does anyone know more about the ICA's human rights working group's presence at the ICA meetings? As someone who has never been to ICA, do many practitioners and scholars interested in human rights archives present work/ research there?

ICA Human Rights Working Group

The ICA Human Rights Working Group meets at the annual meeting of ICA.  This year in Brisbane we will meet at 15:30 on Thursday afternoon, August 23.   I don’t know which room.   I haven’t developed the agenda, but we will surely review the ongoing projects and talk about ones we would like to do, either within or without the ICA structure.

If I learn of ICA information that I think is relevant to the human rights archives community, I put it in the newsletter.  The best way to get the newsletter is to join the ICA listserve; I post the newsletter there as soon as I finish it.  UNESCO also maintains a mailing list; I send the newsletter to the UNESCO archivist and he sends it through their publication channel.  Back issues are published on the ICA website and the Council of Europe website; the addresses for both of those are at the bottom on each issue.  Christina Bianchi in Switzerland is translating parts of each newsletter into French and distributing it through the Swiss archives association website.  We are looking for someone willing to do the same for Spanish.

Finally, I do send occasional messages to the persons who are actually doing projects for the HRWG such as Aileen and Tessa.  The HRWG really has two communities, one of the people who are working on specific projects and one of people who are concerned about the issue.  If you have projects or suggestions for projects that you think the HRWG should do, please let me know, particularly if you cannot come to Brisbane and you want to raise a topic for discussion there.  We are entirely open to suggestions!

HR archives networks

Over the past 5 years alone a lot has happened in developing a network: the ICA working group & newsletter & directory, the SAA roundtable & listserv, and a host of blogs and conferences.  I too though would love to see more conferences devoted specifically to the kind of dialogue we are having here. It's difficult for some of us to justify the expense to attend SAA not to mention ICA, but a bit easier if it's a more HR-focused event. I'm wondering if any of the participants from larger or more established institutions have anything on the horizon?

Grace Lile


European network

Kristin, the European Coordination Committee on Human Rights Documentation (ECCHRD) is a loose network of organizations  (IGOs, NGOs, academic institutions and human rights centers) doing human rights documentation in Europe. (HURIDOCS is also part of this network.) Every year one of the participants volunteers to host a meeting, where human rights archivists, librarians, and information practitioners get together to share knowledge about their current work, new projects and tools in managing human rights information.

At the 2010 annual meeting in Vienna, the committe unanimously decided to invite new organizations from East-Central Europe, so last year's meeting was organized by OSA in Budapest, with new participants from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Hungary. Next time we will meet in Sarajevo, and we count on further organizations from the region to join.

SAA Human Rights Archives Roundtable

I would also encourage folks to join the Society of American Archivists Human Rights Archives Roundtable listserv. You do not have to be an SAA member to join. 

Nominate a site for the HRWG Archives Directory

Both Aileen and Trudy mentioned our ICA Human Rights Working Group Project, the Human Rights Archives directory.  We're planning to have a nomination form in place next week, which people may use to suggest archives for inclusion in the directory.  We will be looking for (1) archives that identify themselves as human rights archives and (2) archives that are part of a human rights organization.  The link will be circulated via various listservs and Twitter (@TessaFallon)



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