The Documentalist

The Human Rights Electronic Evidence Study at CRL

Posted in Reports by Sarah on September 16, 2009

How do we create these things?  Image courtesy of

What do we do with these things?

CRL is currently engaged in a study of how NGOs  think about and engage with digital documentation as a form of evidence for human rights activities (whether activism, scholarship, or legal action).  We’re interested in learning about the challenges human rights professionals encounter when creating and preserving electronic and digital documents (videos, emails, etc.) that could serve as evidence in a variety of human rights contexts; institutions’ goals for maintaining and using digital documents to support sustained human rights work; and strategies that work well for gathering and preserving them to meet long-term goals.  The goal in all of this is to devise strategies and practices for mobilizing human rights documentation and evidence as a vital resource for sustained activism, scholarship, and policy-making.

If–after reading the overview below–you’d like to talk to me about anything related to our study, please let me know by leaving a comment on this post and I will get right back to you–I’ll be able to see your email address, but the rest of the world will not.



Overview of the Human Rights Electronic Evidence Study


Social and digital media (e.g., photos, blogs, videos, and Twitter Tweets) continue to gain mainstream recognition as powerful tools for creating awareness of human rights abuses; as a result, digital materials circulated via the World Wide Web constitute a potential treasure-trove of primary source materials for activists, scholars, and policy-makers seeking to affect change. Unfortunately, maintaining these resources for long-term human rights work vexes human rights field professionals on several levels, creating frustration and disorganization in collection efforts.

In order to help human rights field workers, scholars, archivists, and legal practitioners meet the many challenges related to preserving digital documentation of human rights work, the Center for Research Libraries-Global Resources Network (CRL-GRN) is engaged in an 18 month “Human Rights Electronic Evidence Study” (funded by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation). The goals are to understand the processes and related challenges of collecting, utilizing, and maintaining documentation as a human rights resource and to develop strategies for addressing these challenges.  Doing so will support continued work in human rights activism, policy-making, scholarship, and legal action.

Challenges related to digital documentation

Volume and rapid distribution of electronic documents:

Thanks to increased access to handheld digital devices and the internet, digital documentation is cheap, easy to produce, and quickly disseminated.  This creates a challenge of volume, as images, texts, and videos of human rights events flood the World Wide Web.  Relatedly, organizations are increasingly creating internal, operational documents via electronic means, resulting in a larger volume of production than paper documentation previously allowed.  In both cases, the challenge is to keep pace with the rapid generation of new digital items as we preserve relevant materials for supporting continued work in human rights advocacy.

Ephemeral nature of electronic documents & rapidly changing technology:

Digital documents are ephemeral—they lack the tangibility of hand written notes, printed photos, or typed reports that encourages people to save them—and because computer storage is a limited resource for non-profit organizations, such documents (e.g., email or internal memoranda)  are frequently deleted with no hard-copy back-up.  To further complicate this issue, all forms of digital documents are created in a context of constantly changing technological media, thus making it difficult to maintain access to documents that do get saved.  In each case, the result is loss of valuable material for sustained activism, policy-making, and scholarship. 

Recording provenance, contextual information & metadata:

Because there is no uniform and easy means for doing so, field workers often do not collect provenance (chain-of-custody), contextual information, and metadata associated with the digital documents they create—information that is necessary if documents are to continue to serve scholarship, policy making, or legal work.  Relatedly, because there are no guidelines for sorting and storing documents, many organizations save or delete internal documentation in a piecemeal fashion.  Both scenarios result in incomplete and disorganized records.

Strategies for addressing challenges

Goals for the study:

Given the challenges described above, there is a clear need to establish simple mechanisms for documenting the provenance, context, and metadata for digital documents and for organizing these materials so that they continue to serve the needs of human rights activists, scholars, and policy-makers well into the future.  The current study begins to address this need by focusing on four tasks:

1)       Assess the practices and technologies used by local and regional monitoring groups and activists to create and collect documentation in electronic media of human rights abuses and violations;

2)      Determine how adequately these practices and technologies support advocacy, investigations, reporting, and legal proceedings on a local and international basis, and serve “downstream” uses by researchers and archivists.

3)      Identify practical measures, tools and standards that can improve practice and ensure greater integrity and durability of the electronic evidence.

4)      Make available on-line training and guidance to help local groups and organizations collect and manage such evidence more effectively

Products of the study:

In order to accomplish these goals, CRL-GRN is currently interviewing and surveying human rights field workers, organizational leaders, and archivists concerning the extent of their interaction with, concerns about, and desires for digital documentation.  The information from these interviews and surveys will be used to create the following products:

1)      A report of shared challenges related to producing, collecting, and preserving electronic or digital documentation for sustained activism for correcting human rights abuses and violations;

2)      A report of existing “best practices” for handling such documentation in order to provide guidelines for groups shifting their documentation practices to a digital format;

3)      An on-line “Human Rights Resources Network” supported by CRL-GRN, which will allow human rights field workers, administrators, scholars, and archivists to share information, collect and access resources, and collaborate on protocols for handling digital documentation.

Ultimately, this work will establish key infrastructure for accumulating and preserving information that will serve sustained scholarly, political, and legal work in human rights, thus increasing our understanding of—and engagement with—human rights abuses and activism around the world.


6 Responses

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  1. […] and video and other media from mobile devices; the project is described in significant depth on The Documentalist, the project’s […]

  2. […] my primary task is to engage with the life-cycle of human rights documents, which I do through our Electronic Resources Study.  In this study, I am busy speaking to human rights field workers, administrators and archivists, […]

  3. […] Van Deusen, the Project Coordinator for the Center for Research Libraries Human Rights Electronic Evidence Study, contributed a post entitled “The magic of documenting documentation” and provided […]

  4. […] and video and other media from mobile devices; the project is described in significant depth on The Documentalist, the project’s […]

  5. Wendy Smith said, on March 16, 2010 at 1:20 pm

    Hi Sarah,

    I’m a bit late to the game on this post, but I am a big fan of this project and would like to know what comes of it. I’m a former journalist and aspiring archivist, based in Canada, currently completing an MA in Archival Studies, and I’m writing my thesis on how to get this kind of human rights documentation from NGOs into archival repositories. I will be going to South Africa this summer to do an internship at the Nelson Mandela Foundation and hope to take in the “lay of the land” of apartheid-era and post-apartheid NGO documentation. If you have the time, I’d love to chat further about the aims of the project. You have my email address in this comment reply. All the best.

    • Sarah said, on March 16, 2010 at 1:35 pm

      Hi Wendy

      Thanks so much for your feedback! I would be happy to chat with you about your work and the work I’m doing here. I too will be traveling to Africa in the near future–to Rwanda to look at documentation practices related to the Genocide. I’ll continue to post updates here and will also be announcing various formal reports that will be published on the CRL webpage as the project continues to evolve. I look forward to learning more about your work!


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