The Documentalist

Conference: Memory, Identity, and the Archiving Paradigm

Posted in Conferences & Meetings by Sarah on March 31, 2010

Memory, Identity and the Archival Paradigm:
an interdisciplinary approach

9-10 December 2010, Dundee, Scotland

Conference announcement: Call for Papers

The Centre for Archive and Information Studies (CAIS) at the University of Dundee invite proposals for a conference being held on 9-10 December 2010 in Dundee, Scotland. The conference is supported by a Royal Society of Edinburgh Arts and Humanities research award and is the second conference within the Investigating the Archive project. The first conference, the Philosophy of the Archive, was held in Edinburgh in March 2009. Selected papers from that conference are available in a special issue of Archival Science, Vol 9, no 3, 2009.

Proposals for individual 20-30 minute presentations or panel sessions of up to three speakers will be considered. Abstracts of c.250-350 words, together with a short biography, should be submitted by Friday 23 April to:

Patricia Whatley, Director, Centre for Archive and Information Studies:

See the rest of the announcement at the conference webpage.


Humorous Take on How Digital Data Die

Posted in technology by Sarah on March 25, 2010

A colleague at HURIDOCS forwarded the following blog link to me and it touches on so many issues that are relevant to archiving and preservation in human rights that I am reblogging it here for you to consider.  It’s a fun read with important information.  Enjoy!  –Sarah

Image courtesy of

Giz Explains: How Data Dies (and How it Can Be Saved)

Bits don’t have expiration dates. But memories will only live forever if the media and file formats holding them remain intact and coherent. Time can be as deadly to data storage as it is to carbon-based life forms.

There are lots of ways data can die: YouTube can pull a video offline before anybody snags it, your hard drive can crash, taking ultra-rare Grateful Dead bootlegs that you never got a chance to upload to Usenet with it, or maybe you designed a brilliant piece of visual art a decade ago in some kooky file format that simply doesn’t exist anymore, and there’s no possible way to view the file without traveling to some creepy dude’s basement a thousand miles away.

What we’re talking about is digital rot—or data rot or bit decay or whatever you’d like to call it—systemic processes which can mean death to data. Kind of a problem when you’d like to keep it around forever. Let’s paint this in broad strokes: You can roughly break the major kinds of rot into hardware, software and network. That is, the hardware that breaks down, the formats that go extinct, and the online stuff that vanishes one way or another.

Please read the entire post here for an informative discussion of how hardware, formats and “online stuff” can trip us up as we try to preserve it and also for some possible solutions to these problems.

Preliminary Impressions of Documentation Practices in Mexico

Posted in Reports by Sarah on March 17, 2010

As many of you know, three weeks ago I was in Mexico visiting a number of human rights groups so that I could document their documentation practices.  I will be writing up formal reports for each of the groups I visited, but I thought I’d post some of the highlights of the trip here for you to enjoy.

Que disfruten! –Sarah

Goal: D0cumenting Documentation in Mexico

On February 14, 2010 I traveled to Mexico to spend five days in the town of San Cristóbal de las Casas in the state of Chiapas, followed by three days in Mexico City.  The goal of the trip was to visit a variety of human rights organizations in order to learn more about the the work they do and the resources they dedicate not only to their activism, but also to documentation activities.  Above all else, I went to learn about how they document the work they do and the goals they have for that documentation.  The trip was a tremendous success, most especially thanks to the invaluable help and organizing efforts of Paco Vazquez, who served as my guide and consultant in Chiapas.  Paco is the director of Promedios (a video activism organization centered in San Cris) and arranged for me to visit groups whose doors would have otherwise been closed to me.  He carefully organized these visits so that I could follow the flow of information through various levels of documentation practice in Chiapas.  The interesting pattern there is that information organically flows from small grassroots community groups (who engage in intense activism but have few documenting resources) to larger organizations of legal and documentation professionals who can process community information and mobilize it to serve a variety of purposes locally, nationally and internationally.  Paco explicitly organized things so that I could see this pattern, but serendipitously, the groups that I later visited in Mexico City on my own happened to be those that receive the documentation from the documentation groups in Chiapas.   I was thus able to witness an important and central flow of human rights information in Mexico that has emerged in response to the challenges that individuals and groups face in Chiapas.  This will be the topic of a formal report that we are developing here at CRL, and I will announce that report here when it’s completed.

So where did I go?

The itinerary of visits to organizations I visited was as follows:

Monday February 15, 2010:

  • La Red de Defesnsores Comunitarios de los Derechos Humanos,  San Cristóbal de Las Casas.  This organization seeks to support local groups in their activism and collects minimal documentation.  The largest project they have been involved in was supporting legal proceedings for abuses in Morelia in the late 1990s and they maintain a copy of the legal documentation involved in that case.
  • Promedios, San Cristóbal de Las Casas.  Promedios conducts and supports video activism throughout Chiapas and also in Guerrero in an effort to allow local groups to use video to voice their own concerns and represent their lives as they wish them to be represented.  They have collected thousands of hours of video footage in the 12 years since their inception, all of which is stored locally in their offices.  Paco Vazquez and a volunteer are currently in the process of cataloging these materials and researching affordable and effective means of preserving them.

Tuesday February 16, 2010:

  • Fray Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada, Ocosingo (a community seat for smaller indigenous municipalities in the mountains about two hours to the northeast of San Cristóbal de Las Casas).  Fray Pedro is group that supports local indigenous communities in managing and organizing activism efforts.  They collect paper documentation of their case work and maintain digital archives of the reports they generate.
  • Servicios Asesoría para la Paz (SERAPAZ), Ocosingo.  The mission of SERAPAZ is to help mitigate conflict and establish a stable social peace between opposing parties or groups, above all between Indigenous Maya communities and mainstream governmental structures.  To this end, organizations approach them for training and empowerment so that they can learn to peacefully and effectively stand up for and receive their rights.

Wednesday February 17, 2010:

  • Las Abejas, Acteal (a Tzotzil Maya community about and hour and a half to the north of San Cristóbal de Las Casas in the mountain cloud forests).  Las Abejas (meaning “the bees”) is a pacifistic Christian group located in the village of Acteal.  The group originally formed to engage in peaceful resistance of oppressive government policies, but after the Massacre of Acteal (which occurred in the village 12 years ago at the hands of fellow Tzotzil who were pro-state paramilitary members) Las Abejas has dedicated itself to justice and memory activities.  Though there is little in the way of infrastructure within the community to support documentation efforts, Las Abejas works with other groups to engage in video activism and to record their testimonies and provide evidence for legal proceedings.  In these latter activities, the community works with Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas (see below), a group of human rights lawyers working out of San Cristóbal de Las Casas.

Thursday Feberuary 18, 2010

  • Centro de Derechos de la Mujer de Chiapas (CDMC), San Cristóbal de Las Casas.  CDMC is a confederation of 21 communities throughout Chiapas, all focused on improving women’s understanding of and engagement with their constitutionally guaranteed rights.  Though the focus is explicitly on gender issues, these are closely tied in with a whole range of human rights abuses that need to be addressed in the Chiapas region.  Therefore, the support and empowerment services that CDMC provides helps the women that participate in their network to help their communities realize their rights.  From the beginning, the organization’s founder has stressed the need to document all of their activities for memory and for legal purposes.

Friday February 19, 2010

  • Centro de Derechos Humanos, Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas, or Frayba, San Cristóbal de Las Casas.  Frayba is a group of human rights lawyers and technology professionals that specializes in legal representation and providing legal resources to local communities.  The center houses a large archive of legal documents, as well as case evidence to support the cases they present in national and international courts.  They also have a large collection of reference materials that hey have amassed as a result of researching rights issues and rights law.  They are in the process of designing a dedicated and controlled archiving space for preserving these materials and making them available for research.
  • Centro de Investigaciones Económicas y Políticas de Acción Comunitaria (CIEPAC), San Cristóbal de Las Casas.  CIEPAC is a research organization that focuses on economic and political analysis at the local level.  They work to provide support and research training to local human rights groups who seek out their assistance.  The data they collect are used to create regional reports of conditions specific to particular communities, as well as to create more broadly comparative analyses.  CIEPAC strives to maintain a database of the data and reports the group creates and is in the process of organizing a large collection of reference materials that they have collected since their inception in 1998.

Monday February 22, 2010

  • Red Nacional de Organismos Civiles de Derechos Humanos: Todos los Derechos Para Todas y Todos (RedTdT), Mexico City.  As an organization, RedTdT began its work in the defense of gender rights, but has transformed into a group dedicated to providing a system of documentation to a network of smaller human rights groups of all stripes from all over Mexico.  There are currently 68 organizations in their network and all are in the process of adopting a documentation database program that RedTdT has developed for standardizing and sharing documentation across Mexico.  The program is based on HURIDOCS’s WinEvsys documentation program and human rights thesauri.  The program will allow human rights organizations to catalog the cases they work with, as well as have access to case content so that organizations can run analyses of patterns and trends in their communities.  The database program also allows the groups within the network the opportunity to backup their data in a central database where it can also be used to run regional and national analyses of human rights trends.   Frayba (see above) is a principal participant in this program.
  • Canalseisdejulio (Canal 6), Mexico City.  Canal 6 is an independent, non-profit documentary film studio in Mexico City that creates films designed to uncover human rights and political abuses in Mexico.  In their more than 20 years of operation, they have created over 50 documentaries and collected thousands of hours of raw video footage, as well as associated notebooks and contextual materials.  These materials are now catalogued and preserved at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), where scholars and legal professionals can access them.

Some Preliminary Impressions

Upon first impression, the most striking characteristic of the documentation activities I saw in Chiapas is the organic way in which the organizations work together to bridge an significant cultural divide in what counts as evidence when seeking justice or maintaining historical memory.  All of the groups I visited in Chiapas are explicitly involved in indigenous rights for the many Maya communities that inhabit the region.  These groups have traditionally been abused and repressed since the coming of the Spanish in the 15th Century, but they are making significant strides toward gaining autonomy, recognition, and the freedom to exercise their human rights.  In doing so, they have had to learn how to convert their forms of truth and evidence–which are largely oral–into the sorts of formal documentation artifacts that are required by mainstream Western legal processes.  Thus, much of the work in Chiapas focuses on transforming oral tradition–which is collaboratively created rather than individually recounted–into individualistic paper and video documentation that will stand up as evidence in legal and scholarly contexts.  Bridging this divide has resulted in a variety of organically emerging relationships between indigenous populations and mainstream professionals who have ties to the indigenous communities either through family or affinity.  Through these cooperative arrangements, the Maya maintain their oral histories while documentation and legal professionals record them and transform them into the legal artifacts that are necessary for gaining and maintaining legal rights.

This process is most strongly evident in the relationship between Las Abejas (and the community of Acteal) and Frayba, which has served as their legal representation for the last 12 years.  My visit to Acteal was the most deeply “impresionante” or impactful visit of my trip.   12 years ago this Tzotzil village experienced a massacre in which 45 people were killed as they attended church services.  Their attackers were neighboring Tzotzil–friends and family members that they new–who belonged to a pro-state paramilitary organization that sought to eliminate all resistance to state policies, even if that resistance was peaceful.  As Paco and I sat in the Acteal communal kitchen (a single room structure with a dirt floor and an open cooking fire at one end) we spoke to three community leaders who are also survivors of the massacre.  They explained to us how they have worked with Frayba to transform their experiences and memories of events into testimony and evidence that the courts will recognize and consider.  The process has been long and will continue for some time to come because of human and legal rights issues for both plaintiffs and defendants.  But each step and each adaptation that the Maya on both sides engage in represents an adaptation that allows their voices to be heard and recorded and serves as a potential model for bridging this sort of cultural divide between oral traditions and Western legal practice.

Art as Memory

Posted in Uncategorized by Sarah on March 10, 2010

A colleague in Mexico who is a documentary film maker and human rights activist sent me the following YouTube of a performance in the Ukraine for a popular TV talent program.  It struck me that the artistry and the story the performance tells will resonate with many of you.

Enjoy!  –Sarah

Translated from the email I received in Spanish:

The name of the artist is Kseniya Simnonova, she is 24 years old, and in 2009 she won the Ukrainian version of Britain’s Got Talent. Using only a light box, sand and an excellent musical atmosphere in addition to all of her sensitivity and talent, she deeply moved her audience.  It appears that her work shook the gathering out of their customary superficiality.

What Kseniya represented was the history of the invasion and occupation of the Ukraine by the Germans during the Second World War, intensely expressing the pain, devastation and losses that the Ukrainian people experienced; the final phrase [that she writes across the images she creates] is blunt and means: always near…

It is said that Kseniya began creating sand drawings at the beach, and as can be seen here, has managed to develop an extraordinary capacity for narrating stories before which no one can remain indifferent.

Good Resources on Digital Activism at Global Voices Online

Posted in Resources, technology by Sarah on March 9, 2010

In the article “The Technology for Transparency Review, Part 1” posted on Global Voices Online on March 2, 2010,  David Sasaki reviews a number of recent efforts to highlight how various groups are making use of on-line activism, social media, and other digital resources to document human rights issues and generate a wider sphere of activism.  The article is dense with links to resources and reviews of their efficacy and is part of a larger initiative by  Global Voices Online called the “Technology for Transparency Network” (tag line: “tracking civic engagement technology worldwide).  As stated on their webpage:

The Technology for Transparency Network is a  participatory research mapping [initiative] intended to gain a better understanding of the current state of online technology projects that increase transparency, government accountability, and civic engagement in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, South Asia, China, and Central & Eastern Europe. The project is co-funded by Open Society Institute’s Information Program and Omidyar Network’s Media, Markets & Transparency initiative, and aims to inform both programs’ future investments toward transparency, accountability, and civic engagement technology projects.

The project, which is a collaboration with Global Voices’ outreach program Rising Voices, serves as a reaction to economic and political changes in mainstream media that have compromised the ability of reporters to engage in deeply investigative reporting that serves as a check on corrupt officials, business people, and politicians.  Quoting David Simon’s observations about the current vacuum in investigative journalism, “it is going to be one of the great times to be a corrupt politician.”  Thus the need to understand and capitalize on the tools that are gaining power and influence within the investigative world.  In order to accomplish this work, the Technology for Transparency Network has assembled a team of veteran Global Voices Online reporters and leading transparency activists from around the world who work together to “We will document in-depth as many technology for transparency projects as possible to gain a better understanding of their current impact, obstacles, and future potential.”

The results of this work will be a series of case studies, podcasts, and a traditional .pdf report that will be released in May.  This report will highlight:

…the most innovative and effective tools and tactics related to technology for transparency projects. The report will make recommendations to funders, activists, NGOs, and government officials regarding the current obstacles to effectively applying technology to improve transparency, accountability, and civic engagement. It will also aggregate and evaluate the best ideas and strategies to overcome those obstacles.

Case studies are plotted on a map and to date, have been conducted in Kenya, Brazil, Cambodia, Chile, China, India, Jordan, Mexico, Malaysia and Zimbabwe.  The page also offers updates on on-going projects and links to other mapping and monitoring projects.  For a more detailed discussion of all of these efforts see David Sasaki’s article published January 19, 2010.

Center for War Victims and Human Rights: Call for Documentation

Posted in Uncategorized by Sarah on March 3, 2010

The Center for War Victims and Human Rights is an organization located in Toronto Canada that focuses on human rights abuses related to the Tamil war in Sri Lanka, as well as the subsequent Tamil Diaspora.  Their mission is to collect the testimonies of victims of violence and oppression related to the Tamil uprising in Sri Lanka in the 1990s and early 2000s.  The organization consists of five professional teams focused on objectively gathering and verifying testimonies volunteered by victims or their family members.   Those teams are:


The Documentation Team is responsible for documenting war crimes and human rights violations by listening to victim stories, recording them in the web application, and verifying the information. It provides statistical reports, and presents selected stories to the public. It provides training, and co-ordination for data collection in several countries.


The Research Team focuses on detail collection of events related to human rights violations.  It cross checks the information from the victims documentation. Also, the team researchs and publishs fact sheets and reports on genocides, human rights laws, and related material.  The Research Team consists of experienced researchers and high school, college and university students.


The Campaign Team works to raise awareness about human rights violations, laws, plight of the victims, and the importance of documentation.  The team uses TV ad campaings, articles on newspapers and magazines, pamphlets, web, radio, outreach through events, and street campaigning to communicate its message.  The campaign team works with other human rights organizations such as Amnesty International that share our principles.


The Technical Team develops, maintains and supports the web application used for documentation, and the cwvhr web site. The team consists of professional developers.  It currently working on an Events Database and Interface.


The Adminstration Team supports the work through transparant, responsible operation of the center.  It works to sustain cwvhr work by seeking reliable funding, and by creating and maintaining an open, creative volunteer community.

As part of their mission, they’ve sent out a press release calling for victims to come forward to record their testimonies.  As reported in the press release, CWVHR uses the Human Rights Information Documentation System  created by HURIDOCS for cataloging and analyzing human rights cases and data.  See their War Victim Documentation page for a full description of their documentation processes.