Five Questions for Barbara Lewis

Next month, at the Human Rights Archives Roundtable meeting at SAA, we will be hosting two wonderful guest speakers, Barbara Lewis and Max Rameau. We are so excited to have them both speak at the HRART meeting, and hope you will join us to hear about their work in providing access to human rights collections and human rights activism respectively.

Both Barbara and Max have agreed to share a bit about themselves prior to the meeting and participate in the “Five questions for…” series. First up, Barbara!

Barbara received her B.S. in Industrial Engineering from General Motors Institute and her M.A. in Library and Information Science from the University of South Florida.  After working 25 years as an Industrial Engineer and Information Systems Analyst, she needed a change and decided academic librarianship was a great fit. She writes that she’s never regretted that decision.​

1. Where do you work?

I’m the Digital Initiatives & Services (DIS) Coordinator at the University of South Florida Tampa Library.  USF serves about 48K students with 240 degree programs on 3 campuses: Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Sarasota-Manatee.  The library has about 80 full-time employees with an annual budget of about $11M.

2. How did you get there?

I started at USF as an MLS graduate student in 2003 and soon after became a graduate assistant at the Library where I worked in Reference/Instruction, Technical Services, and Special Collections.  When I graduated in December 2005, I was hired by the Tampa Library as the Outreach Librarian then moved to Digital Initiatives in December 2008 because of my IT background.  I started professional life as an engineer (15 years) then moved to IS/IT (10 years) working for General Motors, Corning, and Nortel Networks.

3. What materials/collections do you work with? Describe the materials and collections you work with on a regular or project basis.

Our digital collections consists all of the typical materials and also includes audio, video, and transcripts from our Oral History Program.  We concentrate on Florida history, culture, and development, Holocaust & genocide studies (Holocaust, Armenia, and Rwanda), dime novels & science fiction, and are growing our LGBT collections.

4. What impact do/should/could the information profession have on human rights?

The more people know about any topic, especially human rights issues, the better prepared they are to take a stand and to intelligently argue for their cause.  As information professionals, we have an obligation to make materials openly available.  For myself, working in digital initiatives provides the opportunity to make all types of materials available to the world community.  We proudly provide open access to survivor testimonies, WWII concentration camp photographs, drawings by refugee Darfuri children, Armenian refugee diaries, and Fascist magazines from the 1940s with the hope that we are contributing in a small way to the prevention of future atrocities.

5. Any advice for other/aspiring human rights information professionals and activists?

Don’t be afraid to make materials publicly available because they might be misused by deniers or the like.  The evidence of letters, drawings, photographs, the spoken word, etc. are too powerful to be hidden.

Freeform: 

I’m very proud of some online exhibits created by students, staff, and faculty working in DIS and will be talking about them in my presentation.
http://exhibits.lib.usf.edu/exhibits/show/speakingout1/
http://exhibits.lib.usf.edu/exhibits/show/darfur-genocide/
http://exhibits.lib.usf.edu/exhibits/show/portraying-courage/
http://exhibits.lib.usf.edu/exhibits/show/oppenheimer/

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Five Questions for Yvonne Ng

Welcome, Yvonne Ng, to the “Five Questions for…” series! Yvonne is the Archivist at WITNESS. Before joining WITNESS in 2009, she was a research fellow on the NDIIPP-funded Preserving Digital Public Television Project. She has also worked at NYU Libraries and New York Public Library. Yvonne holds an M.A. in Moving Image Archiving and Preservation from New York University.

 

1. Where do you work?

I’m the Archivist at WITNESS, a non-profit organization based in New York that supports human rights activists to use video effectively and safely to document abuses and advocate for change. Since our founding by musician Peter Gabriel, Human Rights First, and the Reebok Human Rights Foundation in 1992, we have partnered with hundreds of human rights groups and trained thousands of activists around the world.

 

2. How did you get there?

I actually did not have much of a human rights background prior to WITNESS, so I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to immerse myself in this area for the past 5 years. I have always had an interest in social justice and politics though, and have been involved in many activist and community organizations over the years.

My first experience working in an archive came in 2005. A generous grant from the Canadian government allowed me to intern at the San Francisco Media Archive, and then to work at Canadian Filmmakers’ Distribution Centre in Toronto for the rest of the year to coordinate a mass inspection of their 16mm artist film collection.

I enrolled in New York University’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program in 2006. While in school, I worked as an assistant in NYU Libraries’ Conservation and Preservation Lab, and as a processing intern at New York Public Library.

For a year after I completed my M.A., I worked as an NDIIPP-funded research fellow on the Preserving Digital Public Television Project at NYU Libraries, producing a report on sustainability factors that affect digital preservation. When the fellowship ended, I had 60 days to find another job or leave the country. It was a very stressful and uncertain time during which I was applying for jobs while also packing up my apartment.

Fortunately, the WITNESS Archivist position was posted during that period. It was my dream job, and it came at just the right time, so I was very lucky.

  

3. What materials/collections do you work with? Describe the materials and collections you work with on a regular or project basis.

The WITNESS Media Archive is made up of over 5000 hours of videos (and still images) shot or produced by our partners and by WITNESS staff. The videos include documentation of human rights violations, testimonies from witnesses and victims, undercover hidden camera footage, interviews with activists and human rights defenders, advocacy videos created by our partners, and WITNESS training videos.

The collection dates from the mid-1990s to the present, so the archive holds variety of analog and digital formats, on tape and in digital files. Our priorities now are to sustain our technological infrastructure to support our growing digital collection, transfer our videotapes to file-based formats for internal access and preservation, and to continue our ongoing deposit of digital masters to the University of Texas Libraries for long-term preservation and research access.

Besides managing our own collections, the WITNESS Media Archive sees a role for itself in supporting activists to archive and preserve their own videos. Rather than trying to serve as a repository for all human rights video (an impossible task), we aim to empower activists to maintain custody over their own collections or to collaborate with others. To that end, we work on creating training resources like the Activists’ Guide to Archiving Video.

 

4. What impact do/should/could archives have on human rights?

Archives can have a great impact on human rights. They enable people to access records of the past, which can inform the collective memory and be used to achieve justice and accountability for wrongdoings. As a practice, archiving provides a systematic way for witnesses and survivors to preserve their documentation so that it can be identified, authenticated, and accessed, increasing the possibility that the experiences they want to share will be seen, believed, and understood by others.

 

5. Any advice for other/aspiring human rights archivists?

When I tell people what I do, a common response I hear is “Wow, that must be such a depressing job.” Sometimes, yes, it can be depressing or even horrifying to see or hear about (and have to catalog) abuses and atrocities. This is a phenomenon that probably deserves more attention in our field. However, with the content that I deal with at least, I ultimately come away more with a feeling of humbleness at the courage I see exhibited by the people in the footage, and a deepened sense of connection and commitment to them and their cause. I have been fortunate to have been able to meet some of our partners in person, and each time I felt like I knew them already because I had seen so much of them and their work beforehand. As cheesy as it sounds, the people we work with are absolutely inspiring and constantly renew my faith in the human spirit.

Five Questions for T-Kay Sangwand

Please welcome T-Kay Sangwand for the second interview in the “Five Questions for…” series! T-Kay Sangwand is the Human Rights Archivist for the University of Texas Libraries’ Human Rights Documentation Initiative and the Brazil Studies Subject Specialist for the Benson Latin American Collection. Since 2009, she has worked with non-governmental organizations in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the U.S. to preserve their human rights documentation. Sangwand earned her MLIS and MA in Latin American Studies at UCLA; she is currently a member of the Academy of Certified Archivists.

Welcome, T-Kay, and thank you for participating in our “Five Questions for…” series!

1. Where do you work?
I currently work as the Archivist for the University of Texas Libraries’ Human Rights Documentation Initiative (HRDI). The HRDI office, though global and primarily digital in its work scope, is physically based within the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, which has a robust physical archive infrastructure (and is the second largest collection of its kind within the U.S.). Since I also have an academic background in Latin American Studies, I have also taken on responsibilities specific to the Benson, such as becoming the Brazilian Studies Subject Specialist.

2. How did you get there?
I feel very blessed that my academic background in Gender & Women’s Studies, Latin American Studies, and Information Studies, work with social justice community organizations, travel experience in Latin America, and deep love of music have all converged into an ideal skill set for the work that I am currently doing. Since my undergraduate days, social justice issues have always informed my academic and community work. However, I had originally entered graduate school at UCLA with the intention to become an academic librarian subject specialist and was unsure how and if I would be able to combine my professional skills with social justice praxis. Dr. Anne Gilliland’s introduction to archival theory course foregrounded how archives could be used as a source of community empowerment or accountability and really inspired me to embark upon an archival path in service of social justice. Later that year, I attended a panel at SAA on which Human Rights Archivist, Patrick Stawski (another UCLA alum, incidentally), presented on his work with the Human Rights Archive at Duke. I thought, “I want a job like that!” Realistically, I knew that there probably weren’t many jobs like Patrick’s, but seeing a concrete example of human rights archival work made me seek out as much related experience as possible, from processing collections that fell under the broad rubric of human rights/social justice, conducting service learning at community archives, and researching and writing papers on archival and social justice themes. All these different types of experience proved to be very beneficial for the multifaceted work I am doing now.

3. What materials/collections do you work with?
The main focus of the HRDI’s work is building post-custodial partnerships with small, grassroots organizations who are either collecting or creating digitized or born-digital audiovisual documentation of human rights violations. With the post-custodial model, organizations maintain physical and intellectual custody of their materials and send digital copies to the HRDI for long-term preservation and access. To date, we’ve established five of these partnerships with the following organizations: Free Burma Rangers (Southeast Asia), Kigali Genocide Memorial (Rwanda), Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen (El Salvador), Texas After Violence Project (U.S.), WITNESS (U.S.).* Within these post-custodial partnerships, my responsibilities as the archivist are to cultivate relationships built on trust, provide preservation recommendations and training, organize processing workflows at UT, work with our partners to design access solutions that fit their goals, and of course work with students, faculty, and other patrons to use the archival material. The material is incredibly rich because it allows the people who have been most directly impacted by genocide, armed conflict, incarceration and other human rights violations, to bear witness to their experiences in their own words. Free Burma Rangers has amassed hundreds of hours of video that contain testimonies from internally displaced people within Burma on the human rights abuses committed by the Burma army that they have both experienced and witnessed. Kigali Genocide Memorial has been recording survivor and rescuer testimonies as well as filming the post-genocide gacaca court proceedings since 2004. Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen’s collection of recordings from Radio Venceremos, the clandestine guerilla radio station, contains eyewitness reports from El Salvador’s brutal civil war that was backed and funded by the U.S. Texas After Violence Project conducts oral histories with people who have been directly impacted by the death penalty in Texas, be it family and friends of executed and murdered persons as well as the lawyers, journalists, prison staff, and police officers. WITNESS has a long history of working with grassroots human rights activists and organizations around the world to use video as raising awareness on and organizing around a wide breadth of human rights issues including rape as a weapon of war, human trafficking, and genocide. Actually viewing and interacting the material is far more powerful than me talking about it so I encourage people to browse our collections online.

*The Libraries have also partnered with the Archivo Histórico de la Policia Nacional (Guatemala), though I don’t personally work on that project.

4. What impact do/should/could archives have on human rights?
Archives can and do play such a crucial role in human rights struggles, from preserving historical memory, enabling the right to know, empowering future users, to actually holding evidence that can be used in legal accountability efforts. The Guatemala National Police Archive serves as such a strong example of all these aspects. Its documents are a testament that the atrocities of Guatemala’s dirty war actually happened. The physical Archive in Guatemala City, which is open to the public, welcomes families to look for evidence of the whereabouts and fate of disappeared family members. Some of its documents have actually been used as evidence against perpetrators of human rights violations. Many people recognize the power of this archive, which is why there have been so many attempts to intimidate users and curtail its work; conversely, the archive’s power motivates its advocates to keep processing the documents, maintaining open access to the physical archive space, and finding multiple avenues of access to the documents and the information contained within.

5. Any advice for other/aspiring human rights archivists?
I truly believe that archivists can incorporate human rights and social justice principles into archival practice, regardless of a job title as “human rights archivist.” Some questions that all archivists might consider are: What voices and stories are missing from the archival record with which we are entrusted? What types of collections might we accession to contribute to a more robust historical record? What do we even consider to be an archival record (keeping in mind that not all communities rely on tangible forms of recordkeeping and memory making)? Whose voices and experiences are we privileging when we are describing our collections? The archival profession has long prided itself on its supposed objectivity, but it’s absolutely crucial to recognize how our own biases and other institutional/systemic factors impact our collection and preservation of the historical record.

FREEFORM: Anything you’d like to share with the Roundtable.
When I’m not in the library/archive, I’ve been hosting various radio programs and dj’ing parties over the past twelve years. I’ve tried to incorporate that experience into my archives work, such as when I do instruction sessions for undergraduate students. I try to engage them to think about human rights documentation existing in many forms, especially within the arts and including forms like hip hop, which I believe to be another form of oral history. Here is a human rights hip hop playlist that I curated for them as a soundtrack to their human rights archival research, which I hope others will enjoy as well!

Five Questions for Verne Harris

The first interview in our “Five Questions for…” series is with Verne Harris. Head of Memory Programming at the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s Centre of Memory, Verne Harris has been Mandela’s archivist since 2004. He is an honorary research fellow with the University of Cape Town, participated in a range of structures which transformed South Africa’s apartheid archival landscape, including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and is a former Deputy Director of the National Archives. Widely published, he is probably best-known for leading the editorial team on the best-seller Nelson Mandela: Conversations with Myself. He is the recipient of archival publication awards from Australia, Canada and South Africa, and both his novels were short-listed for South Africa’s M-Net Book Prize. He has served on the Boards of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, the Freedom of Expression Institute, and the South African History Archive.Welcome, Verne, and thank you for participating in our inaugural post for the “Five Questions for…” series!

1. Where do you work?
I work for the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory.  It was originally Nelson Mandela’s post–presidential office, now a human rights-oriented NGO doing work in the memory-dialogue nexus.

2. How did you get there?
One step in a long journey with the concept of memory for justice.  On another, more prosaic, level: while working at the University of the Witwatersrand I was asked to help fix Mandela’s archives.

3. What materials/collections do you work with?
I prefer ideas to materials to be honest.  At the Centre’s custodial heart are Mandela’s private papers.

4. What impact do/should/could archives have on human rights?
In my understanding, the archive is the very possibility of politics.  And therefore fundamental to a just politics and an environment hospitable to human rights.

5. Any advice for other/aspiring human rights archivists?
Avoid people who give advice.

FREEFORM: Anything you’d like to share with the Roundtable. 
Anyone reading this sentence obviously didn’t take my answer to question 5 seriously.  But an elaboration on a line from Leonard Cohen for activist archivists: there’s a crack in everything (that’s how the light gets in) – make it bigger.