Guest post from Sarah Van Deusen Philips:

As the project coordinator for human rights at the Center for Research Libraries-Global Resources Network, 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, trying to learn how they think about the documents that get produced during field work or during the day-to-day operations of a human rights organization: What do field workers do with the photos, videos, and testimonies they collect in the field?  How do those materials relate to the goals of human rights administrators?  And what would archivists desire of these materials in order to support the long-term life of documents as a resource for sustained activism, scholarship, legal action, and policy making?  These are the questions that thread through my work and conversations from one day to the next, and I could write a post about these from a pragmatic, distanced, professional point of view where I report on findings and trends to date, but I think I would like to take this opportunity to take off my project coordinator hat for a moment and speak as myself about my own feelings about why we need to document documentation.

You see, I am not an archivist or a preservationist—I am an academically trained anthropologist. And as an anthropologist, documentation is at the heart of my research.  To me, it is second nature to come home at the end of a day in the field, sit down with a cup of tea and begin logging and processing the materials I collect.  Photos must be labeled and cataloged, context notes recorded; videos must be backed up,  and the back up and the original must be labeled and catalogued; field notes must be typed up and details filled in before I forget them.  And—you guessed it—those notes must be labeled and catalogued.  This is part of who and what I am as an anthropologist—if I don’t take the time to organize my materials, I don’t have any data.  And without data, how can I make any sort of reasonable claim that I know the people I work with—the conditions of their lives or the patterns of their social structures?  How can I tell their story in a way that is meaningful and valid?  What’s more, how can I be a good advocate for the community I work with (in my case, deaf children and families seeking resources for them), if I can’t support claims with evidence?  Anthropologists are often activists as well as academics—how can we not be when we know what we know about marginalized groups?

So imagine my surprise when I learned that, though human rights workers value the materials and information that they collect in the field, more often than not, they don’t take the time at the end of the day to do what I do with my field materials.  In asking archivists who work within human rights organizations about this phenomenon, I frequently hear that this is because there isn’t any real institutional support for enforcing practices that would require field workers to catalogue and organize their materials for future use. It isn’t that administrators and field workers don’t value archiving; in an abstract, intellectual way they do.  But there seems to be a fear of imposing on the valuable time of field workers during crisis situations or of burdening them with a dull, administrative task that would detract from the passion and idealism of fighting the good fight.  Field workers are in the here and now, they are idealists, and they have a pressing and immediate problem to solve.
But where does that leave that treasure trove of materials that they collect?  Just ask the archivists—they’ll tell you that those materials are at best disorganized and at worst useless for continued work because all knowledge of who, what, where, and when has been lost. Without this information, these materials can’t support continued activism, policy making, or legal work.  They aren’t admissible in a court of law, they can’t serve as supporting data for a policy argument, and they can’t be used to help nations remember their sordid pasts and the fights they fought.  And this is a sad thing.

But there is a simple solution to this—magic!  Yes, we anthropologists believe in magic and transformational moments, not just for objects, but for people too.  With a little bit of time and mentoring, we can magically turn quality time with field materials into the incisive tool that an organized body of data is!  I learned the magic of transforming field materials from mere objects into data from a mentor in an hour and a half.  In that magical transformation from material to date, they gain voice of their own that I can draw on for years to come, but also for my immediate situation.  You see, some of the most important insights I have about my field—the origin of new questions or the recognition of important patterns—emerge from that time at the end of the day when I sit down with a cup of tea to organize and catalogue my materials.  I learn so much about the people and situations I work with when I relive their experiences through quality time with the materials I bring back—I gain a sharper focus for what I should be watching for and for actions I could take to better people’s lives.  Viewed this way, then, why wouldn’t field workers be excited by their materials?  If cataloguing becomes not just a drudgery for administrative purposes, but a tool for personal insight and action, then who wouldn’t be motivated by their ideals to the discipline necessary to gain such insights?

Sarah blogs regularly on The Documentalist.

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