Last year, 2009, WITNESS devoted a considerable amount of time to strategic planning from which emerged a new and re-conceived way of approaching what we do, which is, simply put, video advocacy.  I won’t summarize the full outcome here, but please see this blog post by our executive director Yvette Alberdingk Thijm for a full description of this new strategic direction.

Within this overall organizational process, we engaged in a dedicated assessment and exploration of the Media Archive as a program of WITNESS, including external participation from experts and stakeholders via interviews and a focus group.   We asked such questions as:

  • Is archiving really relevant to advocacy work?
  • How do archives support and promote human rights struggles?
  • When resources are constrained and one’s primary mission is advocacy, can archival, preservation and documentation activities be justified?

To that last question it would be easy to say No; archives are important but not a priority, not urgent relative to the matters of life and death that characterize the daily work of human rights defenders... to characterize archives as a societal ‘luxury’ relative to more urgent needs of survival.  Fair enough.  But without a deliberate strategy and the intention to ensure persistence of evidence, of narrative, and of a diversity of voices, we impoverish the future.  We bias the present.  The notion of archives – their creation and their use – as discrete or separate, as less than relevant to anyone but future scholars, is thankfully on the wane.

So, where did we emerge at the end of this exercise?  In a better place with a clear vision, I would say.  The fundamental importance of archival documentation, preservation, and access to human rights advocacy was reaffirmed.  The value of the Media Archive as integral and complementary to the advocacy work of WITNESS, and its relevance to the new strategic vision, was likewise re-articulated.

Substantively, the mission, role and activities of the Archive will remain largely unchanged.  However, some significant shifts will be implemented, as follows:

Access: Access to the Archive has heretofore been enabled primarily via one-to-one licensing activities.  While access remains a core goal and value, the current model is labor-intensive and serves a too-limited set of users. Nor do licensing fees begin to cover costs of cataloging and preservation. Thus, the current model of licensing footage on a one-to-one basis will be largely phased out over the course of the next few months.

Our future access strategy is twofold:

  • To begin providing online access to selected video from the collection.  We will begin doing so as part of WITNESS’ overall integration of its online sites, augmenting our current text-only database.  In doing so we will be able to serve the core goals and activities of WITNESS, as well as a diverse range of external users, from researchers to students to advocates.
  • To expand access via an institutional partnership, in order to better serve communities of scholars, researchers, and advocates, present and future.

Long-term Preservation: We believe the time has come to proactively seek an institutional partner for the purpose of establishing a more robust long-term preservation plan, including an offsite digital repository; with the additional goal of expanding access to a larger community of researchers, educators, advocates, and users of the future (as noted above). We have begun exploring such a collaboration, and hope to report back on this soon.

Acquisitions: While our collection policy remains largely unchanged, we will no longer solicit or accept donations of content from outside of our partner and current campaign networks.

Training and Knowledge-sharing:
Training and knowledge-sharing are a core component of WITNESS’ video advocacy methodology.  It stands to reason that the Archive has a role in sharing and disseminating archival and documentation practices to its partners, allies and users.  Archival and documentation best practices will be amplified and integrated into the training and campaigning activities of the organization. This approach is also in line with a shift to a more ‘post-custodial’ philosophy, wherein our role within partnerships may be as trainer or facilitator rather than as repository.  We’ll start soon, by sharing resources such as our thesauri, metadata dictionary, training materials, and so on, via our blog and website.

And, speaking of the blog, this is our inaugural post on the new WITNESS blog consolidating all of our organizational blogs into one.  Under the rubric Archiving Human Rights we’ll continue to highlight and report on topics relating to human rights archives and documentation, our own as well as others’.

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