This post is another installment in our Archives Month series Archives For Change: Activist Archives, Archival Activism. My name is Taz Morgan. I’m the Media Archive intern at WITNESS this fall as part of my studies in Preservation and Presentation of the Moving Image at the University of Amsterdam.

On October 27, the UNESCO World Day for Audiovisual Heritage, I spoke with Kate Doyle, Senior Analyst of U.S. policy in Latin America at the National Security Archive (NSA), about the Guatemala Project, the notion of the activist archivist and how archives can advocate for open societies.

Kate had just returned from Guatemala, where she was called to be an expert witness in the trial of two policemen accused of participating in the abduction of Edgar Fernando García, a student and labor activist, in 1984. I strongly encourage you to read her account on the NSA blog .  This case is just one example of the efforts from the NSA’s Guatemala Project and its commitment to government transparency, accountability and freedom of information.  Her incredible story about the relentless fight of García’s wife Nineth Montenegro de García for information from a closed government demonstrates how archives can be instrumental in the struggle for justice and change.

I asked Kate about how she became involved in the García case.  She recounted how the NSA has a long-standing relationship with a number of institutions, both civil and governmental, in Guatemala.  In 2005, evidence in the García case was discovered amongst millions of pages of documents, as well as photos and audiotapes, when a team of investigators from the Guatemalan government’s human rights office accidentally stumbled upon the records of the disbanded National Police inside a munitions depot.  After their discovery, the investigators thought to immediately contact Kate as a way to reach out to international partners who could help them deal with the uncovered files.  These records now make up the Historical Archive of the National Police in Guatemala, and Kate has been an advisor to its archivists from the beginning.

Evidence from the Archive prompted the government to issue arrest warrants and ultimately detain two of the policemen in March 2009 in relation to the García case.  In order to maintain the integrity of the records found at the Police Archive, the archivists there fully identified, cataloged and stored the 161 records related to the case.  Kate spoke highly of the Police Archive’s own investigator Velia Muralles Bautista (who is also mentioned in Kate’s blog post) who developed an expert report of her findings from the archive.  Kate’s own testimony was based on U.S. declassified records produced at the time of García’s disappearance. Since many of the records introduced in the case were contemporaneous to the crime, it has been a labor-intensive fight to find, analyze, and maintain their integrity as evidence.

After discussing the case, I then asked Kate to comment more on the relationship between activism and archiving.  In Grace’s post earlier this week about Nelson Mandela, the archivist, she cited Verne Harris’s notion that an archivist must be an activist. Kate said, “I am absolutely in agreement with Verne.”  Kate felt like she could not speak for the archiving community as a whole, but could discuss the significant role that archives play in supporting open societies and fighting for government transparency through making information accessible. She spoke about the NSA’s role as an advocate for openness and accessible information.  As a research institution that has acquired copies of declassified documents through the Freedom of Information Act and that attracts users from around the world, the NSA has contributed to the international movement for openness and free information.

Kate often gives talks to encourage archivists and historians to assume the responsibility of their social role, and in that sense, push for more openness. For many years, Kate has also worked with human rights organizations in Latin America to get them to embrace the call for openness.  Kate stated that with the increasing use of archival records as criminal human rights evidence, there is a dawning realization of the absolute obligation of state governments to be open and transparent.  According to Kate, archivists can be at the heart of this work – at the heart of accountability and justice.

Kate’s work with the García case clearly illustrates her point that archivists can play an active role in creating change.  Not only was a serious human rights violation committed when policemen forcibly abducted García, but there was the grave violation to his wife’s right to information.  For years, she begged for information, going to the morgues, the cemeteries, the head of state.  Kate stated, “that silence of the state is one of the great crimes.”  It was quite powerful to hear how records found in an archive could help set the truth free and perhaps give Nineth Montenegro de García some sense of justice.

Given that the role of the archive is no longer seen as a passive or neutral repository, I asked Kate about the ethical implications that face archivists.  How can archivists maintain fairness and honesty? Kate, again, stressed that she is not truly an archivist in the strictest, professional sense, but that she can speak for custodians of declassified documents.  She said the archival community must debate the issues of privacy and personal data.  She understands why many professional archivists want to protect privacy, but she is an advocate for total openness of records that contain information about human rights crimes.   According to her, “We can not fully understand the policy of terror, including its practices and architecture without being able to openly analyze who it touched and targeted.”  She realizes this is a tough argument, but she firmly advocates openness and believes that this is one issue that the archive community needs to discuss more.

Kate also addressed the future for custodians of information that bear records of human rights violations.  She envisions opportunities to dramatically increase collaboration between the human rights community and the archiving community. Traditionally, these two fields have not extensively communicated and collaborated.   Kate is optimistic that they will intersect more and more.  Her experience at the NSA has shown how archival records can and do directly create change.  The records brought into the García case directly address the questions of families of disappeared persons.  There is no telling how far records from around the world can go in the future to bring about more justice and change.

Thanks to Kate for her time with me! It was inspiring to hear such passionate words about the power of archives.

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