It is not often we discover an essay in a major magazine providing an accurate report of the work of an archivist. Kate Doyle, “The Atrocity Files: Deciphering the Archives of Guatemala’s Dirty War,” Harper’s 315 (December 2007): 52-62 is one of those rare occasions. Doyle, a member of the National Security Archives (NSA) staff, recounts the subsequent events of the discovery in May 2005 in Guatemala City of the archives of the Guatemalan National Police, documenting the police’s role in the 36-year civil war that ended in 1996. Richly illustrated with photographs of the documents stacked up in offices and then being worked on, Doyle’s essay is a stark reminder of the social and political importance of government records.
Doyle makes very clear the importance of such records: “For human-rights investigators the archive was the discovery of a lifetime, the long-abandoned scene of a terrible crime. The effort required to salvage the records and recover the evidence buried in them however, seemed beyond human power. Even more challenging, how could the countless pages be rendered meaningful to the rest of society? Would their opening lead to another symbolic acknowledgement of the brutal past or to a transformation of the country’s history? Even Guatemala’s official human-rights office wondered what to do with the archive” (p. 58). Fortunately in this case, assistance came with funding from Germany, Holland, Switzerland, and Spain, the work of NSA advisors, and consulting from experienced archivist Trudy Peterson.
Doyle provides a fairly detailed accounting of Peterson’s work in this project, and the description is both informative and positive about what archivists do in such circumstances. “Watching Trudy study the documents was like seeing someone decipher ancient runes. Over time, Trudy has slowly uncovered the secret language of the bureaucracy, and now she teaches the staff how to interpret internal file numbers, what ink stamps belong to which departments, and the reasons behind differently colored copies” (p. 59). Peterson got the local staff to rebuild the files as the police had originally organized them, and this opened up new ways of seeing how the government covered their crimes. Experienced archivists will understand readily what Peterson was doing, applying traditional archival principles to what had become a vast puzzle of documents. For the public reading this article, however, they will find a clear view into what archivists do as well as why such records are so important to preserve and administer.
A clear theme of this essay is why such revealing records survive, when it might seem logically that their creators would seek to destroy them in order to cover their track. “The survival of the National Police archive may seem difficult to comprehend,” Doyle writes. “But its destruction would have contradicted the force that drives bureaucracy itself. ‘I record, therefore I am’: the files are the proof of a government’s power. They shelter the history of its officers, of their importance, achievements, and investigations. During times of state terror, even the most incriminating documents may not be discarded, because the agents responsible for them believe that their institutions will survive forever. And afterward, it is often too late. Enduring regimes like Guatemala’s produce a massive paper trail, which cannot be disappeared overnight” (p. 64). Interestingly, the leadership of the U.S. National Archives has constantly invoked the notion that strict laws on Presidents and their staffs might lead them to not create full documentation.
Citizens need these records is another prominent theme of this essay. As Doyle observes, the “archive does more than simply confirm his [the citizen] status as victim; it preserves and restores his history. Contained within the records of repression in countries around the world is evidence not only of brutal abuse but also of defiance and social protest – a rejection; even during the most intense periods of state violence, of a regime’s economic and political project, and a re-imagining of what the country might become” (p. 64). This is an affirmation of what any archive means to us. The archive sustains us, provides meaning, and gives us a place in posterity.