Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Atrocity Files

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.


At 9:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This makes me think of Lawrence Weschler's A Miracle, A Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers.

For readers who've not encountered the work: Weschler writes about a group of Brazilian clerics and lawyers who secretly reproduced records documenting the state's human rights violations -- including records of torture and disappearances -- in order to amass an archive of documentation spanning 1964-1979. The records were published as a collection titled Brasil: Nunca Mais (Brazil: Never Again, 1985).

When I read the book it raised similar questions for me about the production of records around torture, human rights violations, etc. -- about why the state and its generals were interested in keeping a very detailed, specific record of abuses. It seems like part of an investment in total state power -- and documentation of this power. I suspect Verne Harris might also have written something like this about South African archives under apartheid?

At 8:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You write that "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." Of course, White House records are quite different from the ones you're discussing in your post.

I think the notion you cite refers to the early disclosure provisions in the presidential records statutes, not so much to record keeping requirements in and of themselves. I don't know what NARA's corporate position is on this. In their 2006 article on access to records, Nancy Smith and Gary Stern write that "An unfortunate outgrowth of the current presidential record system is that, despite the ever-increasing volume of records, particularly e-mail records, there is less of a record that documents for posterity the immediate actions, motivations, and thoughts of the president. If the presidency is to remain well and richly documented, NARA will need to try to encourage not only the creation of records that document presidential thoughts and motivations, but also the donation of the personal records of presidents, members of their families, and their close advisors."

Lynn Scott Cochrane wrote in an earlier thesis, published while John Carlin was U.S. Archivist, that retired official "[John] Fawcett expressed grave concern over NARA’s relatively new mission statement, which invokes the phrase ‘essential evidence.’ Previously, NARA’s mission was to be an impartial custodian and preserver of our country’s historical documents. Providing immediate access to ‘essential evidence’ is an entirely different mission, one which will be a huge disincentive for federal employees to save documents and other ‘evidence’ of their work, not to mention donors who will be unlikely to hand over materials which can and will be used against them in short order. If we take the longer view of preserving materials for eventual historical analysis, the current emphasis raises serious doubts about whether there will be any real richness of materials for historians 100 years from now to study."

Of course, NARA's job is to implement the existing statutes, to the extent it can. (John Dean recently painted a gloomy picture in his Findlaw column at

I haven't found that historians have provided much help with these issues. I remember asking in a H-Net forum around 2002 what historians would tell President Bush about the need to keep good records, if they could sit down and talk with him about the writing of history. Not a single historian responded.

At 3:07 PM, Blogger Richard J. Cox said...

What I mean, Maarja, is that NARA leadership often states, when asked about presidential records legislation and other records legislation, that strong laws of transparency and FOIA administration, will lead to government officials not creating records future historians can use. I have had two recent discussions with individuals working on such matters who have been told this directly. It is, of course, nonsense. It is akin to saying anyone in the White House should be allowed to say and do what they want, as long as they create records. It is an excuse for not doing the work that the archives needs to be doing. Present accountability is far more important than future historical evidence.

At 7:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm familiar with the tradition in donor-restricted Presidential Libraries of setting aside contentious records until controversies dim. I've been away from NARA too long now to know how its officials view issues such as "archival purgatory" (something I mentioned in passing in my Kutler litigation testimony) nowadays. FOIA is supposed to control access now at the PRA-administered Presidential Libraries.

You say an official or officials within NARA told individuals recently that FOIA and similar records access statutes might cause officials not to create as many records as they once did. Almost from the time that FOIA was passed in the 1960s, there has been concern about a possible "chilling effect." Of course, concern about the richness of the historical record and an interest in accountability are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Has someone at NARA actually said a President can do whatever he wants, as long as he documents it?

As to former policy officials, John Earl Haynes had some interesting observations a few years ago after I posted on H-Net about concerns expressed in various forums (as in Lin Weeks's column in the Washington Post during the Clinton administration) about diminished recordkeeping:

"Maarja Krusten is all too right about the disastrous effects on the historical record of legally mandated rapid disclosure of policy making records of public officials enacted in the late 1970s and later. These mandates resulted in a pigs in mud golden era for journalists with their near-term agenda and "gotcha" mentality, and, to be sure, allowed
historians of the 1960s and 1970s to gain access to records much sooner than they otherwise would have had. But the trade-off has been catastrophic for future historians. Pre-emptive sanitization of the record is not episodic but nearly universal among policy making officials and their staffs since the mid-1970s.

As a staffer for policy-making officials in the executive branch of state government in that era I and my colleagues drastically changed our record keeping habits after the passage of mandatory rapid disclosure of executive branch records. Earlier our internal debates over policy decisions (balancing budgetary effects against often conflicting policy goals and including advice from legislative supporters and, sometimes, legislative opponents) were embodied in written memoranda, position papers, back-and-forth exchanges, and records of conversations. That these records would one day be opened for research was of no concern because that day was many decades away and of no political or personal importance. After the passage of freedom of information laws that opened these records either immediately or after only a brief period of restricted access, our practices changed. Our discussions became largely verbal supported only by ephemeral personal notes immediately discarded and the written record contained only technical documents and our final decisions with the supporting rationale. We cared greatly for our policy goals which we regarded as in the public interest and were determined that nothing would exist in the record of use to our political opponents or
those of the media seeking controversy. We were not at all unusual. In my post-political role as a acquirer of historical records, the drastic diminution of the richness of the record between those created before the mid-1970s and later is obvious.

The practical result of legally mandated rapid disclosure of the records of policy makers has been to impoverish the historical record. Records not created are not available, ever, for historical research.

John Earl Haynes
20th Century Political Historian"

I certainly don't discount what Dr. Haynes says, and you know I have a long record of arguing -- at some cost -- that NARA should do its best to carry out its statutory obligations.

I always enjoy reading your blog, you make me think even more than I usually do, LOL.

At 3:11 PM, Blogger Erin said...

I was finally able to read this article (I've been busy writing a research paper...) and was struck, again, by the determination of regimes like this, the National Party of South Africa and the Khmer Rouge to keep such detailed records. While governmental record-keeping isn't a new concept by any means, the retention of the details of kidnappings and murders really attests to the arrogance of the empire, like the article suggests, thinking they will continue forever.

I was also thrown by the difficulties Trudy Peterson faced in implementing a scheme for organization that was based on the "record's chain of custody" (p.60), and how much of a difference this made in interpreting the data.

All told, I found this article to be a moving account of the impact of records on a society.


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