Category Archives: Student Perspectives

Introducing an Online Tutorial for Archival Research on Human Rights at UT-Austin

The papers of author and activist Gloria Anzaldúa.
The papers of author and activist Gloria Anzaldúa.
(Image courtesy of the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin)

The Human Rights Documentation Initiative is excited to introduce the online Tutorial for Archival Research on Women’s Human Rights, a new tool created by a UT iSchool student, Amelia Koford.  While the tutorial is geared towards students and faculty who are researching women’s human rights rights at UT, the tutorial can be useful to anyone who is unfamiliar with the archival research process and questions of ethical engagement with archival material. The link to the tutorial is given below. You can also find a link to it from the UT Collections page on the HRDI website.


By: Amelia Koford

The archives at the University of Texas at Austin are invaluable resources for scholars, students, and activists interested in human rights. It can be challenging, however, for people unfamiliar with archives to locate, access, and interpret these resources. This semester, as a project for my dual master’s degree in Information Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies, I created an online tutorial to help people conduct archival research.

The tutorial focuses on research topics related to women’s human rights.  However, it can useful for anyone conducting archival research at UT-Austin.  I invite you to explore the tutorial here:

The idea for this resource came from a conversation with Dr. Kristen Hogan, Project Director of the Embrey Women’s Human Rights Initiative in the UT-Austin Center for Women’s and Gender Studies.  I wanted to find a project that would let me use my skills as an information professional to support feminist scholarship and activism.  I sat down for a brainstorming meeting with Dr. Hogan, who explained that the Embrey Women’s Human Rights Initiative was funding the development of several new Signature Courses on women, gender, and human rights.

Signature Courses at UT-Austin are interdisciplinary classes designed to introduce undergraduate students to college work. The newly developed courses would promote student and faculty engagement with women’s human rights frameworks. One of the innovative components of these courses would be the incorporation of research using the archives at UT-Austin. However, for many students and faculty, archival research would be an unfamiliar and potentially daunting undertaking. Perhaps, Dr. Hogan and I thought, an online tutorial could help them bridge this information gap.

I was drawn to this idea because I know what it’s like to feel overwhelmed as a first-time archives user.  During my first year in the School of Information, I learned the particularities of archival research through trial and error.  “I can’t bring my backpack into the reading room?”  “I need to look at something called a finding aid?”  “I should have done some background research before I came?”  I learned the answers to these questions piecemeal, from kind and patient staff members at the archives.  By creating an online tutorial for archival research, I sought to answer some of these questions up front and demystify the archives experience.

Writing and developing the tutorial was extremely rewarding. It gave me the opportunity to learn about information literacy, human rights education, and archival theory and practice. I was able to connect with inspirational archivists, librarians, scholars, and activists who helped me edit the content and gather images to illustrate the website.

The tutorial helps researchers find and use both the physical archives on campus and the digital archives preserved by the Human Rights Documentation Initiative.  It offers tips for conducting background research, analyzing and interpreting archival material, and considering emotional and ethical questions.

Although the tutorial was designed to support Signature Courses on women, gender, and human rights, it is useful for anyone conducting archival research at UT-Austin.  Some potential uses for the tutorial are:

  • As an assigned reading for undergraduate or graduate students before they begin an archival research project.
  • As a guide for individual students choosing to use archives as sources for class assignments.
  • As a resource for professors seeking to incorporate archival research on women’s human rights into their courses.
  • As a teaching tool in the classroom.
  • By students, staff, and faculty at UT-Austin and neighboring colleges.
  • By activists and other community members not affiliated with UT-Austin.

I hope the tutorial will increase the visibility and accessibility of UT-Austin’s human rights archives and facilitate human rights research, teaching, and advocacy.

Amelia Koford is a second-year graduate student pursuing dual master’s degrees in Information Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies at UT-Austin.  She works at the Perry-Castañeda Library and has also worked at the Seminary of the Southwest Booher Library.  Previously, she served as an AmeriCorps*VISTA member at College Forward, interned at the West African Women’s Association in Senegal, and studied English and French at Grinnell College.

Preserving the Video Archive of the Free Burma Rangers

FBR Videographer, Monkey (From Prayer for Peace)FBR Videographer, Monkey (From Prayer for Peace)

By: Mark Cooper

HRDI’s launch of the Free Burma Rangers Collection introduces the small, public face of a much larger partnership between the HRDI and the Free Burma Rangers (FBR). The twelve short videos on the site, ranging from five to ten minutes with two half-hour documentaries, total less than two hours of content. But this small selection represents the HRDI’s work over the past two years to ensure the long-term preservation and accessibility of the over 1,000 hours (and growing) of video documentation created by FBR during the past decade of their operations in Burma.

The partnership between the HRDI and FBR began in 2009 with the goal of digitally preserving FBR’s archival records and documentation, in particular their video materials. FBR trains, equips and supports humanitarian relief teams whose members come from many of the diverse ethnic groups within Burma. Since 1997, over 130 teams have conducted 400 relief missions into areas under attack by the Burma Army, providing aid to internally displaced peoples (IDPs) who have been driven out of their villages by the Burma Army.

Along with medical aid, clothing and educational supplies, each FBR team carries a small, handheld video camera for the purpose of recording the team’s operations, the living conditions of the IDPs, and evidence of human rights violations committed by the Burma Army. With so many teams operating concurrently, FBR produces an enormous wealth of video. To date, they hold over 1,200 MiniDV tapes, most of which contain a full hour of field documentation; few of these tapes have been backed up or digitally copied.

Digital Video Preservation: From Burma to the Archive
The task of digitally preserving FBR’s videos began with working through the quirks of capturing digital information encoded on physical tape media. I experienced this first-hand when I joined the HRDI team in July 2010 as a Graduate Research Assistant, continuing the work begun by my predecessor Nicholas Rejack (Read about his experiences on the project). In July, I traveled to the FBR offices in Southeast Asia, where I worked capturing video and inventorying the collection at my small desk crowded with three MacBook Pros, a tape deck, cameras, stacks of hard drives, and piles of MiniDV tapes to be captured, sorted or cataloged. Over the course of my six weeks on site I captured over 400 MiniDV tapes, totaling 5 terabytes of video.

Even under the best of conditions, MiniDV can be a finicky format. Capturing the same tape on the same equipment can result in often slight, but occasionally large, variations in quality. The challenges grow exponentially when the tapes have been carried through the extreme field conditions in the jungles of Burma, with each new tape seeming to present a new difficulty to resolve.  However, though the format presents its challenges, the preservation process is aided by metadata embedded within every frame of the DV video. Using programs like DV Analyzer from Audiovisual Preservation Solutions, error correction information can be extracted and analyzed to potentially identify whether errors stem from defects on the original tapes or from problems with the playback device. This can inform when performing a new capture could improve video quality, ensuring the best possible copy is preserved. In addition, every frame includes an embedded date and time stamp marking when it was originally shot, allowing for precise creation date metadata and for verifying and narrowing the date ranges written on tape labels.

Though the HRDI team has digitally captured a significant portion of FBR’s video archive, over 750 hours thus far, the challenges of long-term digital preservation do not end after a tape has been captured. Digital preservation is an ongoing process that aims to ensure the preservation of both the files themselves and the ability to read and interpret the information they contain. In this case, it involves not just maintaining the 1s and 0s of the video files but making sure they will continue to be readable in the future. The preservation process encompasses not just storage systems with significant redundancy and error checking, but also the maintenance of detailed technical metadata and ongoing monitoring of format obsolescence and evolution. Anyone who has struggled to find a working floppy drive to open an old document file, only to find the file format is no longer supported by current programs, understands the effect of a break in the preservation lifecycle.

The FBR Collection Online: A Look into the Archive
The online videos, each edited from raw FBR mission footage, provide glimpses into FBR’s video archive. Prayer of Peace: Relief and Resistance in Burma’s War Zones follows FBR teams operating in Karen State, Burma. The half-hour documentary is told through the personal stories of FBR team members and IDPs, including a medic, a team videographer and a father attempting to get medical care for his sick daughter. In Hiding: A Year of Survival Under the Burma Army (contains graphic content) depicts the lives of IDPs in the Karen, Karenni, Shan and Arakan States over the course of 2004-2005. It features documentation of villagers fleeing their homes and living in hiding, the devastating effects of Burma Army landmines, and testimonies from IDPs. The extensive preparation of FBR teams is detailed in Steps to Freedom (contains graphic content), which follows the teams as they train and enter attack areas across Burma.

The preservation of FBR’s complete archival record will be an ongoing project for the HRDI, as FBR continues to generate documentation on a massive scale. Advances in technology, such as FBR moving from MiniDV to file-based video recording, will present new challenges and preservation concerns. However, through this partnership, the FBR video archive will remain secure and provide one means through which the people of Burma tell their own stories, in their own voices. The videos will remain under restricted access to protect the safety of those depicted and not compromise FBR operations. They will be opened to researchers and documentarians at FBR’s discretion, and will be preserved for use by FBR and its partners to bring attention to the situation in Burma.

In Prayer of Peace, the FBR team videographer known as Monkey describes why he wanted to use a video camera. He says, “I started this work in 1998. At that time the Burma Army came and the villagers fled into the jungle. As they fled I took photos with a still camera. When people looked at the photos I couldn’t explain. I wanted the photos to open their hearts. I tried but the photos were not enough. I thought, if I had a video camera it would be better. Instead of me speaking for them they speak themselves.”

Mark Cooper is a second year master’s student at the UT School of Information. He is specializing in digital moving image preservation and recently interned at the Texas Archive of the Moving Image. Previously, Mark worked as a Producer / Director at Penn State Public Broadcasting, where his projects included feature documentaries on water infrastructure and domestic violence broadcast nationally on PBS.

Exhumation and Representation: Reflections on Records of Violence and the Genocide Archive of Rwanda

large gravesite in Rwanda

By: Martha Tenney

The launch of the Genocide Archive of Rwanda marks a significant milestone in the long collaboration between staff in Kigali, Rwanda and here in Austin at HRDI to document the 1994 Genocide. I come to this project decidedly late in the game; I’ve only worked as a Graduate Research Assistant at the HRDI for a little over three months. By the time I started here,  the majority of the work of collecting materials and documenting survivor testimonies in Rwanda was finished, and staff at HRDI had been collaborating with staff at Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre for over two years to digitize, describe, and transfer the videos, photos, publications, and documents that make up the archive. I am staggered by the magnitude of the efforts undertaken by the staff in Kigali: the breadth and depth of the materials they’ve compiled is remarkable, and more is being added all the time.

During my short time here, however, I’ve learned so much, not only about the Genocide itself, but also about the particular responsibilities and challenges of working with records of violence. Most of my involvement with the project focuses on structuring the online archive and figuring out how to best provide access to these resources. As a first-year master’s student at the School of Information at UT, I am studying digital archiving and preservation, cataloging, multimedia collection management, and website usability, all valuable skills for my work at HRDI. But when I first encountered the materials, I was flummoxed: How could I organize the archive in a way that would be meaningful to Rwandans and others hoping to utilize it, when my own understanding of the genocide was so circumscribed? Aside from representations in American media and entertainment—which depict the genocide as an ethnic conflict trope, as the result of the American government failing to intervene, or as the heroism of a few individuals in the face of senseless violence—my knowledge of the genocide was limited.

I was concerned by such limited representations of the genocide, in Rwanda and the rest of the world, and by the responsibility that I felt to represent it in the archive for diverse and divergent audiences. What are the ethics of preserving and providing access to these horrific stories and images? What is the image of Rwandans conveyed by these materials? Are they reduced to the neat categories of victims, survivors, and perpetrators, all inextricably bound to the violence of 1994? I recently re-read Susan Sontag’s last book, Regarding the Pain of Others, in which she discusses photographic representations of violence. Of photographs of “postcolonial Africa,” including photographs of the Rwandan genocide, she says that they typically communicate a “double message”:

They show a suffering that is outrageous, unjust, and should be repaired. They confirm that this is the sort of thing which happens in that place. The ubiquity of those photographs, and those horrors, cannot help but nourish belief in the inevitability of tragedy in the benighted or backward—that is, poor—parts of the world (p. 71).

While the materials in the archive are far more nuanced and complexly described than the photographs that Sontag mentions, I wanted to be conscious of the message that they sent and its possible interpretations.

As I started to listen to the testimonies and follow current events in Rwanda more closely, I also came to understand how providing access to these histories has complex political and practical implications for Rwandans. In their testimonies, survivors cite the threat of retributive violence, and Rwanda’s tenuous political situation has become all the more tense and repressive of dissent since the revelation of the current government’s involvement in the killing of Hutu refugees in the Congo. These very real, very current issues underscore the fact that these archives are far from inert. The stories and records in the archives address issues that continue to impact Rwandans, issues that remain painful and unresolved.

Overwhelmed by these larger concerns, I turned to the quickly multiplying practical matters of filling and organizing the archive: using the wiki structure of the website to categorize and create hierarchies in the archive, laying out pages to make them easier to navigate, editing descriptions, organizing all the material on UT’s servers, and copying the pages from Kigali’s local version of the site, accessible only at KGM to the online public site. These tasks occupied most of my time, and as soon as one challenge had been addressed another always popped up. The staff in Kigali worked at a breakneck pace, adding materials to the archive all the time. And despite technical hitches, an eight-hour time difference, and language barriers, the KGM archivists and staff always graciously answered my many questions.

As the launch date approached, the work intensified. In about two days, I copied all of the photo pages from the local site to the online site, which required that I look at each of the nearly 600 photos currently in the online archive. Seeing all those images in succession was intense. I hadn’t looked this closely at the materials since I’d begun working at HRDI. One photograph in particular almost made me break down. Although there are many grisly photos in the archives, there is something so jarringly violent about this one: the implied violence of the killing coupled with the inadvertent violence done to the bodies even in death. Would the archive perform an analogous second violence on the records of the genocide, digging up old pain and potentially creating new issues for Rwandans?

I continued to copy the pages, though, and the first photo took its place in the broader context of others depicting re-interment and memorial ceremonies, such as photos like the one above, the title of which is “Redonner leur dignité a vos morts est un imperatif pour tout être humain” (restoring dignity to your dead is essential for all human beings). The process of commemoration and dignified burial could not happen without the exhumation of those remains. Likewise, the process of reconciliation and healing could not occur without open access to these records of the genocide. The archives constitute an exhumation of the violence of 1994 that, while painful, ultimately honors the dead and affirms ongoing struggle of Rwandans to make peace with their past.

Martha Tenney is a first year master’s student at the UT School of Information. Prior to coming to UT, Martha completed archival internships at the progressive news program, Democracy Now!, and Franklin Furnace, an avant-garde art space in New York. She has also organized with the Prisoner Solidarity Project at Wesleyan University and studied environmental justice and green business practices in Senegal.

Reflections on ‘Abriendo Brecha,’ activist scholarship, and questions of responsibility and privilege

In February 2010, UT Austin hosted its seventh annual ‘Abriendo Brecha‘ conference which featured the activist scholarship of students as well as a diverse selection of keynote speakers from all over the country.  This post focuses on the ‘Extractive Industries and Indigenous Communities in Latin America’ panel which featured HRDI Graduate Research Assistant, Emily Joiner.  In this post, Emily shares her thoughts on the role of the Abriendo Brecha conference, the HRDI, and the challenges of activist scholarship.  


By: Emily Joiner

From February 18-20, 2010, UT’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement and campus centers for regional, ethnic and gender studies co-sponsored the seventh annual Abriendo Brecha conference on activist scholarship. This year the three-day event included key note presentations by distinguished guests, such as Iris Morales (Young Lord’s Party), Omi Osun Olomo/Joni Jones (Warfield Center for African & African American Studies at UT-Austin), Eli Efi (Brazilian rap group DMN) and DJ Laylo (producer of Estilo Hip Hop), and Adrienne Pine (Dept. of Anthropology, American University). Abriendo Brecha, or “Breaking Ground”, uses a working definition of activist scholarship as “research and creative intellectual work in alignment with communities, organizations, movements and networks working for social justice.” This breadth of scope supports the conference’s overarching purpose of bringing together scholars, activists and community organizers to address critical questions on the significance of their work’s intersections and divergences and how they can be leveraged in the struggle for social justice.

My personal involvement in the conference included speaking on a panel of graduate students who have undertaken field research on the impacts of extractive industries (oil, gas or mining) on indigenous populations in Latin America. As I listened to my co-presenters recount their work in Colombia, Guatemala, and Argentina, I became fascinated by the many dimensions of social and environmental impacts indigenous communities face as a result of these projects. As in my own work with Shipibo communities in the Peruvian Amazon, these other communities also face contaminated water supplies, changes to their agricultural resources and practices, physical displacement and a variety of health problems caused by environmental contamination. In some cases, these problems are even more acute than they appear at first glance because a community may not be fully integrated into the cash economy where they would have access to other supplies of water or healthcare. Distance from urban centers and scarce financial resources thereby become further obstacles to overcoming environmental impacts. Just as troubling, the discrimination and occasional physical violence that indigenous peoples face in many Latin American countries make it all the more difficult for them to express their experiences, propose changes, and achieve improvements in their circumstances. As important as discussing these impacts with consumers and other activists may be, ultimately our panel failed to stretch deeper than this rich recounting of experience. To my disappointment, the underlying questions about how our work fit into the community’s own advocacy, the way in which students begin to study communities – with or without an invitation, and the diverse strategies for balancing pragmatic goals with academic requirements remained unanswered.

Perhaps my self-conscious recognition of these oversights speaks explicitly to the vital purpose that a conference like Abriendo Brecha serves on an academic campus. Our panel of students explained the factual bases for our conscientious concern and interest in the struggles of these communities. The physical and emotional experience of having seeing the damages alongside affected individuals brought out an activist’s tone and fervor in our work. Yet, our failure to articulate our research more explicitly with broader advocacy became painfully obvious to us and to our audience. In this way, Abriendo Brecha forced us to confront the incompleteness of our work up to this point and consider ways that we can move forward. However, it also served as a reminder that a single conference cannot be the only place on campus where activist-scholarship is questioned, analyzed and challenged to be taken out of the academy and placed back into the context of community-level advocacy.

The core Abriendo Brecha questions apply directly to the HRDI as well. Our community partners in Rwanda, Southeast Asia and Central Texas engage on a daily basis with the struggle to overcome obstacles to respect for human dignity and human rights. However, the role of the HRDI faces ambiguity. As a project within a large research institution, where is the line between our archival work and activism? Does there need to be a division? How should we balance the priorities of local community organizations with the demands of funders, institutional resource constraints and UT Libraries’ mission to support the research and information preservation needs of the University? Just as Abriendo Brecha challenges scholar-activists, the HRDI should strive to dynamically engage the tension inherent to its work at the intersection of scholarship and activism and recognize the privileges and responsibilities that it brings.

Emily Joiner is a master’s student in Global Policy Studies at UT Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.  In addition to conducting research in the Peruvian Amazon, she participated in the Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice’s 2009 fact-finding delegation on Afro-descendant property rights in Ecuador and is a Research Fellow for the International Accountability Project.  She has worked as a Graduate Research Assistant for the HRDI since 2009.

Working with the Free Burma Rangers, Summer 2009

Photo credit: Free Burma Rangers
Photo credit: Free Burma Rangers

Prepared by: Nicholas Rejack
with assistance from Christian Kelleher and T-Kay Sangwand

In the summer of 2009 I traveled from Austin to the offices of the Free Burma Rangers (FBR) in Southeast Asia equipped with a video deck, two Apple MacBook Pro laptops and twelve 500 gigabyte hard drives. Over the following six weeks, I conducted real-time transfers from miniDV video cassettes to the laptops running Final Cut Pro. The footage I captured documents a wide range of activity – ranger training, including rappelling down steep river cliffs and shooting rifles, joyful children’s programs with song and dance, surgery on landmine victims and the seriously ill, combat with the Burmese army, testimony from survivors, and scenes of jungle villagers in hiding.

Free Burma Rangers is a multi-ethnic, multilingual humanitarian group providing relief to refugees and documenting the human rights conditions in Burma. FBR trains rangers to enter the ethnic regions such as the Shan and Karen states to aid their people with food, medical support, education, hope, love, and defense, if needed. Over 52 full-time relief teams, each consisting of four to five men and women, operate in eight different ethnic states within Burma. The FBR office overflows with digital videotapes, CDs and hard drives filled with photos that are in dire need of organization and cataloging.

Out of FBR’s massive collection that consists of over 900 hour long tapes, I collected video from 172 different tapes, which amounts to 2 terabytes or nearly one week of video. The video transfer process required constant monitoring for quality control as the videos are often shut on rough conditions by non-professional videographers. Over the six week period, I had the opportunity to meet the founder of FBR and work with an excellent and devoted team who were often in and out of the offices either on training missions or going inside Burma. In addition, members of the international press, such as the BBC, and freelance documentarians frequently visited the office, often requesting my assistance with technical questions. Members of the international media expressed great interest in accessing FBR’s collected material to inform the world of the humanitarian crisis in Burma.

After returning to Austin I have continued to work on this project as a Graduate Research Assistant with the University of Texas Libraries Human Rights Documentation Initiative. One of my current tasks includes cleaning up the raw footage to create archival quality video files through QuickTime. Translation, editing, metadata collection and cataloging remain, in addition to incorporating more of FBR’s vast store of material.

Using the information found in FBR field reports, I will apply descriptive metadata to the videos and create interactive maps for access through the Glifos software. The material will be available online, initially for FBR use and eventually for public access. By partnering with FBR to preserve and provide access to their files, the UT Libraries will be able to aid in FBR’s programming and operations as well as serve as a resource for future human rights research. The files preserved at UT could potentially serve as evidence in prosecution of human rights violators.

A repressive military regime in Burma ensures that the outside world does not hear much news from this nation. In 2009 however Burma was in the news with increasing frequency, as the Nobel Peace Laureate and democracy advocate Aung Sang Suu Kyi, confined to house arrest for 14 of the past 20 years, was sentenced to another 18 months in August by the military government. Only two years after a widespread democracy protest, largely led by thousands of Buddhist monks, and one year after Cyclone Nargis devastated the region, leaving tens of thousands dead, the people of this ethnically diverse nation await 2010 elections, the first in nearly 20 years. Far from the capital of Rangoon, ethnic groups such as the Karen and Shan suffer as internally displaced persons (or IDPs in human rights terminology) in their own country as they flee from attacks by the Burmese army.

An FBR report from September 18, 2009 quoted the words of recently deceased Karen ranger, Di Gay Htoo,  “…when you tell the story of my people, please do not just talk about all the bad things that happen to us and our suffering by the Burma Army.” Through UT and FBR’s archival partnership, with the support of the Bridgeway Foundation, the courage, strength, and struggles of the people of Burma will also be known.

Nicholas Rejack is a second-year student in the University of Texas at Austin School of Information focusing on archives and digitization issues, specifically audio and video. He is a graduate of McGill University (B.A. Linguistics, 2007) and has worked at National Instruments, the Harry Ransom Center and the Coates Library at Trinity University. In addition to a strong technical background, he maintains active interests in travel and experimental music.