Sunday, 12 July 2009

Argentina: Archive Thoughts

Pagina/12's Rosario edition has an interview today with Domingo Pochettino, former Secretary of Human Rights in Santa Fe province, about access to its regional archive which deals with documentation from the last dictatorship. The article is long but worthwhile for those interested in archives as it sheds some light on the practical, political, and ideological challenges of preserving and using documentation in the region.

The article has been sparked by a current debate which has blown up surrounding access to archive material; put simply, federal prosecutor (fiscal) Mabel Colalongo wants to copy the entire provincial archive, which may contain information vital to human rights abuses cases. She has even procured a scanner, a photocopier and specialised staff to do this. But she is being blocked by bureaucracy which is demanding that she first state which documents she wants, after which they will be copied and handed over by archive staff. Naturally, she doesn't know which papers will be relevant until after she has first seen them - but she hasn't seen them, because she needs to state what they are, get them photocopied... you get the picture. Get the complicated details here.

Having spent some brief time working in South American archives myself, this sounds very familiar. The overwhelming paperwork and rigid rules which confront you at every turn, even in institutions which claim to be publicly accessible, are incredibly demoralising. Having said that, in every case when I was finally IN the archive itself, generally after week of running in circles and begging, staff were charming and helpful. They still didn't let operate the photocopier by myself though!

There are serious issues at stake here. Often a lack of resources prevents proper analysis of available documentation, meaning that crucial evidence may be lost while the remaining perpetrators die of old age. Plus, archives are not always kept in suitable conditions for longterm storage - damp or inappropriate data storage techniques could lead to the loss of material vital to a nation's collective memory. Political changes, for example following elections, can set already slow progress back by years. With this is mind, every open archive, every exhibition, every book published is a small triumph against amnesia. Nevertheless, there is so much more material out there if only it could be properly used.

"A veces hay cuestiones de celos en la gente" (Rosario/12)

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