December 10th: International Human Rights Day: an interview with Chris Laico, Archivist at RBML


Telford Taylor Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Libraries, New York, NY: Series 15-2-1, Box 213, Folder 79

For the occasion of International Human Rights Day, which falls on December 10th every year, I sat down with Chris Laico, Archivist at RBML, who along with Catherine Carson Ricciardi and  Carrie Smith*, is responsible for processing human rights related collections. I asked Chris a few questions about archives, human rights, his daily work, what keeps him up at night, and what keeps him going, and here is what he said.

Q: Can you please introduce yourself, your background, and how you got into archives and librarianship? What was your trajectory like?

I came to the Archives’ world late. In college at Drew University, I majored in Political Science and minored in German. In the summers, I volunteered as an intern for my local Congressman Benjamin A. Gilman in New York and later in Washington DC. After graduation, I worked for a court reform group in New York called The Fund for Modern Courts. After a period of about two years, I went back to school at Georgetown University, and attended the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service in DC. At Georgetown, I studied international relations with a focus on German and European Studies.   All these experiences introduced me to the world of human rights.

Upon graduation, I worked as an editor in a publishing house, which was struggling financially. They kept downsizing and I decided that I must reinvent myself. One of my colleagues, a librarian, who would see me spending a lot of time in the library of the publishing house suggested that I should consider going to library school. This seemed like a good idea to me.

I enrolled in the evening sessions of the Archives Program at NYU and got certified in Archives and Historical editing. Upon my graduation, I got a job at the Diamond Law Library, Columbia Law School and worked on processing the papers of Telford Taylor. Taylor was the Special Assistant to Robert H. Jackson, U.S. Chief of Counsel at the International Military Tribunal (1945-1946), Nuremberg, Germany.  After the Nuremberg Trials, Taylor would be best known for his opposition to U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s and for his outspoken criticism of U.S. actions during the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s.


Q; What types of collections have you worked on? Did you have a particular attachment to a collection? If so, which one and why?

The Telford Taylor Papers is the collection I got most attached to. Although it was hard, meticulous work, it was also a great labor of love. Taylor was an incredible writer. The papers, for example, contain documents related to his work as a lawyer, legal scholar, and historian, including: Taylor’s work as related to the  International and Nuremberg Military Tribunals, his service within departments created by the New Deal, some of his legal case files (particularly on civil liberties cases), and other professional interests that Taylor had. Although the collection dealt mostly with the Nuremberg trials, there were also memos dealing with international issues, including communism, and internal domestic issues including McCarthyism and various civil liberties cases. The papers are currently housed at RBML. I got a lot of satisfaction from working on these papers, and feel very happy that now, it is one of the most used RBML collections. The processing was completed in 2005. I then moved on to processing the Human Rights Watch, Helsinki (HRW) collection in 2006, then moved on the HRW Africa Watch, HRW Asia Watch , etc.. This was the time when Jim Neal, the University Librarian then, supported the creation of the HR Documentation and Research Center. The two major NGOs who deposited their papers with us initially were Amnesty International and HRW. The Amnesty International collection was processed initially by Catherine Carson Ricciardi and is currently being processed by Carrie Smith. I have personally processed around one mile of archival materials related to human rights.

Q: Where are you located? Can you please describe a typical day? 

I am located in room 314 in the Lehman Social Sciences Library. Room 314 is a large open space, which allows my colleague, Carrie and I the opportunity to process sizable human rights related collections.

A typical day usually revolves around delving into processing a collection. I start by setting some weekly or daily processing targets, depending on the priorities set by RBML, my supervisor and the scholarly interests and needs of our users.  After setting my goals, I work through the archival materials. If I encounter something interesting, I usually make a note of it, and go back to it, to read it, examine and undertake additional research about it on my own time. I view my work as similar to an eternal graduate student, in a good way. I learn something every day. There is a fundamental need to understand the context of an archival collection in order to do it justice, and be able to process it as neutrally and as efficiently as possible.

Q: How does the work of a human rights archivist differ from other archivists?

HR archives are different from ordinary archives, say literary or artistic or other social archives in that they sadly deal, for the most part, with human kind’s inhumanity towards each other, e.g. dark facts in our human history, including genocides, torture, forced disappearances, etc. Working on this material, on a daily basis, can be emotionally draining. 

Throughout the years, I learned to develop a strategy to be better equipped to deal with this darkness, and not allow it to overwhelm me, or to stand in the way of the main goals I would like my work to achieve. I focus on the power of archives to tell a story, to not allow someone in a power position to say: “this did not happen”. The aim is of course to raise empathy, but also to try to re-inscribe that story into the bigger narrative, to avoid erasures, silences and gaps. In order to achieve that meaningful and important goal, I try to disengage, as I seek to understand what I am reading and what I am processing, just to allow myself not to be overwhelmed,–overwhelmed by empathy, for that would stop me from achieving my goal.  I try to act like a professional doctor: focus on the goal, not the pain, nor the empathy in that moment. Even though my initial natural tendency is to delve into empathy, and risk being overwhelmed, I keep reminding myself that the best empathy I can deploy is one that will allow me to focus on the end result, and I plow along, describing the material, arranging it, hoping that I am thus supporting research and discovery.

Most archives, or I should say, most processing of archives, support a human right, a right of representation, of having, a voice, a perspective, a community inscribed in history. This is especially true for minorities, or under-represented groups. It is the politics of representation, of what and who creates a canon, a narrative, of who gets heard and who has a seat at the table. Now that’s an interesting question. And then the openness, the courage to start new curricula, new areas of study based on these primary resources, on these under-represented perspectives. That’s interesting, too.

Q: Who is your user community, and what are their research needs?

image of CHRDR website

We are open to everyone. We work with faculty, researchers, students, advocates.  Local researchers in the city visit us, as well as international researchers and advocates, even high school students use our services. Our user community is truly global. One of the most rewarding aspects of my work is when an undergraduate student gains an understanding through the archives of the value of documents for research, that she takes with her throughout her life. The saddest thing is when a student comes to us, right before graduation, only to say: “I did not know this place existed. I did not know about these documents and archives”. This is a missed opportunity, a loss.

I would say across wide range of interests, the majority of the needs I see now are for material related to contemporary issues, mostly requests for digital material, for the web archiving content from the web archiving initiative led by Pamela Graham. There is also interest in the archives and papers of the big HR NGOS. Enough time has passed since their founding that a look at their trajectory can feel beneficial to researchers.  We recently also moved beyond the foundational collections of the major NGOs. For example we hold the papers of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) African-American civil rights activist, lawyer Constance Baker Motley.

Q: What is the most challenging aspect of your work? Your review of a wonderful book, namely James Lowry’s Displaced Archives which appeared in the American Archivist begins with a powerful quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, namely: In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the prince of Denmark intones: “Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat / In this distracted globe. Remember thee? / Yea, from the table of my memory / I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records, / All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past.”

Do you see your work on the human rights collections as subsumed under some notion of “displaced archives”, and if so how? 


Yes, in a big sense. To me the question of displacement centers around the notion of power. Who has the power of access? Who has access to the narrative, to the facts? Outsiders give archivists too much power: in fact, we are not gatekeepers, we are facilitators of dialogue; we are stewards. We facilitate reallocating the power to those who study the archives, to those who seek to gain an understanding of the past, so that they are better able to refine their efforts to change the minds of governments, of leaders, in order to change the future, to not repeat past mistakes, etc. The proof, the tool for change is in the archives, and all we can do is facilitate access to it.

Q: What new directions do you see the field of Human Rights archives going into? Do you see any emerging/shifting needs? New opportunities?

This is where the technology can help us, too. The work of Laila Shereen Sakr, Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at UCSB for example is very interesting in this context.  Ms. Sakr developed a computational method for networking sites that scout the public opinion on the ground, and then the algorithm agglomerates results obtained in this way, thus enabling new research venues and amplifying research possibilities. I think the change will come from the technology, where new tools will help us understand and amplify the impact of our archival work, in new ways. Twitter is very different from finely carved memos or letters… The technology (archiving live videos, tweets, emails, images, etc.) captured or produced “on the ground” so to speak will create a different type of archive, and a different use of the archive… The technology can bring us closer to the moment of origin, to the pulse of history. Technology will drive change within the archive and within historical writing and understanding. CUL has made a commitment to that shift. We are already seeing a hybrid human rights archive, with print, memos, reports, etc., but also with web archiving of human rights websites. As a result, we, archivists and librarians will have to multi-task. We will also need to be more judicious and thoughtful about what to keep, given the tremendous amount of material out there. Questions of curation and preservation become paramount to what records will survive and to what and to whose story will be told in the future.

Q: What keeps you up at night? And what keeps you going to work in the morning?

This brings me back to the earlier question, about power, and displaced archives. When you are exposed to our collective inhumanity, to our ability to be inhuman, on a day to day basis, you have to develop a way to overcome your own vulnerability: you cannot fall apart. You cling to the thought, the hope that you are taking a small step that will foster the exchange of ideas and will help train and enlighten human rights students, advocates, and researchers. You hope that the knowledge acquired through the archives will help them be in a better position to change the future, to open up dialogue in enlightened ways. Working with young scholars through the Human Rights program, through the Obama scholars program has been very rewarding in this sense. You can see first-hand how archives can give us a sense of rootedness. The three-dimensional aspect of the papers in this digital age comes as a surprise to many young researchers, and often, it is a transformative experience where the idea that not everything is pixels or exists in the virtual realm brings home the complex trajectory of history, of our rootedness as humans within a linkage of a multitude of stories, of histories. It is that feeling that awakens a sense of curiosity about others; the feeling that you can, through the documents, be so close to that moment of provenance, rooted in time, in a context, and that now you have access to it, through the archives. The question then becomes, what will you do with that opening, with that opportunity? Where will you take it? That keeps me up at night, and also, keeps me going through my days.

*While we are on the topic of archivists and their contributions to human rights archiving programs, it is fitting for us to acknowledge the work of Carolyn K. Smith, Archivist at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, whose last day of work at Columbia Libraries is today.  For the better part of a decade, Carrie has worked steadily, diligently and with dedication to process human rights archival collections.  While she has worked on a variety of collections over the years, two stand out as especially meaningful for researchers of human rights:  the extensive records of Amnesty International USA and the Records of the Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League to Champion Human Rights, known as NSANL.  This latter group initially focused on boycotting goods made in Nazi Germany in the early 1930s, and over time began investigating and reporting on extremist hate groups, primarily in the United States. Carrie applied her knowledge of archival processing to these very large-scale collections with patience and care so that students, teachers, researchers, and advocates can explore, navigate and activate these materials–now and far into the future. Her work has been central to our mission of documenting not only the many human rights issues and challenges that exist, but how advocacy and defense of human rights have been practiced and pursued. We are very grateful for all of Carrie’s contributions and wish her the best.   Pamela Graham, Director, CHRDR.


For further inquiries about the human rights collections, please check this page:


To contact Pamela Graham, Director, Humanities & Global Studies Director, Center for Human Rights Documentation & Research Columbia University Libraries:

To contact Chris Laico, Archivist, RBML:

Kaoukab Chebaro, Head of Global Studies:


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