A number of Columbia faculty have been present at defining moments in the field of human rights, but with the acquisition last year of the records and papers of more than a half-dozen human rights organizations, Columbia is now a history-keeper as well as a history maker.

The Center for Human Rights Documentation and Research holds the archival records of several donors, including Amnesty International USA, the Committee of Concerned Scientists, Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch and Columbia's own Center for the Study of Human Rights and the University Seminar on Human Rights.

"The human rights organizations that have donated their archives to the center are the most prestigious in America, if not in the world today," said Pamela Graham, a librarian and acting director of the center. "These represent the largest collections on human rights in North American libraries."

Established at the Columbia Libraries, the center is a recent, significant addition to the University's deepening scholarship about global human rights.

The largest contribution to Columbia's collection comes from Amnesty International, which deposited between 6,000 and 7,000 linear feet of reports, manuscripts, post cards, letters, banners, transcripts and other significant organizational documentation.

"We chose Columbia University to deposit our archives because of its longstanding commitment to human rights and its location in the city where the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted," said Peter Farnsworth, chief financial officer of Amnesty International. "We also knew it to be one of the best places in the world and could be made available to the public."

The center's archives are too large to be maintained on campus and are housed in a state-of-the-art, climate-controlled facility in Princeton, New Jersey, at the Research Collections and Preservation Consortium, a facility shared with Princeton University and the New York City Public Library.

Pamela Graham
Pamela Graham, acting director of the Center for Human Rights Documentation and Research

Image credit: Columbia University Libraries

Another more recent human rights-related project at the Libraries is the assembly of the websites of nearly 600 human rights organizations from around the world, led by Robert Wolven, an associate University librarian who oversees collection development. A Mellon Foundation grant, shared with University of Maryland, made possible the purchase of a special software called "archive it" that can take a picture of a site to capture its information.

The software was able to capture a Tibetan human rights website last spring when Lauran Hartley, the Tibetan studies librarian, notified Wolven that she feared a website would be pulled down during the uprising. The site was captured two days before it was shut down by government authorities, illustrating the need for the speedy capture of new data and pages.

The collection in the new center complements existing Libraries holdings, says Susan Hamson, the curator and librarian who supervises archival processing in Butler Library's Rare Book and Manuscripts.

It includes the papers of the late Telford Taylor, Nash Professor of Law Emeritus and a brigadier general who was the chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg Military Tribunal after World War II and an opponent of the McCarthyism of the 1950s. His papers are held in the Arthur W. Diamond Law Library. The papers of "America's Schindler," Varian Fry, who is credited with saving the lives of nearly 4,000 Jews—among them, such luminaries as Max Ernst, Hannah Arendt and Marc Chagall—are part of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library. And the correspondence of former New York Gov. Herbert Lehman is held by the Lehman Suite at the School of International and Public Affairs; he later became the first director general of the U.N. Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.

Hamson describes the human rights archive as "an education" for her, as she learns about human rights and works with the various groups who have contributed material.

"Every now and then, when you are working with the archives, it does hit you, how human rights organizations have had an impact on someone, a government, some situation that is literally changing the world," she said.

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