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WITNESS: Digital Preservation (in Plain Language) as a Tool for Justice

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Illustration of video file and wrapper from WITNESS.
Illustration of video file and wrapper from WITNESS.

Some of you information professionals may have experienced incidents where, in the middle of a breezy conversation, you get caught off guard  by a question about your work (“What do you do?”) and you struggle to come up with a straightforward, clear answer without losing the listener’s attention or narcotizing them into a stupor with your explanation.

Communicating lucid, stripped-down technical information to a general audience is a challenge…not dumbing down the information but simplifying it. Or, rather, un-complicating it and getting right to the point. At the Signal, we generally address our blog posts to institutions, librarians, archivists, students and information technologists. We preach to the choir and use peer jargon with an audience we assume knows a bit about digital preservation already. Occasionally we direct posts specifically to laypeople, yet we might still unintentionally couch some information in language that may be off-putting to them.

WITNESS, the human rights advocacy organization, has become expert in communicating complex technical information in a simple manner.  WITNESS empowers people by teaching them how to use video as a tool to document human rights abuses and how to preserve digital video so they can use it to corroborate their story when the time is right. Their audience — who may or may not be technologically savvy —  often comes to WITNESS in times of crisis, when they need immediate expertise and guidance.

Cell phone video interview on
Cell phone video interview on

What WITNESS has in common with the Library of Congress and other cultural institutions is a dedication to best practices in digital preservation. However, to the Library of Congress and its peer institutions, the term “digital preservation” pertains to cultural heritage; to victims of human rights violations, “digital preservation” pertains to evidence and justice.

For example, WITNESS advises people to not rename or modify the original video files. While that advice is in accord with the institutional practice of storing the original master file and  working only with derivative copies, that same advice, as applied to documenting human rights violations, protects people from the potential accusation of tampering with — or modifying — video to manipulate the truth. The original file might also retain such machine-captured metadata as the time, date and geolocation of the recording, which can be crucial for maintaining authenticity.

The Society of American Archivists recently honored WITNESS with their 2014 Preservation Publication Award for their “Activists Guide to Archiving Video.” The SAA stated, “Unlike other resources, (the guide) is aimed at content creators rather than archivists, enabling interventions that support preservation early in the digital life-cycle. The guide also uses easy-to-understand language and low-cost recommendations that empower individuals and grassroots organizations with fewer resources to take action to safeguard their own valuable collections. To date, the guide has found enthusiastic users among non-archivists, including independent media producers and archives educators, as well as archivists who are new to managing digital video content. The Award Committee noted that the guide was a ‘valuable contribution to the field of digital preservation’ and an ‘example of what a good online resource should be.'”

Screenshot from "What is Metadata" video by WITNESS.
Screenshot from “What is Metadata” video by WITNESS.

That is an important distinction, the part about “…non-archivists, including independent media producers and archives educators, as well as archivists who are new to managing digital video content.” It means that WITNESS’s digital preservation resources are equally useful to a broad audience as they are to its intended audience of human rights advocates. Like the  Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ 2007 publication, The Digital Dilemma (profiled in the Signal), the language that WITNESS communicates in is so plain and direct, and the advice so comprehensive, that the digital video preservation instruction in the publication is broadly applicable and useful beyond its intended audience. Indeed, WITNESS’s “Activists Guide to Archiving Video” is used in training and college courses on digital preservation.

WITNESS’s latest resource, “Archiving for Activists,”  is a video series aimed at improving people’s understanding of digital video so they can make informed choices for shooting and preserving the best possible copy of the event. The videos in this series are:

Woman on balcony with camera.
Photo from
Some activists in the field have said that, thanks to WITNESS’s resources, they are organizing their footage better and adopting consistent naming conventions, which makes it easier to find files later on and strengthens the effectiveness of their home-grown archives. Yvonne Ng, senior archivist at WITNESS, said, “Even in a situation where they don’t have a lot of resources, there are simple things that can be done if you have a few hard drives and a simple system that everybody you are working with can follow in terms of how to organize your files and put them into information packages – putting things in folders and not renaming your files and not transcoding your files and having something like an Excel document to keep track of where your videos are.”

WITNESS will continue to offer professional digital video archival practices to those in need of human rights assistance, in the form of tools that are easy to use and readily available, in plain language. Ng said, “We talk about digital preservation in a way that is relevant and immediate to the people who are documenting abuses. It serves their end goals, which are not necessarily just to create an archive. It’s so that they can have a collection that they can easily use and it will maintain its integrity for years.”

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