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Detachment and distance: The challenges of using online archives

Published on 27 September 2022
Social science researchers in the field of genocide studies are often trusted with stories related to severe trauma and highly personal, difficult experiences. In this blog, NIOD fellow Anna Gopsill reflects on some ethical questions that arise when working with deeply personal and traumatic testimonies stored in online archives.

In our work as social science researchers, we are trusted with stories. Often, in the field of genocide studies, these stories relate to severe trauma and highly personal, difficult experiences. These stories have been given with the trust that anyone reading them will not misconstrue, misinterpret, or otherwise misuse them. It is important for us to read the words as they have been given, and then apply our analysis and interpretations of what is being said. 

Online archives and detachment

In my work, I examine the gendered nature of genocide and specifically I examine sexual violence within genocide. As an historian, I am researching this through archival work and primarily through online archival sources. I chose this methodology before the COVID-19 pandemic began, but with the onset of the pandemic, online research and online archival research has become increasingly common as archives shut down and fieldwork became impossible due to travel restrictions. 

Often when I express that I am working with archival sources, people think that it involves me, in a dark library, pouring over texts and surrounded by mountains of paper. With online archives, this is not the case and the challenges instead relate to navigating the sometimes complex organisational structures of different websites. However, there are additional considerations attached to using online archives. When you are able to read something online and from the comfort of your home or office, there can be a sense of detachment from the source you are reading. Without being able to directly touch the sources, it can become easy to disengage from the context and importance of what you are reading. 

Ethics of accessibility

Online archives provide a wealth of, often untapped, resources and information. My own work focuses on the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, much of their content is online and available for the public to view and engage with. These archives allow for unprecedented access to thousands of pages of material including witness testimonies, judgements, indictments, full trial transcripts, and so forth. The archives are accessible to anyone, in any location and without a cost. In many cases, this can mean an equalisation of research: to access the  archives, all you need is a working internet connection. It also means that victims and survivors of the atrocities can read the court transcripts in their own time. 

However, there are complicated ethical questions attached to the wide availability of these sources. As mentioned, the court records are public and while some aspects of the records have been redacted and many living witnesses are anonymised, names of those who were killed remain. This could have potentially devastating consequences for the family who are able to read the trauma faced by their loved one. Additionally, and especially in contexts where perpetrators and victims still live in close proximity with each other, it means that the victim and perpetrator families are easily identifiable - potentially leading to hostilities and tensions. 

Using testimonies in research

My work specifically uses testimony given during international criminal trials, which means that this testimony was often given when the victims were in a state of stress or duress in the courtroom. I therefore have to maintain awareness of this and balance the complex questions of impartiality with the understanding of the emotional toll of providing this testimony. This becomes less tangible when engaging with online sources. An additional concern here is that these testimonies were given with one aim in mind: to provide evidence in a courtroom with the intention that it would lead to justice and contribute to an historical narrative. When we re-engage with these sources, we are removing them from this original aim and applying a new lens and analysis to the testimony - a lens that perhaps those giving the testimony were not aware of at the time. 

As researchers, it is crucial to remain cognizant to these challenges and aware of the potential for detachment. We must stay engaged and focused on the stories, the individuals, and the importance of the testimony. As with traditional archival research, we must remain aware that these are people’s stories, their truths, and they should be treated as such. While we as researchers should remain impartial, we should not become disinterested or disengaged from the stories on the screen or pages we are reading.

Anna Gopsill, PhD candidate at the School of Advanced Study, Institute of Commonwealth Studies (University of London), researches the use, persecution and interpretation of sexual violence against men during the wars in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. She was a NIOD research fellow during the academic year 2021-2022.

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