Monday, February 26, 2018

Growing up on a pig farm in Palo Alto County in northwest Iowa, Trudy Huskamp Peterson says, she could never have imagined that one day she would stand among KGB archives in Moscow or work with long-sought police archives in Guatemala to ensure they were available in the prosecution of decades-old crimes.

Those are just a few things the University of Iowa graduate has done as an archivist for human rights, at times traveling to post-conflict regions—and risking her own safety—to assist in organizing and safeguarding records.

“She may not look like Indiana Jones, but she acts like Indiana Jones,” says Teresa Mangum, director of the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Iowa.

Trudy Huskamp Peterson portrait
Trudy Huskamp Peterson

Peterson discovered her love of archives by chance. As an English major at Iowa State University, she added a history major to boost her knowledge of the literature she was reading, “but I ended up liking the history courses better,” Peterson says. She started law school at the University of Pennsylvania, but after one semester decided it wasn’t for her.

Her boyfriend at the time—now her husband—was in law school at the UI, so she applied and was hired in 1968 for a job as a historian and archivist at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in nearby West Branch, Iowa.

“I immediately liked working in the archives,” Peterson says. “It was just lots of fun as far as I was concerned.”

Peterson received her MA (1972) and PhD (1975) in U.S. history from the UI and went on to work for the National Archives, in 1993 becoming the first woman to hold the position of acting archivist of the United States.

After retiring from the U.S. government in 1995, she became the founding executive director of the Open Society Archives in Budapest, Hungary, and the director of Archives and Records Management for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, Switzerland. She founded her own archival consulting company and has worked with clients around the world, including truth commissions in South Africa and Honduras, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, the Nuclear Claims Tribunal of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and, for more than three years, training Guatemalans working with the newly discovered police archives in standard archival techniques.

“I think it’s so impressive that she had a job at the pinnacle of the archival profession—acting archivist of the National Archives—and she made the choice to leave to work on cases in which human rights were in question,” Mangum says. “That’s just an amazing and inspiring choice. It certainly makes my backbone stiffen up when I make choices and think of people like Trudy in the world.”

Peterson’s human rights work is one of the reasons Mangum and others were eager to bring her back to the UI campus for the 2018 Provost’s Global Forum and Obermann Humanities Symposium, Against Amnesia: Archives, Evidence, and Social Justice.

“We really want people to think about the fact that archives are much more than simple documents,” Mangum says. “They often hold the key to secrets that organizations and governments and people in power want hidden or obliterated. Trudy has devoted her life to putting the people that those documents represent back into public view and helping guarantee justice for whatever wrongs have been committed.”

Not everyone always wants these documents made public, and helping shine light on them can put one at risk. Peterson says some people have been unhappy with efforts to preserve records, particularly when the records lead to convictions of human rights violations.

“Not only has she been in danger, but so have the people whose stories she wants to tell,” Mangum says. “I admire the works she’s doing. It takes courage because while she knows they’ll be safer once the truth is known, the journey can be dangerous for her and the people she wants to help.”

Peterson’s work highlights the important role that archivists play in support of human rights, but she also says any time someone works with records, no matter the type, they make a difference.

“One of the great things about being an archivist is you know that people need these materials to uphold rights and benefits, they need them for health purposes, they need them for all kinds of reasons,” Peterson says. “It’s really a place where you understand that what you’re doing makes a difference to individuals.”

She wants people to understand that archives are not just dusty documents sitting in a storage room and only of use to historians. Instead, these records play an important role in everyone’s daily life.

“Do you want to show where you were born? Do you want to show you own a house, or are married, or have rights to a pension? Do you want to show a corporation injured you by putting out a product they knew was defective?” Peterson says. “All those things are dependent on records, every single one of them.”

Peterson says when people learn she’s an archivist, they often ask her about the Civil War or genealogy.

“I know something about those topics, of course, but that’s not where I work,” Peterson says. “I work on the issues of today, and I try my best to make sure that the documentation of those things will be available in the future when people need it, either to assert their rights or to show their rights have been violated. And that’s incredibly important, and you have to work at it all the time.”

Despite working around the world, Peterson hasn’t forgotten her Iowa roots, and she returns fairly regularly to talk with UI graduate students in history. She’ll return this time as an Ida Cordelia Beam Distinguished Visiting Professor. She says she wants to make sure these students understand how archives work and what they can do, so she rotates through one of three topics each time she visits: What do you save and what do you throw away; how do you explain what is in a particular archive; and what are the access rules?

“I feel enormously lucky to have been born in a country with a good public education system and to have had the kinds of opportunities I’ve had,” Peterson says. “Democracy is a pretty good system, but you have to protect it all the time.”

Against Amnesia: Archives, Evidence, and Social Justice

What: Provost’s Global Forum and Obermann Humanities Symposium, featuring three days of lectures, panels, film screenings, and exhibits in which practicing archivists, engaged scholars, and interdisciplinary artists will share projects from guerrilla archiving of climate data to mining corporate records for evidence of organized violence.

When: March 1–3, 2018

Find the schedule and more information.