Skip to content

Anne Gilliland: Protecting Human Rights Through Record Keeping

By Joanie Harmon
Anne Gilliland, Associate Dean for Information Studies

Archivist of inter-ethnic conflicts working with ICA and IMLS on building policies to support vulnerable populations in records, including refugee children. 

UCLA Professor of Information Studies Anne Gilliland delivered the closing plenary for the annual conference of the International Council on Archives (ICA), in Rome on Sept. 23. Her talk, “Displaced, Separated, Divided: Archival (Pro)Activism Bridging Communities, Bridging Spaces,” explored the role played by archives and records in preserving the stories and experiences of displaced people, and how inaccessibility, absence, and lack of control over records and other documentation often prevent those who have been displaced from either returning to their homes or reestablishing themselves and thriving in stable lives elsewhere.

“…Archives have not been designed to bridge communities and geographies and support unanticipated or involuntary movement in the ways that are humanly needed,” Gilliland noted in her remarks to the ICA. 

“I have been involved in research and teaching for many years in regions and with communities that have been torn apart by inter-ethnic conflict – particularly in countries that emerged out of the former Yugoslavia; in Armenia and the unrecognized Armenian republic of Artsakh; and in Northern Ireland where I was born and grew up during the Northern Irish Troubles,” Gilliland said. “I have also worked extensively on recordkeeping concerns faced by those who have been forcibly displaced by climate change, poverty and absence of opportunity. Across this work, I have been interested in the various roles that recordkeeping, archives and memory play in the daily lives of those who have been most affected and how archives and recordkeeping more broadly could be used to contribute positively to a more secure, just, and informed future.”

Gilliland, who is the director of the Center for Information as Evidence (CIE) at UCLA, was also in Rome to introduce to ICA leadership a framework for rights in records for refugees around the globe that has been developed by the Refugee Rights in Records (R3) Initiative and is intended to serve as a model for international and local law and policy development. Gilliland leads that Initiative, together with IS lecturer Kathy Carbone and James Lowry, a professor at Queen’s College, City University of New York. One of the populations this framework addresses is children who have been separated from their families and placed in detention centers and out-of-home care.

“We have worked very closely with researchers based at Monash University and Federation University Australia who have worked with care leaver communities to develop a Charter of Lifelong Rights in Childhood Recordkeeping in Out-of-Home Care. This research is also part of a global movement looking at recordkeeping abuses relating to children who were in various care facilities and boarding schools …including Indigenous children who were stolen from their families and placed in such facilities, and children who were transported, particularly from Britain across the world out of orphanages … as well as how to ensure their rights to access and indeed to create their own records from their early lives,” said Gilliland.  

“We would like to see the International Council on Archives, which is the profession’s overarching body, and includes membership by the national archives from all over the world, either adopt these frameworks and charters, or develop and endorse similar kinds of statements themselves that promote these issues and these kinds of individual and family rights to access, create, carry, keep, use, and have expert help with documents,” continues Gilliland. “Together with several other groups, including the Rights in Records by Design project at Monash University, CREATE Foundation (a national peak consumer body representing the voices of children and young people with an out-of-home care experience), Connecting Home (a service for the Stolen Generation), Care Leaver Australasia Network (CLAN) and the Child Migrants Trust, we've submitted an Invited General Comment to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child that has been reconsidering children's information rights. ICA has close partnership links with UNESCO, and because government archives particularly have a lot to do with the kinds of record keeping that we are talking about, we are also hoping that ICA will help us to move these issues into consideration at UNESCO and other relevant parts of the United Nations.” 

Professor Gilliland is also co-leading a new research project funded by an almost $400,000 Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Implementation Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services with Richard Marciano, a professor at the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. The TALENT Network (Training of Archival & Library Educators with iNnovative Technologies) will expand the existing national network of experts engaging in piloting new computational archival tools and curriculum in order to create a diverse and multidisciplinary community focused on developing archival and library educators and practitioners as future digital leaders. It will also implement a pilot iprogram with two HBCUs, Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University (CAU), with coordination support from the Georgia Tech Library.  The expanded network includes 19 archivists, librarians, LIS educators, historians, learning scientists, cognitive scientists, computer scientists, and software engineers.

A key component of this work is addressing the social and ethical concerns that arise from computational and algorithmic thinking and implementations. Gilliland will lead an examination through CIE of social and ethical considerations about using computational archival science approaches to process archival collections digitally. These include risks related to surfacing hidden narratives or exposing vulnerable individuals and failing to honor those who wish to exercise their right to be forgotten; contemplating possible meaning behind silences and absences in archives and the effects these might have on computational storytelling; recognizing when digital content has been tampered with or manipulated, such as deep fakes; detecting bias that is either baked into digital content or its representation through metadata or description; and holding the deep learning algorithms and other computational processes that are used by archives to account, identifying when they begin to move off course and taking corrective action.

“Archives are increasingly critiqued as institutions whose holdings and practices favor high power records creators and users and that disadvantage, marginalize and mischaracterize those who have historically not had such power,” said Gilliland. “Given these facts, it is essential that archivists have the competencies to assess and respond to the opportunities, risks and ethical challenges posed by emerging and disruptive technologies, in order to employ them in appropriate and liberatory ways to manage and provide ethical, equitable and enhanced access to their holdings.” 

One major reason why archivists are so concerned about deep learning and other emerging computational approaches is that the volume of digital content being created today means that many archives simply will not be able to keep up with processing it manually. For example, Gilliland said that during the pandemic lockdown, she and three UCLA undergraduate students from China – one of whom is from Wuhan – were concerned about the proliferation of anti-Asian hate speech in Twitter. From February 2020 when the pandemic was officially recognized in the U.S. until the summer of 2022, they identified and archived “millions of English language tweets” that, when computationally analyzed, and contextualized through references to contemporary events that might influence such sentiments, were able to reveal trends in Anti-Asian hate speech.  

Publications by Gilliland and the team emphasize that this research demonstrates how archivists can generate nuanced description of extremely high volume, heterogenous and dynamic content that is archived in near real-time, and how to do so quickly enough that the resulting knowledge of the content can made available as quickly as possible to policymakers, educators and even social media platforms seeking to address problematic social concerns and trends such as growing racist sentiments.

“There is no way archivists can understand, select, ingest and process such materials and at such scale without using computational assistance to do it,” Gilliland said. “This is less about the kinds of computation that an end user such as a humanities scholar might apply to a digital data set as it is about how archivists themselves prepare that content to be made available for other people to use, and how we check our own biases. 

“In a post-truth world where nobody trusts anything, archives not only have to be trusted -  they also have to publicly demonstrate that they are trustworthy. We know that these new technologies that we are piloting or are already using have all sorts of capacities to skew the record in particular ways, and that as the algorithms we use learn, they can take things in a direction we hadn't planned. By being transparent about our processes and also by carefully checking the behaviors and results of our algorithms, we are able to demonstrate the integrity of the content we are archiving and also how we then make it available for others to use.”


Visit these links for publications by Professor Gilliland, her colleagues, and students, on these topics:

"An Analysis of Warrant for Rights in Records for Refugees" 
The International Journal of Human Rights
Volume 24, 2020 - Issue 4: Special Section: Gender, Sexuality and Transitional Justice

“Towards a Framework of Human Rights in Records: A Critical Analysis and Comparison of TwoContexts” 
Diversity, Divergence, Dialogue: 16th International Conference, iConference 2021, Beijing, China, March 17–31, 2021, Proceedings, Part II (Lecture Notes in Computer Science)

"Rights in and to Records and Recordkeeping: Fighting Bureaucratic Violence through a Human Rights-Centered Approach to the Creation, Management and Dissemination of Documentation"
Selected Papers from the 2019 Archival Education and Research Institute (AERI 2019) Education for Information

“Using Data-driven Analytics to Enhance Archival Processing of the COVID-19 Hate Speech Twitter Archive (CHSTA),” ACM
Journal of Computing and Cultural Heritage

“#StopAsianHate: Archiving and Analyzing Twitter Discourse in the Wake of the 2021 Atlanta Spa Shootings”

Information: Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, Justice, and Relevance: Proceedings of the 2021 Annual Meeting of the Association for Information Science & Technology