Archives and Records
A Repository of the Past
Collecting and maintaining archives can pose special challenges for an organization like UNHCR. When militants overran camps in what was then eastern Zaire (currently the Democratic Republic of the Congo) back in 1997, for example, staff were forced to jam what papers they could into the backs of trucks before being forced to evacuate. Some material was saved but not all. The rescued files were later shipped to Geneva where they now reside in the organization's central archive.
Established in 1996, the archive includes material from more than half a century of field operations around the world as well as material from headquarters. It occupies about 10 kilometres of shelving space on two basement floors in Geneva's headquarters. Electronic archives, comprising some 7 million documents, are stored and managed in a handful of dedicated, secure servers.
The archives of historical interest make up about one half - or five kilometres - of the paper archives. The remainder, mostly internal documents such as financial reports, is held for a period of several years before being discarded. electronic archives, such as key reports, are also sorted for permanent or short-term preservation.
The archives contain a trove of detail about important historical events, including, for example, records from the 1956 Hungarian uprising, the first major emergency in which the UN refugee agency became operational, as well as emergencies in Chile and Argentina in the 1970s. They contain originals, for example, of the letter sent by the late Tunisian leader, Habib Bourguiba, seeking international help for refugees fleeing the conflict in neighbouring Algeria in 1957 - the first plea to UNHCR for help by a country outside Europe.
The material is used both by staffers and by outside researchers. Records of intractable situations where UNHCR has been working for decades, such as southern Sudan, are drawn on to brief staff as they head out into the field. Harvard University historian Samantha Power researched much of her 2008 biography of the late former top UNHCR official, Sergio Vieira de Mello, in the UNHCR archives. In the future, the goal is to bring more material back from the field and to expand preservation of electronic materials in order to make them more accessible to a broad range of users.