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The Libraries unveils one of the largest public human rights archives

By February 27, 2024February 29th, 2024No Comments
Attendees walk through the Minnesota Human Rights Archive's inaugural exhibit, "The Global Reach of Local Activism: Minnesota’s Human Rights Stories," on Thursday, February 8, 2024, in Elmer L. Andersen Library. (Photo/Adria Carpenter)

Attendees walk through the Minnesota Human Rights Archive’s inaugural exhibit, “The Global Reach of Local Activism: Minnesota’s Human Rights Stories,” on Thursday, February 8, 2024, in Elmer L. Andersen Library. (Photo/Adria Carpenter)

The University of Minnesota now has one of the largest human rights archives at a public university, and it’s already helping researchers, educators, and human rights advocates across the globe. 

“With everything that’s happening in the world, if we can highlight aspects of the history of human rights, maybe that provides us an opportunity to learn what not to do in the future,” said Kris Kiesling, director of  the U of M’s Archives and Special Collections (ASC).  

Unlike other collections in ASC, the Minnesota Human Rights Archive (MHRA) is an umbrella archive composed of new human rights materials donated to the Libraries, as well as existing materials housed in other collections. 

This umbrella approach uses human rights as a framework to reexamine collections like the Social Welfare History Archives or the Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies. 

The MHRA takes the perspective of a researcher, rather than a curator. Researchers aren’t bound to a singular collection. They navigate through a variety of collections across different institutions and departments, and in the process, make creative connections and insights that would otherwise go unnoticed. 

“People might not necessarily think of the materials that we have as being about human rights when in fact they are,” Kiesling said. “There’s very little in ASC that doesn’t somehow connect to the Human Rights Archive.” 

From the Givens Collection of African American Literature to the Immigration History Research Center Archives, there’s a trove of materials about civil rights, LGBTQ rights, child labor, domestic violence, public health, and more. ASC archivists and curators are already investigating how their materials relate to human rights, and how their collections are positioned under the MHRA umbrella. 

Minnesota’s human rights history

Since the 1970s, the state has been a nexus for international human rights activism and scholarship. Local organizations like The Advocates for Human Rights and the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), founded in 1983 and 1985 respectively, have helped people from Cambodia to Mexico, and remain strong, persuasive voices for human rights today. 

At the University level, Professor David Weissbrodt founded the Human Rights Center (HRC) in 1988, which trains future human rights lawyers and partners with governments, nonprofits, and other institutions.

Weissbrodt, a co-founder of The Advocates and CVT, helped establish the U of M Human Rights Library in 1995, a free web-based library featuring human rights documents, treaties, and reports, one of the largest of its kind. 

The creation of the Human Rights Library, today a well-known fixture in the human rights advocacy and scholarship community, changed the nature of the Libraries’ archives by cementing a strong focus for collecting human rights materials. 

The archive is a natural expansion of that vision, and it’s been the impetus to bring in new materials documenting the history of human rights in Minnesota. 

This panel discussion on Feb. 8, 2024 featured Loretta Federick, former Senior Legal and policy Advisor for the Battered Women’s Justice Project; Emily Hutchinson, Vice President for Global Programs at the Center for Victims of Torture; Angela Rose Myers, board chair of the Minnesota Freedom Fund Action; and Barb Frey, Director Emeritus, Human Rights Program at the University of Minnesota.

Broadcasting our history to future generations

Planning for MHRA began around eight years ago when Barbara Frey — the former director of the U of M Human Rights Program and a founder and previous director of the advocates for human rights — began contacting The Advocates, CVT, and other organizations across the state. 

Kiesling — alongside University Archivist Erik Moore and Social Welfare History Archivist Linnea Anderson — met with Frey, Weissbrodt, and Meyer Weinshel, former collections and outreach lead for UMN’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, to build the MHRA. 

The team transferred some materials from HRC in 2016, and later on, Patrick Finnegan, former assistant director of HRC and administrative associate for The Advocates, surveyed and listed Weissbrodt’s personal papers and research materials. 

“This project is a great example of how people who are doing research, or people who want to donate records, or people who work with us to form an archive, can reframe the way that we look at existing collections,” Anderson said. 

In addition to materials from HRC and Weissbrodt, the archive is gaining records from The Advocates and Marsha Freeman — a professor in the U of M Law School and director of International Women’s Rights Action Watch — and has plans to acquire the records of Global Rights for Women, and human rights activists like Charlie Rounds and Mark Ritchie.

Pooling new and existing materials under the human rights umbrella not only helps researchers by condensing the initial hunt-and-gather phase of their projects, but it also helps potential donors. It’s easier for them to articulate their goals for their material, Moore explained, and it’s easier to connect their work to the broad framework of human rights, than a more granular collection like the University Archives. 

“We are seeking to better describe these materials, to create better context for them and relationships between them, with the goal and the idea of aiding in discovery and use and further development,” Moore said. 

In the future, the team is hoping to make these resources available for K through 12 educators across Minnesota, to help students learn about the history of human rights in their state and to inspire them to continue that work. 

“For many communities, both within Minnesota and elsewhere, their stories are intertwined with human rights struggles,” Moore said. “And so the collections are important because it’s the histories of communities and individuals that may otherwise not be available or discoverable. 

Kathryn Sikkink was the keynote speaker at the Global Reach of Local Activism event on Feb. 8, 2024 at the University of Minnesota.

‘The Global Reach of Local Activism’ exhibit

To coincide with the MHRA’s founding, the Libraries is hosting a new exhibit, “The Global Reach of Local Activism,” which shares the triumphs, setbacks, and ongoing challenges facing human rights activists in Minnesota. 

The exhibit, designed by Darren Terpstra, recounts the history of the Center for Victims of Torture and their mission to provide rehabilitative care to survivors and bring an end to torture worldwide; of the Minnesota Coalition on Battered Women (today rebranded as Violence Free Minnesota), which seeks to end gender-based violence; of the Roy Wilkins Center for Human Relations and Social Justice to address racial disparities, inequities, and injustice; and many more movements in the state. 

“The Global Reach of Local Activism” is on display at Elmer L. Andersen Library’s second floor gallery, open during regular library hours (9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, and Friday; and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday), and will run through June 7. 

The MHRA is seeking to connect with people and organizations involved in human rights work in Minnesota. People who are interested in learning more about the archives or who have potential collections can contact Kris Kiesling ( 

Adria Carpenter

Author Adria Carpenter

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