Information is Power: Librarianship and Human Rights

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Wednesday, September 26, 2007 to Tuesday, October 2, 2007
Conversation type: 
Type of tactical goal: 

Librarians and information experts hold a critical role in helping organizations research, document, collect, organize, store and use information for action. This dialogue features outstanding world experts in knowledge activism, who are knowledgeable and experienced on how information is power.


During the week of September 26 through October 2, 2007 outstanding world experts in knowledge activism - Saša Madacki (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Toni Samek (Canada) and Bert Verstappen (Switzerland) discussed with members of the New Tactics community the critical role of librarians and information experts in helping organizations research, document, collect, organize, store and use information for action. Unfortunately, Youk Chhang (Documentation Center of Cambodia, DC-Cam) was unable to join our discussion due to unexpected demands in far-flung villages related to the tribunal process where he had no internet access to participate during the featured week.

Saša Madacki, Director of the Human Rights Centre at the University of Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Prior to taking over as director, he was the Head of Information Research and Library Department at the Human Rights Centre. In 2002, Saša participated in the New Tactics in Human Rights Central and East European Regional Training Workshop and wrote a tactical notebook on library and information services for the improvement of human rights work. Saša’s New Tactics Tactical Notebook: Making Sense of the Information Wilderness: Library and Information Services for the Improvement of Human Rights Work is available as a free download. For more information about the Human Rights Centre at the University of Sarajevo see:

Toni Samek, educator and scholar at the School of Library and Information Studies, University of Alberta, Canada. For more information see: She has written An Introduction to Librarianship and Human Rights, a paper presented for Shared Dialogue and Learning: International Conference on Educating for Human Rights and Global Citizenship. Her recently released book, Librarianship and Human Rights: A 21st Century Guide, is available through CHANDOS (Oxford) Publishing ( The book provides eighteen strategies and over 100 examples of social action applied to library and information work. Plans are in process for a Spanish translation to be released in Buenos Aires in a special Latin American adaptation in 2008.

Bert Verstappen, Programme Coordinator at the Human Rights Information and Documentation Systems, International (HURIDOCS), a global capacity-building network of organisations that use documentation techniques, monitoring methods, information management systems and available technologies in the defence of human rights and the prevention of abuses. Among the many helpful resources and manuals Bert has written is the excellent, What is documentation, available at HURIDOCS website. For more information on HURIDOCS see:



Welcome to our first Monthly Featured Tactical Discussion. We are so pleased to highlight Philippe Duhamel’s interTactica blog post that beautifully summarizes our usual perceptions and biases about librarians. He also draws out key points from Saša Madacki’s tactical notebook that provide a perfect opening for pulling out some reactions for both our extraordinary resource practitioners and those participating in the discussion.

I must admit my prejudice. Those in the profession are the epitome of neutral, technical, and boring. Or so I thought.

Boy was I wrong. Blame early childhood experiences.

Forget the cold lady with the glasses who goes Shhh! behind mouldy bookcases. Get a read beyond stereotypes. Find out about a radical new breed of freedom fighters who can bolster knowledge democracy and boost your overall effectiveness.

My preconceived biases about librarians were first shaken in a New Tactics notebook entitled Making Sense of the Information Wilderness: Library and Information Services for the Improvement of Human Rights Work, by Saša Madacki, head librarian at the Human Rights Centre in Sarajevo. I discovered documentalists, information specialists, and archivists — however you want to call them — can actually be of use to us in the movement. Some even describe themselves as activists! I was blown away.

Beyond help to organize reference materials, I found in the tactical notebook many other ways librarians can assist our work, our organizations, and indeed the world. Let me share seven.

1. From wasteful ignorance to faster, better decisions. Sometimes, key decisions are postponed or never made because critical information is missing. Worse, you make a decision based on incorrect information, or facts that weren't checked properly. As a knowledge worker, a librarian can hunt decision-making facts faster, and better. Your document specialist can also identify research carried out elsewhere, to avoid unnecessary duplication. Don't waste time in ignorance. Find out early. Ask a librarian.

2. One copy makes the rounds. Your librarian can make sure there are no duplicates of costly subscriptions or materials around the office, managing resources so they are shared efficiently. This saves time and money. Hugely.

3. Go for the find, not the search. Most of us whose work depends partly on research usually spend over half of our time looking for stuff, online or otherwise. A librarian can cherry-pick for you the best reference material on a given subject. You're in a crunch to write a major project proposal? Your librarian can gather the statistical highlights, the documented evidence, the testimonies, freeing you up to do the other productive things. Like writing the actual proposal, and getting it out the door.

4. From blunders to homers. Some of your colleagues may make errors of fact or judgement that end up costing money or credibility. Or, because they don't know enough about your organization's culture, history and accomplishments, volunteers can make erroneous assertions or embarrassing statements. Your librarian can take charge of verifying facts for all internal reports, public statements and external publications. That can save the day.

5. From organizational amnesia to historical ownership. Say this big anniversary is coming up... You scramble to put together bits and pieces of your past achievements. Wow, sure looks like someone purposefully tucked away your historical photos in every imaginable places! A librarian can package your organizational memory for wider use. When a journalist or a researcher comes calling, you can be ready with your neat little folder. Your legacy is important. Make sure your contemporaries, and future generations, can access it.

6. From information overload to easy up-to-dateness. Your specialist can monitor your individual interests and keep tabs on the field for you. When a new book or interesting paper appears, you get an alert based on current files under your responsibility and your profile of interests.

7. From dusty archives to knowledge democracy. You may be spending too much time looking for information, instead of using it, and disseminating it. “Disseminating materials is the librarian’s foremost responsibility”, says Saša Madacki. Your librarian also doubles as a computer specialist. They can evaluate and manage the best possible software solutions for you. They can create databases to improve access to your internal records and key contacts, like membership, donors, and the media. They can train staff on how to use organizational databases and manage their own documents.

— Okay. Librarians are cool. Question: Now how do I get one?

Conversation Leaders

Bert Verstappen's picture
Bert Verstappen
TSamek's picture
Toni Samek
School of Library and Information Studies
Sasa Madacki's picture
Saša Madacki
Human Rights Centre at the University of Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina