History can be as fragile as the paper it’s often written on. That’s why a UI alumna is on a mission to save the world's memories

PHOTO: MISTY KEASLER, commissioned by harper’s magazine


Trudy Huskamp Peterson slogs through a warehouse ripe with the smells of damp and decay. Rain pours through a broken skylight onto large stacks of yellowed documents strewn across the cement floor. As Peterson shuffles through a file of index cards coated with bird feces and feathers, she senses a pair of eyes locked on her. A police officer watches her every move.

In this dilapidated building in Guatemala City where bats dive from the ceiling and mold grows on papers, Peterson*, 72MA, 75PhD, is on a mission. She’s helping Guatemalans save critical police records that could help reveal the horrific truth of what happened to more than 200,000 people lost or killed during the country’s long and bloody civil war.

Abductions. Rape. Torture. Murder. Evidence of such horrendous crimes committed by the former regime’s brutal police lurk within these neglected, abandoned papers. If the Guatemalans can save them, they can help bring closure to the families of victims—and ensure that such atrocities are properly remembered and avoided in the future.

PHOTO COURTESY: TRUDY HUSKAMP PETERSON

Once the acting archivist of the United States, Peterson now works as a consultant, traveling the world from Sierra Leone to the former Soviet Union. She teaches clients the minutiae of archives management, from how to preserve and organize documents to resolving legal issues about access and ownership. More importantly, she helps them use these skills to protect and strengthen human rights.

“When I tell people I’m an archivist, they usually start talking about the Civil War and genealogy,” she says. “They have an image of a person in a dusty, dark corner sorting papers.”

In fact, archivists select, organize, preserve, and make accessible a broad range of both old and new materials—everything from letters and photographs to music and electronic records. Ultimately, these aren’t simply pieces of paper or computer megabytes; they are people’s lives, nation’s histories.

While most archivists preside over a particular collection in one location, Peterson’s work is much more diverse, often taking her to countries embroiled in the aftermath of war or violence. When news broke in 2005 of the discovery of the regime’s archives in Guatemala, Peterson was the first international archivist invited to advise the country on how to protect this incredible resource. Over the next three years, she visited regularly to teach volunteers how to preserve the records and make them available to prosecutors and other interested parties.

More recently, an upsurge in violence by political protesters and terrorists organizations forced Peterson to cancel a trip to counsel record-keepers in Beirut, Lebanon. She jokes that only the lack of American media reporting on the unrest in Sierra Leone keeps her husband, Gary*, 72JD, from worrying while she’s on business trips to that country.

When she strides through the halls of power in Washington, D.C., or at the United Nations headquarters, Peterson looks like any other high-level executive: polished, poised, and impeccably dressed in crisp, sophisticated suits she makes herself. Out in the field, though, she reverts to a hands-on archivist who’s not afraid to get her hands dirty. She eagerly rolls up her sleeves and peels on cotton gloves before diving into remnants of a country’s life. A writer who profiled her for Harper’s Magazine in 2007 likened Peterson’s intense examination of records to “seeing someone decipher ancient runes.”

According to UI history professor Linda Kerber, “Trudy is one of the most remarkable practitioners of public history today. Creatively linking the skills of the archivist to the strengthening of human rights, she regularly places herself at real risk to safeguard the world’s memories of itself.”

Although she downplays the potential danger, saying that she “tries to be very careful,” Peterson believes her work is worth such risks. Records are remarkably fragile, threatened by natural disasters, corrupt authorities, and neglect. Yet, they have the power to validate history, uphold human rights, and protect democracy.

PHOTO: MISTY KEASLER, commissioned by harper’s magazine

Tyrants and evil-doers often face trial by paper, perhaps most memorably during the Nuremberg Trials following World War II. Knowing that the most incriminating evidence against Nazi leaders were their own words, prosecutors used more than 3,000 tons of German records, including photographs and films that showed Jewish civilians being publicly humiliated, deported, abused at concentration camps, and murdered. The Nazis kept meticulous records to show they were carrying out their superiors’ orders, never believing that they’d be seen by anyone outside their organization.

In today’s troubled times, records can help post-war countries determine who will lead their governments in a new direction. As a safeguard against future atrocities following Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, Iraqis relied on official records to identify and remove many Ba’ath Party members from power.

Documents such as those Peterson preserved in Guatemala can also provide closure for families whose loved ones’ deaths had been previously shrouded in mystery. One woman discovered a file that revealed the fate of her partner, who was chased down in his truck, dragged away, and shot to death. His face had faded from her memory until she saw his photograph in a police record.

“To read those pages revived my terror, it revived my rage, it revived my feeling of impotence,” the woman told Harper’s. “In that moment I felt a nagging feeling that I should act—because I hadn’t had the ability to do anything or talk to anyone about it.” The experience prompted her to join a human rights organization.

Records of wrongs can also support a person’s rights to reparations. United States government files of Japanese-American prison camps during World War II and atomic bomb testing on the Marshall Islands in the 1940s and ’50s eventually helped compensate victims and their families. “We’re shaped not only by the good, but also the bad,” says Peterson. “If we’re not willing to face what our country did in the past, then we can’t understand who we are today and learn from our mistakes.”

Not least, words have the power to help heal a society from its tragedies. Peterson literally wrote the book (Final Acts: A Guide to Preserving the Records of Truth Commissions) on managing records to help wounded nations face the harsh truth of their past so they can move forward into the future. Her clients include the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda that seeks justice after the 1994 genocide of more than 800,000 people; the Special Court for Sierra Leone that tries war and humanitarian crimes committed during the country’s 1991-2002 civil war; and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Honduras that strives for peace after a 2009 coup d’état.


“We’re shaped not only by the good, but also the bad. If we’re not willing to face what our country did in the past, then we can’t understand who we are today and learn from our mistakes.”

Peterson also provided expert advice to South Africa’s famed post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission. At that time, many South Africans questioned the need to dig up the painful past; they wanted just to turn the page and start over. In his memoirs of the commission’s work, deputy chairman Alex Boraine offered a powerful rebuttal. “We accepted that it was necessary to turn the page of history,” he said, “but first, we needed to read that page.”

The UI recently recognized Peterson for her own history of championing human rights. At a formal reception in the Old Capitol, she stood before family, friends, and former professors to accept the university’s second annual International Impact Award. Downing Thomas, associate provost and dean of International Programs, applauded her “unflagging commitment, even in the face of opposition and intimidation, to the protection and safe-keeping of at-risk documents in order that history may be preserved.”

PHOTO: MISTY KEASLER, commissioned by harper’s magazine

Although based in D.C., Peterson returns annually to her alma mater to conduct a series of pro-bono workshops for UI students and faculty in the history, American studies, and library science departments. In addition, she provides professional and financial support to the UI’s Iowa Women’s Archives. Staff there regularly consult her Archives and Manuscripts Law, which Society of American Archivists executive director Nancy Beaumont calls “a pioneering publication that introduced an entire generation of archivists to the legal and ethical implications inherent in their work.”

Though published in 1985, many of the book’s guiding principles remain relevant. In addition, Peterson continues to lead her profession, serving as chair of the International Council of Archives’ human rights working group, as well as another group that’s writing international principles of access to archives.

A farm girl from Fenton, Iowa, Peterson never expected to make such a global impact. After graduating in 1967 with history and English bachelor degrees from Iowa State, she thought she’d become a lawyer. A semester at Penn Law School convinced her otherwise. Back in Iowa, she heard about a job researching captions for exhibits at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum and Library in West Branch. Peterson took the position and was hooked.

“If you’re interested in the question of how we got to be where we are,” she says, “then there couldn’t be anything more fascinating than dealing with the raw materials of how our society was shaped.”

After graduating from the UI with master’s and doctorate degrees in history, Peterson worked her way up from an entry-level archivist position to the top of the United States National Archives and Records Administration. Deputy archivist at the end of the George H.W. Bush administration, she became acting archivist—the first woman ever to hold that title—for two years until President Clinton chose a permanent appointee in 1995. Peterson oversaw thousands of employees at the archives’ headquarters in D.C. and at more than 30 regional branches (including the Hoover library). She strongly supported the retention of electronic records, provided access to newly declassified papers, and cared for the federal government’s most precious documents, including the original Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

PHOTO: NATIONAL ARCHIVES

Through her work at the National Archives, Peterson also became a commissioner on the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs. At the end of the Cold War, the two countries agreed to grant each other access to previously closed records that revealed the fate of American and Russian soldiers lost during World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and the conflict in Afghanistan. Peterson traveled throughout the former Soviet Union, inviting people to share what they knew about U.S. POWs.

In Moscow, Peterson became one of few Americans ever to see the basement of a Russian prison that stored KGB files. She also saw firsthand the difference that an archivist’s work can make in people’s lives. A former Soviet sailor gave a class ring he had taken in 1952 from the body of an American Air Force pilot to the commission team, who returned the memento to the U.S. soldier’s grateful widow.

In Armenia, where an American spy plane was shot down by Soviets in 1958, commission staff read Soviet accounts of the crash and viewed old photos of the wreckage. Their work led to the recovery of a U.S. soldier’s dog tag and to the installation at the crash site of a memorial that honored the 17 Americans who died. “For some people, there’s no closure. Without a body, they’re not satisfied,” Peterson says. “But if we can’t do that, we can recover documents about what happened—and that’s the next best thing.”

A few years later, as director of archives and record management for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Peterson oversaw efforts to recover and protect the records on millions of refugees from Rwanda, Congo, the Balkans, Cambodia, and Vietnam. These archives tracked the stories of people whose lives had been torn apart by violence—and then put back together by charitable organizations and governments that provided medical care, food, shelter, sanitation, and refuge. Even an experienced archivist like Peterson was shaken by records that chronicled the harsh realities of everyday life for the refugees. As she explains, “The archives were an immense document of the world’s woes.”

Of all her remarkable experiences, Peterson remains most proud of her service to the people of Guatemala. With help from donors in Sweden and Switzerland, the Guatemalans repaired the skylight and screened windows to keep birds, bats, and inclement weather from further harming the archives. A team of volunteers trained by Peterson recovered thousands of documents eventually used to prosecute and convict war criminals, including two police officers involved in the disappearance of a labor leader.

Ironically, other police officers had stood by idly and merely watched Peterson as she helped Guatemalans dig through those filthy records to uncover the truth about their past.

“They never understood what I was doing or the power of the archives,” she says. “They do now.”