Norwegian version

Public defence: Natalia Bermúdez Qvortrup

Natalia Bermúdez Qvortrup will defend her thesis for the PhD program in Library and information science with "In search of the disappeared: The information practices of disappeared persons in Colombia."

Trial lecture

The trial lecture lasts from 10:00-10:45.
Title:  The role of state archives and official information in documenting human rights violations and transitional justice

Public defence

The candidate will defend her thesis at 12:00. 


Head of the public defence

Vice-Dean Nathalie Hyde-Clarke, Faculty of Social Sciences, Oslo Metropolitan University.


  • Summary

    Enforced disappearance is the elimination or concealment of bodies and information about the whereabouts of a person that has been illegally detained by a powerful actor. Most of the perpetrators of enforced disappearance are nation-states; yet, problematically, they are also responsible for establishing justice. The search for the disappeared is mainly a search for information about what happened to a person. Those who search are mainly the relatives of the disappeared, often with the help of NGOs. Concerns of, what information is available, and how to record, organize, protect, and preserve it for posterity, are central to the field of enforced disappearances, both for those who search and for scholars. The information sought is to achieve the social, political, and legal aim of accountability. 

    To help respond to these concerns, this project studies the overall information-seeking process of these families and what other practices are developed throughout the families’ search to help them deal with the obstacles that arise. Using a practice-based approach, document analysis, and interviews of family members (five individuals, of which four became case-studies) and four NGOs who assist the families in their search, the aim is to reveal existing information practices at the grassroots level and their consequences; what they mean not only for the individual families but for the wider society. The study is contained within the location of Colombia as a useful example of the current practice of enforced disappearance occurring under democratic rule, yet characteristic to Latin American nation-states for decades.

    This study is organized around the production of three research articles. The first article looks in depth at the personal collections that families are creating with the help of NGOs and family organisations, to understand how and why they are created, who the creators are and what these collections mean for society. The aim is to begin the process of conceptualising these collections and include them in the wider concept of human rights archives. The second article looks at the trajectory of the seeking process including some of the complexity of the socio-cultural barriers the families face that have led them to gather and create records. The third article focuses on one case study which highlights the process that has led to the creation of a personal archive, and how it is being used for purposes of accountability and memorialisation. The last article is, in turn, a concrete example of the conceptualisation made in the first article: an example of an archive of the disappeared.

    The capstone paper adds a more extensive and comprehensive discussion of the findings, explaining how the families carry the burden of proving the crime happened in order to counter the denial of the state and their refusal to investigate. Hence, they carry the burden of finding information and documenting the disappearance to assist formal investigation processes. I show how their records have indeed been used and absorbed by NGOs and transitional justice mechanisms due to the informational values they carry. I also show how families learn to share their knowledge within their communities, sharing their stories but also their methods. 

    The study’s main contribution is to the field of archival studies in the conceptualisation and highlighting of an existing documentation practice, the creation of personal collections I have named archives of the disappeared. By conceptualising these collections, I establish their place under the umbrella term of human rights archives and demonstrate how they contribute to building social accountability. 

    For information studies, the research implies looking at concepts such as information needs, seeking, barriers, and use in new contexts (armed conflict, mass violations) that can help strengthen these concepts by testing them in new ways. The study has taken concepts from two neighbouring disciplines (information studies and archival studies) and combined them to produce something new; an understanding that, in contexts of mass violations and informal systems, accountability is bound up with information-seeking and use, something which needs to be more widely researched. One material output of this is the human rights documentation emerging from the grassroots level, conceptualised as records and archives.

    The practical contributions are that it highlights the work of informal recordkeepers and the role of recordkeeping training in NGO work which could benefit from more attention and support from archival scholars and practitioners. It also demonstrates the potential of non-institutional recordkeeping as a method for building social accountability. For human rights practice, it contributes to acknowledging where foundational human rights documentation comes from. It reveals how the families of the forcefully disappeared play a critical, yet rather unrecognized role at the front line of recordkeeping and knowledge creation.