About the Author: Joseph Wicentowski serves as a Historian in the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Public Affairs.
A little known fact is that the United States was the first country to systematically publish its foreign policy documents, starting in 1861. In the years since that first volume of the Foreign Relations of the United States series was published, the Department's Office of the Historian has published over 450 books, totaling in the tens of thousands of archival documents, with thousands more released each year. One by one, other countries established their own official diplomatic document series, and in 1991, the editors of these series from around the world decided that it would be very useful to meet to share the results of their labor and discuss issues of common concern. Last week, the latest such conference -- the 10th International Conference of Editors of Diplomatic Documents -- was held in The Hague in the Netherlands, with over 25 countries in attendance.
Three of my colleagues and I served as the U.S. delegation to the conference this year, and we thoroughly enjoyed meeting our counterparts from other countries. The attendees were a fascinating group, made up of historians, archivists, and ambassadors. I learned that some countries, like ours, have historical offices or archives within their foreign ministries, while some countries delegate the task of editing official documents to independent institutions. No other country has a law like ours mandating the production and standards of the Foreign Relations series (Pub. L. 102-138, title I, Sec. 198(a), Oct. 28, 1991), but delegates from all countries were equally dedicated to the principle that releasing these documents is a valuable public service. At a time when the idea of "transparency" and "open government data" are motivating governments around the world to release records faster and in more accessible forms, offices like mine and those of my counterparts overseas can thrive, because our fundamental goal is to inform citizens about the foreign policy decisions and actions that our governments have taken.
It was an exciting conference also for the historical content and the methodological insights we shared with each other. Each conference has a historical theme selected by the host country, and this year's theme -- international development aid -- was chosen by our hosts at the Institute of Netherlands History, who recently completed a major multi-volume study on the history of Dutch development aid. My colleague, Kristin Ahlberg, presented a paper on the evolution of U.S. food policy, focusing particularly on the Johnson Administration, and her findings dovetailed well with presentations from an interdisciplinary group of scholars of foreign aid from France, India, Germany, the Netherlands, and Tanzania.
The second theme running through the conference was how best to use digital technology and the world wide web to improve how we edit and publish diplomatic documents online. We have all long recognized the huge potential of the web for making government data accessible, but there are several key challenges for historians and editors in online publishing. For example, one of our traditional tools isn't easily adaptable to the web: the humble footnote. Footnotes are a key tool for annotating primary source documents and helping the reader put them in context, but they are surprisingly difficult to make usable online. Also, the web finally allows us to distribute scanned images of the original primary source documents, but search engines aren't able to penetrate the images to search the text well. Finally, how can we both publish online and in print, and not get too bogged down by publishing in multiple formats?
Given all the concern the delegates shared about these issues, I was happy to share the solutions to each of these issues that my office has recently developed. Using newly refined standards and technologies (namely, TEI, XQuery, and native XML databases such as eXist), we can now serve up footnotes and scanned images, publish online and in print, and make it all fully searchable. Our counterparts were eager to discuss our innovations, and we were happy to share our expertise. Perhaps it is fitting that the U.S., which started the first diplomatic history documents series in the 19th century, is still plowing new ground in promoting government transparency and international cooperation into the 21st century.