Historians Meet at The Hague To Discuss Transparency and Technology

October 26, 2009
The Hague, Near Parliament Square

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It was an exciting conference also for the historical content and the methodological insights we shared with each other.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.



Texas, USA
October 27, 2009

David in Texas writes:

Dear Madame Secretary, your continued effort to repair and broaden U.S. foreign policy and interaction with our international colleagues is most appreciated. By your personal involvement, you are telling other countries that we are engaged and committed. I admire your work.

California, USA
October 27, 2009

Veyry in California writes:

Happy Birthday Hillary!

Along with thousand of fans want to wish you a HAPPY BIRTHDAY! We're very proud of you. All your "Hillary's fans website" are celebrating this day. WAY TO GO GIRL! we love you!

New York, USA
October 27, 2009

Ron in New York writes:

Transparent Money Flows:

We are getting close to a transparent global economic map. This will elucidate trillions in stolen assets, which can be traced by new technologies (Cybertracking) and repatriated for development and security purposes. Think of the possiblility of sharing information which can help finance the MDG's, retire the UN debt, or re-calibrate the Global Economy. The tools for sharing Diplomatic History can be used to shape a new Economic Future.

Maryland, USA
October 27, 2009

Patrick in Maryland writes:

Hello, My :) Friend & States Department Members :)

I am all for transparency but internation Cooperation is more important . All though, the idea of less can some times mean more information,it is a great advancement. I hope this freedom of information or transparency is the start of a more open Partnership between our Nations.


District Of Columbia, USA
October 27, 2009

Dan in Washington, DC writes:

Dr. Wicentowski - thanks much for your very interesting post about the U.S. Department of State's outstanding record and continued efforts at publishing American diplomatic history. It is indeed appropriate and encouraging that our nation continues to lead the way in publishing such material, for as has been frequently observed, "an informed citizenry is essential to democracy."

I work at the Department of State and have found the Historical Volumes published by State to be most helpful in carrying out my duties. Indeed, I have found that knowing the historical facts about American foreign policy also is fundamental to successfully framing our nation's diplomatic future.

In this regard, I would also appreciate your views on President Obama's recent call for an "unprecedented level of openness" in our American Government. Clearly, the efforts you discuss to publish more information on the web are a important step in this direction.

However, in my opinion only, I believe much more could be done to provide access to Department of State information, and done more quickly. For example, I understand that the Department's Historian's office is currently working on its foreign affairs volume publications for the Nixon / Ford Administrations. Obviously these scholarly history efforts take a great deal of effort, analysis and time to produce and publish.

However, it seems unfortunate that the Department can't or doesn't do more to publish -- outside of the foreign affairs series -- appropriate, important State Department official documents more quickly, if not instantaneously, using today's powerful, global information sharing technologies.

There are seemingly hundreds of useful State Department and U.S. diplomatic documents that U.S. citizens and others around the world would be interested in and could make use of well before waiting for these documents to be incorporated into and released via the official foreign affairs series.

In this regard, as Dr. David Weinberger observed in his 2007 book "Everything is Miscellaneous": ... "Authorities have long filtered and organized information for us, protecting us from what isn't worth our time and helping us find what we need to give our beliefs a sturdy foundation. But with the miscellaneous, it's all available to us, unfiltered."

By "the miscellaneous," Weinberger is referring to the ability to make information widely and quickly available to millions of potentially interested persons in its original forms, via the web and via the web's advanced search capabilities. Then these multitudes of persons accessing this information could work with it and learn from it in a timely fashion and on their own. Does the State Department have any initiatives to make more of its original diplomatic documents and other information available in such a fashion?

Thanks again for your informative post and for all your office does to promote an informed and engaged citizenry.


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