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Digital history: historian's Web site breaks new ground.

The Department's Office of the Historian has launched a Web site that revolutionizes the ways Department employees and the public can learn about the history of U.S. foreign relations. The site,, allows keyword searches of the office's flagship publication, Foreign Relations of the United States, and of such other resources as the biographies of secretaries of State, an encyclopedia of key events in the history of U.S. foreign relations, a database of all principal officers and chiefs of mission reaching back to 1789 and essays on the history of U.S. relations with every country in the world. The site also offers lesson plans for teachers and essays for students on key themes and documents in U.S. foreign relations.


"It's exciting to bring the Foreign Relations of the United States, the oldest documentary publication of diplomatic history of its kind in the world, into the new millennium," said Acting Historian of the Department of State Edward Brynn. "We've taken the best traditions of documentary editions and transformed them into something arguably better than the printed original."

New Tools


The glossaries of people and terms that are printed at the beginning of every Foreign Relations volume leap to life in the new Web site, with the relevant information about people and terms conveniently appearing next to every document. The footnotes pop up, allowing readers to follow cross-references to other documents and volumes with a single click.

The site's full-text search function searches across volumes, reducing search times to seconds. For instance, by typing a word such as "dust" into the search engine, 68 documents are found, revealing a curious history of diplomats' use of the phrase, "wait until the dust settles." A search on "Middle East" and "oil" brings 5,293 hits.

Brynn said the Web site "will bring American diplomatic history into universities at home and abroad in a way heretofore unmatched in scope and convenience."


Since 1861, the Foreign Relations series has told the story of U.S. foreign relations through the original documents officials wrote at the time.

"Many Americans don't know that the United States was the first country to systematically publish its foreign policy documents," said Dr. William McAllister, the series' acting general editor. More than 450 volumes have been published, totaling tens of thousands of archival documents, and thousands more are released each year.

"Only those documents that illuminate how significant policies were formed make it into the Foreign Relations series," according to Dr. Adam Howard, one of several professional historians in the Office of the Historian. After carefully selecting these key documents from the archives, the historians painstakingly annotate them so that they are accessible by the public.

Old and New

In the Office of the Historian, the volumes of the Foreign Relations series, with their dignified gold-leaf lettering and ruby buckram covers, line the shelves. It's quite a different scene deep in the bowels of Main State, where a Web server named "" hums along, quietly doling out digits and documents to the farthest reaches of cyberspace. Tens of thousands of unique visitors access the site each month, and the server's records show usage is relatively constant throughout the day, suggesting an international audience.

The Web site arose after the Department's historians realized that their old content management system was not well suited to publishing the enormous volume of information. Seeking an alternative, they found an array of promising new technologies and open standards, particularly XML, which appeared to allow historians to annotate text and do searches and research in new ways.

"At first, it seemed too good to be true," said Dr. Amy Garrett, another of the office's historians. "We were skeptical that it would all work."

But it did, and the Web site has garnered positive reviews in publications, at conferences and from peers in other countries.

Extra Benefit

The Web site's architecture has had some unexpected benefits. When in December federal agencies were required to submit three high-value data sets to the Web site within 45 days, many agencies had to scramble to comply. But the Office of the Historian was ready, according to Mandy Chalou, a historian involved with the office's digital initiatives.

"Because our server stores information in XML,'s preferred format, we didn't have to convert or recompose our data--it was ready to go," she said.

The same platform will also generate the Foreign Relations publications in the new "ePub" format used by the new generation of e-readers. "Our eXist server has allowed us to develop features we never imagined at the outset, and the fact that it is a free, open-source product has allowed us to maximize benefits to the taxpayer and put our limited resources into high-quality content," Chalou said.

The Office of the Historian welcomes visitors to and feedback to the History Mailbox at

By Dr. Joseph Wicentowski

The author is a historian in the Office of the Historian.
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Author:Wicentowski, Joseph
Publication:State Magazine
Date:May 1, 2010
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