The work for this article was a collaboration between the US State
Department, and Syntactica.com
I thought you might enjoy this article, hot off the presses. The US
State Department's magazine asked me to contribute the article about
my office's website (which we built on eXist).
Digital History: Historian’s Web site breaks new ground
by Dr. Joseph Wicentowski
State Magazine, May 2010, pp. 16-17
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,
history.state.gov, 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.”
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
Since 1861, the Foreign Relations series has told the story of U.S.
foreign relations through the original documents officials wrote at
“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 “history.state.gov”
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.
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 data.gov 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
“Because our server stores information in XML, data.gov’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,”
The Office of the Historian welcomes visitors to history.state.gov and
feedback to the History Mailbox at [log in to unmask]
The author is a historian in the Office of the Historian.