Preserving the Past and Increasing Access through Digitization

  • FRUS at the UWDCC: Screen shot of the Web site.
  • You know a project is important when it is the first entry in a database. The digital project Foreign Relations of the United States, informally known as FRUS, was the University of Wisconsin Digital Collection Center’s (UWDCC) first large-scale text digitization project. Since its beginning, the digital FRUS project has provided expanded access to important primary source material and has been a model of collaboration among libraries and a Federal agency.

    The Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series marked its sesquicentennial in 2011, having been established during President Lincoln's administration in 1861. FRUS is the official documentary historical record of major U.S. foreign policy decisions and significant diplomatic activity, and to this day, it is an invaluable source for scholars, students, and policymakers. The series is now published by the State Department’s Office of the Historian, which began distributing FRUS volumes online through the DOSFAN service at the University of Illinois-Chicago in 1994. In 1998, once the State Department had established its own Web site, new FRUS volumes were published there at the same time as they were published in print.

    As the State Department was putting online volumes as they were released in print, others were thinking about digitizing the print volumes. The Committee on Institutional Cooperation’s (CIC’s) Heads of Government Publications Group identified older volumes of FRUS as a high-priority candidate for digitization. In 1999, a year before the official founding of the UWDCC, Ken Frazier, then director of the University of Wisconsin (UW) – Madison Libraries, proposed that UW digitize the series. Frazier strongly believes in the public’s right to no-fee access to information published by the Government, and he recognized that in the near future, many people would expect “access” to mean “electronic access.” He also realized that FRUS’s size and multi-volume and multi-section structure would make FRUS an interesting test case for the digitizing of a large-scale text publication. Digitizing FRUS fit well with the mission of the UWDCC; UWDCC works collaboratively with UW System faculty, staff, and librarians to create and provide access to digital resources that support the teaching and research needs of the UW community, uniquely document the university and State of Wisconsin, and provide access to rare or fragile items of broad research value.

    Initially the UW-Madison turned to CIC libraries for duplicate FRUS volumes that we could use for high-speed, high-volume sheet-fed scanning. The University of Chicago Libraries donated over 80 of the 300+ volumes we scanned; Indiana University and Michigan State University also provided volumes. Eventually, we cast our net wider and asked for duplicates from the national Government documents community and scoured discard lists. Additional volumes came from over a dozen libraries, from public libraries to private and public colleges and universities. From the beginning, the plan was to digitize volumes that the State Department had NOT published in electronic form; hence, the collection ends with the volumes covering the Eisenhower administration.

    It took nearly three years for the first phase of the project to be made public in January 2002. The project was largely completed in 2006, with stray donated volumes added up until 2009. At this time, FRUS contains 375 volumes and over 380,000 page images, making it perhaps the largest digital text project completed by the UW Digital Collections.

    Its own collection, the Foreign Relations of the United States, can be found on the UW Digital Collections home page collection list, or users can do a quick keyword search to get to the collections home page. Once on the FRUS page, patrons can access the volumes in a number of ways. Browsing the collection allows researchers to view a complete list of the volumes, arranged chronologically. Searching the full text allows researchers to type in keywords, such as names and places, in order to find results over all volumes. Users can also explore specific volumes in-depth by performing keyword searches within a volume or by simply clicking on any section listed in the clickable table of contents. Once in a volume, researchers can page forward and back or jump ahead by section. The UW Digital Collections is also adding PDFs at the section, or chapter, level in order to allow users to more easily download or print sections.

    FRUS remains one of the most popular collections in the digital collections. Last fiscal year, FRUS was visited 525,520 times, and it is consistently one of the greatest generators of patron feedback. The UWDCC receives weekly email from patrons, ranging from offers of more volumes, compliments, and requests for research help. The UWDCC also relies on patron feedback to point out errors such as missing pages and to request additional PDFs to sections.

    We have received FRUS-related reference questions from as far away as Venezuela, the Netherlands, and South Africa. One person from Italy asked if the volumes existed in Italian.(Unfortunately, we can only do so much in the name of accessibility.) Genealogists have found mentions of ancestors’ names using the search feature. When answering reference questions about FRUS, we’ve also taken the opportunity to point people to the print volumes at Federal depository libraries in a patron’s region and to other complementary print materials, such as the Department of State’s Bulletin. FRUS-related reference questions have given us numerous opportunities to introduce digital FRUS users to archives; often, by the time a digital FRUS user emails us a question, he or she has exhausted published materials (whether he or she knows it or not).

    The digital version of FRUS is used in enough college and university courses that the 2010 annual meeting of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHARF) featured a panel on Using Digitized Documents in Teaching: The University of Wisconsin’s Foreign Relations of the United States Series.” The panel and the resulting set of articles published in SHARF’s newsletter, Passport, in April 2011, featured reports from faculty and graduate students from the University of Western Ontario, the University of Colorado-Boulder, the University of Vermont, and U.S. Naval Academy. 

    With a couple of exceptions, the UW-Madison has scanned all the pre-1960 FRUS volumes. (We realize there are some fiche-only supplements from before 1960, and we continue to evaluate the feasibility of digitizing these.) Now, the State Department has stepped in to improve the existing digital products the UW-Madison produced. This particular partnership began in 2009, after the State Department had converted their post-1960 FRUS electronic volumes to a higher-quality format. Since then, the State Department has begun giving the UW-Madison’s already high-quality archival scans the same treatment. The Department has taken approximately 60 volumes from the UW-Madison’s project and sent them to contractors who have double-keyed the text to achieve a much higher rate of accuracy than OCR provides. This new text has been sent back to the UWDCC to replace its original OCR-derived text. The State Department also tags all of the structural features (such as chapters, pages, headings, footnotes, and indexes) of the volumes, as well as semantic features (such as cross references, glossary terms, people who figured significantly in each volume, and dates of documents), increasing the potential for more specialized searches among other features. More volumes are in the pipeline.

    But wait!  There’s even more to this story of ever-expanding access to FRUS! In March of 2012, the Office of the Historian announced a new project, the "FRUS E-book Initiative," in which it will release FRUS volumes in e-book formats readable on popular electronic devices. For more information and downloads of the "public beta" versions of five e-book volumes, see the FRUS E-Book Initiative homepage. As the initiative moves forward, the volumes from Madison will also be made available as e-books. 

    So now when you notice the passenger on the bus or plane next to you reading FRUS on their e-book reader, you can fill them in with the history of how that e-book came to be!

     The authors would like to give thanks to the following individuals for their assistance in the writing of this article: Peter C. Gorman, Head, University of Wisconsin Digital Collections Center; Joseph C. Wicentowski, Ph.D., Historian, U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, Policy Studies Division, Office of the Historian

    And special thanks to Richard Hume Werking, (now retired) Professor of History and Library Director at the U.S. Naval Academy, and member of the Depository Library Council 1995-97, who has been a long-time champion of the UWDCC digital FRUS project.

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