On Monday the 20th, I went to New York to visit the Archives and Records Management Section of the United Nations. I’ll write why in a moment, but first let me try to express how surprising this experience was. After meeting with several project partners at a nearby hotel restaurant to discuss and lay plans for our upcoming work, we walked a few chilly blocks to an utterly unexceptional door. We were buzzed through and confronted by a small sign, equally unremarkable and easily overlooked from outside.
This might not seem so surprising, but after having worked in a library for years, living and breathing the importance of providing information to users, I suppose I was expecting a slightly more grand or inspiring entrance…
But it was here that I and the rest of the project team, surrounded by the historic documents of the United Nations, met with the chief of the Archives Unit, Paola Casini, to discuss what I believe may be our most important contribution to both scholarship and the international community: the digitization of the United Nations War Crimes Commission documents.
For the last few years the Boatwright Memorial Library has been collaborating with the Muse Law Library to digitize the papers of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East – better known as the Tokyo War Crimes Trial. In its Special Collections, the Law Library holds a nearly complete collection of the papers of the tribunal, which were a gift from the family of David Nelson Sutton, a 1915 Richmond College graduate who served as Associate Counsel to the Prosecution during the trial. Sutton’s duties for the prosecution included questioning witnesses and presenting evidence related to the charges associated with the “Rape of Nanking” and Imperial Japan’s illegal narcotics trade.
Library staff and University of Richmond students have been scanning, extracting text, and using an XML format called TEI to encode data and description within the documents themselves. Our goal is to produce an openly accessible and fully searchable archive of the court-produced documents that leverages the strengths of XML-based documents for the purposes of presentation and manipulation. For example, specific XML tags are required within the files to normalize personal and organizational names throughout the collection, to link entire documents or portions of documents to others, and to georeference place names. Proper XML tagging, combined with the use of predefined thesauri, will allow faceted searching and potentially revealing presentations of the resulting data.
As part of this work, the University of Richmond has become a partner of the International Criminal Court’s Legal Tools Database project, contributing PDF versions of our Tokyo Trial documents to that resource. The overarching goal of the Legal Tools Database is to provide free and open access to legal information necessary for the prosecution of war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and other crimes within the jurisdiction of the ICC. By compiling all primary legal sources related to prosecuting violations of international criminal law, developing case management applications, and providing an e-learning platform, the project will equip legal practitioners in developing nations with the tools they need to do their work. The Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunals were vital in identifying the need for a permanent international court to the young United Nations, and their records are of great value to the project.
Our meetings were productive on Monday, and outlined an ambitious path forward in our respective projects. At the University of Richmond, we will complete our local digitization of Tokyo Trial documents and work with the UN Archives to identify the UNWCC materials not present in the Law Library’s collection as priorities for digitization. Other project partners will work to digitize papers from various nations’ military courts, including those of the United Kingdom, Poland and, eventually, the United States. While the rest of the team went to lunch I stayed at the archives, reviewing several reels of microfilm to verify that these will all be uploaded to the Legal Tools Database and freely available for use by researchers, students and legal professionals alike.
To wrap this up, I must say how thankful I am that our work at the library and the University of Richmond can, in some small way, contribute to an important international project like the Legal Tools Database and, ultimately, to the greater good. Our work continues, and if you are interested in participating please don’t hesitate to contact us.