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University News

U. to help digitize diplomatic records

Brown will partner with the U.S. and Brazil to digitize documents pertaining to diplomacy

By
Contributing Writer
Friday, September 20, 2013

The University has launched a partnership with the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration and the Brazilian National Archives to digitize a trove of documents on diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Memos and telegrams from U.S. Department of State files pertaining to Brazil’s politically unstable period of the 1960s, 70s and 80s will be uploaded to the University library website as part of the initiative, entitled “Opening the Archives.”

“It’s a part of a democratization of making available this important material about US-Brazil relations at a crucial time in the history of the relations between the two counties,” said Professor of History and Brazilian Studies James Green, who spearheaded the partnership.

“This is the first time that any university in the United States has done this kind of project,” said Green, adding that Brown’s partnership is a “pilot project” that could serve as a model for future research collaborations between universities and foreign countries. “We are pioneers,” he said.

Green said the partnership originally sprang from his idea for a summer project to make the archives more accessible for scholars of both countries. After speaking to a colleague at Maringa University in Brazil, who was working on a similar project, Green combined his efforts with his colleague to raise enough grant funding from both institutions to take 10 Brown students and two students from Brazilian universities to work on the project this past summer at NARA’s offices in College Park, Md. and Washington.

Brown student participants had previously taken classes with Green and went through an open application process to join the project, he said.

Students spent the summer scanning and digitally indexing the previously all-paper documents housed at NARA. Once fully organized, the documents that were processed this summer will be accessible on the University library website. The rest of the period archives remain undigitized, but Green said he is working on fundraising efforts to allow the project to continue next summer.

“The hardest part was just the sheer volume of work,” said Adam Waters ’15, who worked closely with Green to organize the project this summer. “We estimate that we scanned around 10,000 documents this summer,” Waters said.

“We were sort of overwhelmed when we first got there by the sheer amount of material,” said Emma Wohl ’14.5, a former Herald arts and culture editor, who spent the summer in Washington. “We were caught in a sort of microcosmic world and caught in a sort of huge process that I’m not even sure we understood when we were there, our role in the international cataloguing of history and the past.”

Support for “Opening the Archives” was widespread among the project’s different partners, Green said. “The National Archive in Brazil was excited this was happening because they want this kind of documentation to be available,” he said, adding that U.S. officials also expressed enthusiasm because they seek to both preserve these archives and expand access to the documents.

“All of this material, every time a researcher asks to look at it and touches it and folds it, it destroys the paper in some way,” Green said. “They are excited that we’re digitizing this material.”

Students also conducted individual research projects related to human rights violations during Brazil’s military dictatorship of 1964 to 1985, Green said. He added that participants in the project also collaborated with Brazil’s National Truth Commission, which was established by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to investigate human rights violations in this era. The commission plans on using the documents scanned by students this summer in its investigations of individuals who worked with the Brazilian military regime, Green said.

Though Green said the digitization process helped make many documents from this era more accessible, he noted that much of the archived material from the military dictatorship era remains classified. The National Truth Commission has asked the Obama administration to declassify other relevant documents, he added.

Green said increased transparency about U.S.-Brazil relations is particularly important for Brazilians.

“When it’s launched, it will be on the front page of every paper in Brazil,” he said, adding that many Brazilians want to learn about the full extent of U.S. participation in the Brazilian military’s 1964 coup.

The website with the digitized documents — currently under construction by University library staffers — will be launched in April, Green said.

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