What’s for Breakfast?

In about an hour, we will be doing a public demonstration of our new repository infrastructure. Of course most people won’t know that, they will be looking at the Nuremberg Trial papers of Thomas J. Dodd (archives.lib.uconn.edu). What they won’t see is the underlying presentation and management Drupal/Islandora application, the Fedora repository, the storage layer, and a host of decisions about metadata schemas (MODS with uri tags for subject and names), OCR (Uncorrected, machine generated), data and content models (atomistic pages brought together in a “book” using RDF) and Drupal themes (Do you like that button there or here?).

The papers themselves represent about 12,000 pages of material (about 50% of the total–we are continuing to digitize the rest) collected by then Executive Trial Counsel Thomas J. Dodd during the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg just after WWII. There are trial briefs, depositions, documentation, and administrative memos relating to the construction and execution of the trial strategy of the U.S. prosecutors that has never before been available on line. As one of the most heavily used collections in our repository, we felt that this was an appropriate first collection for our new infrastructure. As with all digital collections, it will now be possible to access this material without having to travel to Connecticut and will open up all sorts of research possibilities for scholars of international law, WWII, the Holocaust, etc.

While all these things are very valuable and were the primary purpose for digitizing the collection, I wanted to focus this post on some unintended consequences (or opportunities) that full-text access to a body of material like this supplies. I’m a big believer in the opportunity of unintended consequences. This has never been more true in the era of digitization where documents become data that can be manipulated by  computers to uncover and connect things that would take years to do by hand, if they could be done at all.

In the course of building their case, the prosecutors collected a massive amount of information about the workings of the Nazi regime. A lot of that information is mundane, relating to supply chains (what we would today call “logistics”) and procurement, or economic output, or the movement of material and resources along transportation routes.  Without expressly meaning to, they created a picture of a wartime society that includes all sorts of information about mid-20th century Europe.

It may seem inappropriate to study the record of a global tragedy to find out what people ate for breakfast or to study the technology infrastructure of  transportation systems, but that is exactly what you can do. Digital resources create opportunities to ask research questions that could never have been asked before, and as we well know, it is not our job as archivists to decide what is an appropriate question to ask about any historical resource.