Angelika Menne-Haritz: Cross-border Discoveries in the Archives Portal Europe

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The Archives Portal Europe allows us to make new discoveries without knowing what the end result will be. Users often are surprised about what they find out. Their researches need a lot of work, new ideas and imagination. The following article describes three examples of cross-border researches. They concern aspects of European history that involved several countries in Europe. Therefore, there should be material on them in more than one archival institution. Even if the portal is only at the beginning of bringing this information together, the advantages of cross-border researches are already visible.

This paper was presented by Angelika Menne-Haritz, APEx Scientific Coordinator, at the 29th EBNA-Meeting, Athens, June 5th 2014.



Why speak about cross-border discoveries?

Borders often are only seen as separation lines. To overcome separation, it seems to be necessary to tear down the borders. However in the digital world, it is possible to make use of the positive effects of borders without separation. They can be used as carriers of information and as tools for comparison and learning. For users of archives, borders bear a lot of information capacities. They allow one to compare, to find out differences or common features, to describe diversity and to typecast what can be observed. And this is explicitly supported by the Archives Portal Europe.

The Archives Portal Europe allows us to make new discoveries without knowing what the end result will be. Users often are surprised about what they find out. Their researches need a lot of work, new ideas and imagination. New findings need interpretation, assumptions and testing with other sources. However, everybody who does that work feels rewarded by being the first to know something new.

In the following article, I will describe three examples of cross-border researches. They concern aspects of European history that involved several countries in Europe. Therefore, there should be material on them in more than one archival institution. Even if we consider that we are only at the beginning of bringing this information together, the advantages of cross-border researches are already visible.

European integration should have left traces in the archives since its beginnings. So we will see what we find searching for the Marshall Plan, the European Recovery Program and the Schuman Plan. The 30 Years War was one of the great supranational disasters at least in the centre of Europe. It had long lasting effects on politics and on the populations involved. On the other hand, the Treaty of Westphalia which ended the war, was the first to explicitly value amnesia and oblivion as a means of creating and preserving peace. There might also be some files from these deliberations described in the portal. Finally, some results of a search with the term "democracy" might be able to show what can be learned from archival descriptions, concerning also the use of languages. This tour de force is intended to make people curious. It might give a flavour of the potential of the mighty tool created within the Archives Portal Europe.


European Integration

The Marshall Plan as an American plan for economic help to Europe was a way to see the continent as a whole from the outside. Many countries were involved and organised the distribution of the help. A search for this term with a restriction on the years 1945 to 1960 shows a great quantity of results. This term is found in 137 file descriptions from six countries.

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Image 1: Screenshot from the Archives Portal Europe search for Marshall Plan

There are results for example from France, showing a personal papers collection of the later Minister President George Bidault. There are other files from the General Secretariat of the Government, from the Minister of Industry and from an interministerial committee. From the Netherlands we see a collection of printed documents. All the provenances of the results show many different agencies in many countries involved in organising the Marshall Plan aid. And this is only found in the descriptions that are already integrated into the portal. There might be a lot more in the different archival institutions.

The next term might be ERP, the abbreviation for the European Recovery Plan which was the official name of the Marshall Plan. Here further records are found from Italy (coming from two regional administrations and further down from central ministries), from Ireland with minutes of a specialised committee and from Sweden as part of a collection of agreements and conventions.

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Image 2: Screenshot from the Archives Portal Europe search for ERP

Finally, a search for the Schuman Plan may show more. It was based on the Marshall Plan and initiated closer cooperation inside Europe. The search for this term shows results that let us see that it opened the way for the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community – the predecessor of the EU – with France, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and West Germany as founder members. Robert Schuman – after whom the Plan got its name – was at that time the French Minister of Foreign Affairs. A search for his full name would lead to commemoration activities for the person in the later years, to the drafts of stamps or to events, but not to these files.

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Image 3: Screenshot from the Archives Portal Europe search for Schuman Plan

This list is also an example of a specific way to use multilinguality in the portal. It allows us to learn and get accustomed to terms in other languages by doing research. It shows the Dutch expression side by side with the French one. And the east-west confrontation in Europe is also present. The Federal Archives of Germany has provided descriptions for files from the Chancellery in the Federal Republic as well as from the FDGB, the East German workers union.


The Treaties of Westphalia

For a full text search on these treaties in which many European states were involved and which were called after the two cities – Münster and Osnabrück – where the deliberations took place, the term Osnabrück in the years 1640–1648 might be another example, since the treaty itself was called this only when it was finished, however many deliberations took place in this city. This time the context view can be used to show to which holdings the results belong. For each country, a tree can be opened from the top down to the descriptions on the file level with the headers of the groups inside the arrangement scheme of the finding aid. It is obvious at once that the four files from Sweden found with this search belong to the same group in one finding aid. It is a collection with treaties including this peace treaty and other texts. They belong to a group containing papers from diplomatic contacts with Germany in the holdings of the Swedish National Archives, while another file was found in the holdings of the military archives.

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Image 4: Screenshot from the Archives Portal Europe search for Osnabrück, results in context view

In the same context view further down in the list, there is also one file from the Estonian National Archives. It is part of a collection with letters written in German by the Swedish envoy to the peace deliberations, sent to the Livlandish Governor at that time. The Estonian archivists have described these materials in the language that was used to write them and that had been spoken in parts of their country at that time.

By switching from the context view to the list view which can be done anytime, another arrangement of the results is shown. Here again are three of the same Swedish files and in between, the Estonian collection of letters. While in the context view it is clear that each Swedish title belongs to a collection of treaties with other countries, the attention in the list view lies more on the single units. With the help of the filter on the left, the results can be restricted to those coming from selected countries. The context view gives more the impression of an overview while the list lets you find precisely what you are looking for and gives more direct information on each result.

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Image 5: Screenshot from the Archives Portal Europe search for Osnabrück, results in list view

The sequence in the list view is determined by automatic calculations of the underlying search engine, the so-called relevance. That means that the shorter titles are estimated to be more relevant. Therefore, the original charter of the peace treaty in the Swedish National Archives appears among titles from the Dutch National Archives, a Dutch provincial archives and a municipal archives.

The archival landscape, here used to see contexts of search results, can also be used to enter a research without any search term. A navigation from a country at the top through archival institutions and their holdings guides down to the descriptions of the files, uses the contexts of creation represented by the structures of the finding aids. It provides an overview of the whole and shows at the same time what can be offered at the level of single units.


A Search for "Democracy"

While searching for the term "democracy", another useful feature of the portal can be observed which also helps to work with different languages. It is the proposition of similar search terms across all languages used in the data. In many European languages the term for democracy starts with the same letters, thus showing the influence of the Greek origins of the term as well as of the concept. These terms are suggested for a search and it is indicated how many results would be shown when they are used for the next search. The same is done with the auto completion function in the search box. When starting to type the term you want to use, it shows possible terms with the same letters in all languages of the material available. In the same way, truncation can be used as another way to do a search with terms that are not fully known.

The results include a file from the Swiss chancellery concerning an initiative to re-introduce direct democracy in Switzerland. It can be seen here that terms used in archival descriptions in the finding aids don’t describe subjects. Here, "direct democracy" is used to identify a specific way of using elections and popular votes. So democracy in this context is a technical term from politics. There are no explanations about democracy in the portal. However, there is much information about how different concepts of democracy were used and about debates on it and the uses of special concepts of democracy for different political aims. For example, the East German state that called itself the German Democratic Republic, created most of the files found by a search with the term "democracy".

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Image 6: Screenshot from the Archives Portal Europe search for democracy and demokratie

A search just with the English version "democracy" leads among others to a lot of files concerning the political systems in former British colonies. They all come from the UK Institute of Commonwealth Studies. Switching to the context view gives a clearer impression as to what sort of material it is. It shows at once why this material is in the Archives Portal Europe. It was created by a British university and is part of the university archives in London. It contains scientific research about countries outside Europe which had belonged to Great Britain as colonies. This material demonstrates therefore the close relations between Europe and the outside world as well as the diversity inside Europe where the history of the different countries influence what they are doing today. On the other hand, it demonstrates that the context of the creation of the material is the only possible way to define the outer limits of the material for the portal.



For the first time, the Archives Portal Europe provides an instrument that facilitates comparisons and discoveries of relations between countries in Europe at a glance. Its searches show many relations between countries in Europe that are not known or had been forgotten and a lot of background facts that are not so easily found elsewhere. It shows the open eyes Europe always had for the world outside and the diversity of organisational and administrative structures developed in the different countries of Europe. Finally, it demonstrates the former use of languages, obvious in archival material, which followed other borders than those of today. These few examples show much already about Europe and about relations between the countries. They can now be studied more easily and access to the archival material itself is much closer than before without the portal.

Cross-border discoveries prepare the research in the files themselves since they show what sources might be where and what they might be able to tell us. Thus the portal offers much more knowledge than what is written in its content. Allowing one to compare, to combine and to draw conclusions, it gives room for assumptions and theses. And it makes us curious to know more, to go to the archives themselves and make more discoveries.

Another point is to gain experiences with the selection of search terms. Often it is not so easy. The descriptions of archives take up special terminologies used in the files with the intention to be as authentic as possible. If these terms are not known yet when starting the research, the research then can be started via the structure of the archival landscape, the holdings guides and the finding aids, to go from the top to the bottom. Doing that the context is used to narrow the research question by considering what material is available while for the search with key terms it for explanation. The research based on the structures gives at the same time an overview about the whole and the relations between its parts without knowing how it was described. With these different research methods as an open offer for everybody, the portal helps to narrow the questions and gives a lot of support to move around even in other languages.

Researches in descriptions in one's own language might also present the possibility to learn how to use language differences, be it in historical holdings or in archives from special tasks using their own technical terms. Browsing through the descriptions shows which terms were used, in which contexts and with which meaning. Searching in the portal supports learning terminologies and special languages, useful for following research in the archival material itself. When browsing through the descriptions using the structures, many inspirations and ideas come up on how a search could be continued. So the portal does not explain what "democracy" is; however, it leads to different concepts and shows what this term meant in different contexts.

The important achievements of such a tool like the Archives Portal Europe can even better be seen when looking back some time. Local finding aids in many archives were kept secret, even for the own citizens, about 50 years ago or even less. Now the new technologies make possible what was a dream of professional archivists for a long time. The new political readiness to open access to archives profits from new technologies that allow one to cross borders with researches while at the same time, using the borders as information sources to see and use the differences behind them. So with the common portal, the cooperation of archival networks in Europe can reach a new level and join forces for even better access to their material for whoever wants it. And the archival institutions themselves only profit from this openness. They gain more visibility. The number of users rises and the institutions profit from a better standing in their own societies. Crossing borders and using them for comparison and better mutual understanding now becomes a matter of professionalisation of archives and a part of archival methodology.

Cross-border discoveries are among the most powerful advantages of the Archives Portal Europe. They constitute a core competence and an important market niche where the Archives Portal Europe gains its own profile. Yet they depend on the partners' support for the portal. Therefore, everything that is already on the internet should be integrated rapidly and without restrictions on their use like registration, download of plug-ins etc. Future enhancements of usability should also have an important focus point on making cross-border discoveries more and more comfortable. They are an essential element to determine the future of the portal.



About the Author

Angelika Menne-Haritz

Angelika Menne-Haritz, Vice president of the Federal Archives of Germany since 2001 (till August 2014). Holds a PhD in German Literature and History and a professorship for administrative sciences. She is the author of several publications in archival and administrative sciences, appraisal, description, use of Internet technologies for access to archives and has led several projects on the latter subject. She furthermore is a member of the TS-EAD of the Society of American Archivists (SAA). She acts as Scientific Coordinator for the APEx project.

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