The World Wide Web of Internationalism: Evaluating Total Digital Access for the League of Nations Archive (LONTAD) and Its Potential for Historical Research

By Valentin Loos

Editorial Note: Having gained his bachelors degree in 2020, Valentin Loos is now a masters student of history and English and American studies at Osnabrück University. His interests include 19th to 21st century migration literature as a form of knowledge production, the history of I(N)GOS as well as the history of transnational migrant regimes. He completed his internship at the GHI Washington, DC, in the fall and winter of 2022.

On 10 January 1920, the League of Nations, one of the first worldwide intergovernmental organisations, was established. Promoting international cooperation while achieving international peace and security was a key part of its mission.

In light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, this goal remains as important as ever. Politicians like the Chancellor of Germany, Olaf Scholz, US President Joe Biden, or NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg have been eager to stress their support for Ukraine. At the same time, they have sought diplomatic solutions to end the war. [1] For the international community, the question of how to respond to and deal with Russia’s war of aggression persists.

This year, the League of Nations archive has been completely digitized and made available online. What significance does the archive have in today’s world and context? What can we learn from it about peacekeeping? Can it help inform international responses to Russia’s war against Ukraine? What opportunities does the digital access provide for scholars in transnational history?

The Total Digital Access to the League of Nations Archive (LONTAD) project was completed on 31 October 2022. More than 14.2 million document pages have been digitised. These digital surrogates now provide direct access to the League of Nations’ activities throughout its 26 years of existence between 1920 and 1946.[2] Archivists and librarians of the United Nations Offices in Geneva, which itself is the League of Nations’ successor institution, began establishing operation teams starting in 2017. The objectives of these teams were to improve long-term preservation of the physical documents and to provide and maintain online access to this international archive.[3]

Figure 1: United Nations Archives Geneva: “Project Timeline.” In: LONTAD: Total Digital Access to the League of Nations Archives. Detailed Info, libraryresources.unog.ch/lontad/detailed (last accessed 8 Dec. 2022).

The digital archive covers assembly papers and commission reports as well as bi- and multilateral correspondence between League officials and member state authorities. Navigating LONTAD is quite simple: The archive categorises all source materials according to the responsible committees. This way, finding relevant documents is easy if the body of authority is known. At the same time, LONTAD allows searching for individual terms and phrases. However, there is also room for improvement. For example, LONTAD would benefit immensely from a more dynamic navigation by facilitating full-text search of digitised texts. Similarly, a preview option of digitised material would make the archive more intuitive to use than the current design where users need to download files before they can review them.

The variety and richness of these sources make LONTAD a perfect research venue for historians interested in transnational history, diplomacy, and peace-making processes. Among other examples, the League of Nations’ efforts to avert the occupation of Manchuria by Japan and the assault on Ethiopia by Italian forces ultimately failed. This was mainly because of the reluctance of the most powerful nations – especially Britain and France – to fully engage in the conflict.[4] Archival material from that period can be used to critically evaluate mechanisms of international peacekeeping.

Apart from close-up insights into peacekeeping negotiations, the new digital archive comprises many documents referring to other matters the League of Nations held itself responsible for in its covenant. These sources provide crucial insight into the treatment of minority groups, the trafficking of drugs, free transit and communications policies (e.g. telecommunication, air navigation, and road traffic), trade supervision, and migration.[5] As such, the material digitised in the LONTAD project is relevant for historians from different subject areas.

The study of transnational (refugee) migration regimes, for example, benefits immensely from both the reports of Neill Malcolm, High Commissioner for German refugees between 1936 and 1938, and the Nansen Fonds. The latter holds documents related to the work of Fridtjof Nansen, High Commissioner for Refugees in the early 1920s, who was responsible for the repatriation of thousands of POWs and refugees in the years following World War I.  An in-depth analysis of the corresponding files might help to better illuminate modern transnational cooperation under United Nations governance, such as the World Health Organisation or the UNESCO, as the roots of many UN agencies lie in the League’s commissions. [6]

Figure 2: Screenshot taken from United Nations Archives Geneva: League of Nations Archives, https://archives.ungeneva.org/lontad (last accessed 8 Dec. 2022).

However, such analyses also offer insight into very local dynamics of transnational cooperation. The LONTAD files show that international organisations are a “laboratory of the accords and tensions at work between the international, national, and local scenes and frames of reference.” [7]. Scholars have begun to investigate the intersection of League politics and national developments only recently.[8] Member states like Haiti and Liberia have thus far not received the same attention as their European counterparts.

Similarly, the LONTAD files are rich sources for scholars of women’s history. The archive includes documents related to the Department of Opium Traffic and Social Issues Section, which is the only branch that was spearheaded by a woman, Rachel Crowdy. Crowdy’s activities for the League have only briefly been examined to this date.[9]

Employing a postcolonial perspective, one could also ask questions such as: In which ways did the League of Nations (re-)enforce colonial rule? What role did the League play in the development of anti-colonial movements? How did the League of Nations interact with other transnational organisations which opposed colonialism, like the League against Imperialism?

While the “‘democratization’ of international public records” and “‘ready’ and ‘equal’ access” still seemed to be “a distant hope”[10] in the early 2000s, the digitisation of the League of Nations archive facilitates researchers with an easily accessible, free collection of documents that lends itself to thorough investigation. Similar digitisation projects of other institutions exist but most archives remain offline.[11] If additional transnational organisations – among others the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the Organization of American States – follow LONTAD’s example of providing web-based access to their archives, a more nuanced picture of worldwide transnationalism emerges that might help lend greater context to the challenges of today’s globalised world.

I warmly thank Dr. Carolin Liebisch-Gümüş and Jana Keck for their very kind help during the research process for this article.

Further Reading

Fleury, Antoine: The League of Nations. Toward a New Appreciation of Its History. In: Boemke, Manfred F./Feldmann, Gerald D./Glaser, Elisabeth: The Treaty of Versailles. A Reassessment after 75 Years, Cambridge 1998.

Jackson, Simon/O’Malley, Alanna: The Institution of International Order. From the League of Nations to the United Nations (Routledge Studies in Modern History Series), Milton 2018.

Pedersen, Susan: The Guardians. The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire. Oxford 2015.

Sluga, Glenda/Clavin, Patricia (Ed.): Internationalisms. A Twentieth-Century History, Cambridge 2017.

Footnotes

[1] Gilchrist, Karen: ‘Stop This War Immediately,’ NATO Chief Tells Putin, Says Military Alliance Has Been Strengthened. Accessed through: cnbc.com/2022/03/16/nato-chief-to-putin-stop-this-war-immediately-calls-for-diplomacy-.html, 16 Mar. 2022 (last accessed: 8 Dec. 2022); Cohen, Roger/Kanno-Youngs, Zolan: Biden Says He Is Willing to Talk to Putin about Ukraine, with Conditions. Accessed through: nytimes.com/2022/12/01/us/politics/biden-macron-putin-ukraine.html, 1 Dec. 2022 (last accessed: 8 Dec. 2022); and Solomon, Erika: Germany’s Leader, in a Call with Putin, Vows Continued Support for Ukraine. Accessed through: nytimes.com/2022/12/02/world/germany-ukraine-support-putin.html, 2 Dec. 2022 (last accessed: 8 Dec. 2022).

[2] UN Library and Archives Geneva: “Today, the “Total Digital Access to the #LeagueofNations Archives” (#LONTAD) ends its operation. 14,200,000+ pages! Discover the work of the staff who are behind this major digitzation project: tinyurl.com/umn3kw7s. Consult the archives: archives.ungeneva.org”, twitter.com/UNOGLibrary/status/1587074412775321601?s=20&t=GH12G9M0GkCY33O9HhTRQw, 31 Oct. 2022 (last accessed 8 Dec. 2022).

[3] United Nations Archives Geneva: LONTAD: Total Digital Access tot he League of Nations Archives. Detailed Info, libraryresources.unog.ch/lontad/detailed (last accessed 8 Dec. 2022).

[4] Pedersen, Susan: “Back to the League of Nations.” In: The American Historical Review 112: 4 (2007): 1091-1117; 1093.

[5] League of Nations: The Covenant of the League of Nations. Versailles 1920. Accessed through: ungeneva.org/en/library-archives/league-of-nations/covenant (last accessed 30 Nov. 2022)

[6] Pedersen 2007, 1112.

[7] Kott, Sandrine: “International Organizations. A Field of Research for a Global History.” In: Zeithistorische Forschungen. Studies in Contemporary History 3 (2011), S. 445-453: 449.

[8] See for example Hell, Stefan: Siam and the League of Nations. Modernisation, Sovereignity and Multilateral Diplomacy, 1920-1940. Bangkok 2010 and Liebisch-Gümüş, Carolin: Verflochtene Nationenbildung. Die Neue Türkei und der Völkerbund 1918-38 (Studien zur internationalen Geschichte 48), Berlin/Boston 2020.

[9] For one of the few studies on Rachel Crowdy, see Gorman, Daniel: Servants of the World. Rachel Crowdy at the League of Nations. In: Ders.: The Emergence of International Society in the 1920s. Cambridge 2012, S. 52-81.

[10] Rothschild, Emma: The Archives of Universal History. In: Journal of World History 19, 3 (2008), S. 375-401: 391.

[11] See for example African Union: Common Repository. Accessed through: archives.au.int/ (last accessed: 8 Dec. 2022).

 

 

 



Cite this blog post
katharina hering (2023, January 10). The World Wide Web of Internationalism: Evaluating Total Digital Access for the League of Nations Archive (LONTAD) and Its Potential for Historical Research. h r e f. Retrieved June 16, 2024, from https://href.hypotheses.org/2409