Saturday, February 4, 2012

Raw History: Indexing Primary Documents

Most of the books I have indexed are textbooks, encyclopedias, or scholarly books. Secondary documents in their fields, they present information that scholars have researched and organized for their readers.

There are lots of challenges in indexing books like these! I wrote a whole book about that.

But primary documents are a whole different animal.

For the last twenty-six years I’ve been indexing the Foreign Relations series from the U.S. State Department. These volumes are collections of the recently declassified documents of the State Department. Each volume covers a time period (one or several years) and an area of the world or issue (the Middle East, the Soviet Union, foreign aid). And within that very broad topic, the only organization is chronological. Memoranda from the CIA and the National Security Council staff, telegrams from the Secretary of State to the ambassadors in the field, secret planning for summit meetings…they follow each other higgledy-piggledy.

In a volume that’s usually about 900 pages long.

This presents some interesting challenges.

Where’s the topic?

In a textbook, the main topic of a section or chapter is usually in the heading. The Beginnings of Impressionism. The Backwards Flow Chart Method. In a scholarly book, the main topic may be obfuscated under the author’s agenda, but the language provides a path to it. The author wants the reader to know what she’s saying.

But in the minutes of a State Department consultation, the participants know what they’re talking about. Their goal is to communicate with each other, not with us. They’re not thinking about the history scholar reading their words forty years later.

For instance, in my current volume on the energy crisis 1974-1980, I jump into document one to find Henry Kissinger meeting with some people from the Treasury Department. Kissinger says, “Have we all read the paper?” Yes, they havebut I don’t get to, because a footnote says “Not found.” They never say exactly what the paper is about, either. I have to figure out by deduction that it’s a proposal for bilateral contacts with the oil-producing countries.

Shall we do it or not? What is it?

Because these pages document history as it’s made, important events aren’t just presented in finished form. They grow organically out of the fertile soil that is the U.S. foreign relations bureaucracy.

So in my energy crisis book in 1974, a conference of the OPEC countries and the consumer countries comes up in a footnote. France and Saudi Arabia want it. Our State Department people are very dubious. They brush it aside. Then they talk to the French about it some more. Then Saudi Arabia brings it up during a presidential meeting. Meanwhile they’re spending a lot of energy trying to get the consumer countries to coordinate their conservation efforts. The French make a formal proposal. Everybody wonders about it again. This goes on for about six months.

And all of a sudden we’re planning an actual conference that actually happened: the Conference on International Economic Cooperation in December 1975. That’s easy to index: preparatory conferences, attendees, discussions of various topics.

But way back in 1974, I have to notice that proposal, mentioned in footnotes or asides or as an item in a long list of possibilities, and pull it together (or, darn it, go back and get it when I realize it’s a serious discussion).

And what do I call it? It would be strange to index all of those many mentions and pooh-poohings under the very formal conference name. But they did lead up to it. In this case I indexed “producer-consumer conference proposals” until the formal plan. Then I moved over to the formal name.

The Summit

Then there are the summit meetings. Eisenhower meets with Khrushchev. Nixon goes to China and meets with Mao. Whew. This is important stuff. Everything’s preserved—the briefing notes, the preparatory National Security Council meetings, the telegrams back and forth—and the actual minutes of the discussions between the two heads of state.

Photo from
Digging the meat out of these minutes is always interesting.

Meetings at this level always have quite a lot of, let’s say it nicely…padding. Jokes are made. Little speeches propound the friendship and respect in which one government holds the other. Allusions to historical alliances or tensions set the tone. Difficult domestic situations are mourned. This can go on for pages and pages before we get to the real topic at hand.

The real topic turns out to be “how much aid are we getting” or “you’d better not side with the Soviet Union on this UN vote.”

So important!

It’s worth going through this because the information in these documents is incredibly important.

The writers and meeting participants aren’t thinking about the reader because they didn’t know anyone was going to see these documents. These were secret documents. They were only declassified later. This means that some of the information in them is not available anywhere else.

What exactly Nixon and Mao said to each other. Why the U.S. ambassador to Egypt was removed in 1956. Proposals for using atomic weapons on Northern Vietnam, and how the decision was made not to do it. Who was in on the plans for the Bay of Pigs.

This information would be incredibly difficult to access without an index. No historian is going to sit down and read one of these volumes cover to cover (trust me!). To find their information, they will need to go through the index. My index, which makes paths from every way they might look something up to the document they need.

And so fascinating

And it’s worth it because, although the text does repeat itself and drone on in government-speak, this is absolutely fascinating stuff. This is raw history. This is Nixon and Kissinger on the telephone. This is Kruschev banging his shoe on the table.

Photo from
And in my current volume, it’s December 1978. People discussing energy policy are talking about how Iran is one of our allies among the oil producers, and what to say next to the Shah. And then the next document is a paper analyzing how the strikes in Iran’s oil fields are going to affect the world’s oil supply.

The Iranian Revolution is starting, and they don’t know it yet. I get to watch them find out.



  1. Wow wow wow what an incredible job. I see history in a totally different light just reading this post, I can only imagine how you must see it!

  2. Hi Sarah! Yes, it's pretty fun. I'm just about to start on Iran-Iraq 1973-76!

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  3. Very cool to read and understand more about what you do - you are a busy girl! You must read some incredibly dull stuff too. I am glad it is you creating the REAL history, honest and brilliant. Elizabeth



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