Digital Archives and New Technologies

Virtual Tribunals Scoping Visit at the National Archives

General Masaharu Homma testifies in his own defense

General Masaharu Homma, a Japanese officer charged with war crimes, testifies in his own defense at his trial held in the High Commissioner’s residence in...

Michael Eastman, a researcher for the Center's Virtual Tribunals Initiative, recently returned from an exciting and fruitful scoping trip he undertook to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in College Park, Maryland. The trip was in service of an ongoing collaboration between the Center and its partners at the Stanford University Libraries (SUL), which seeks to digitize, digitally preserve, and make freely accessible a comprehensive collection of international criminal tribunal records. This ambitious vision is being pursued in stages, and at present post-WWII trial records are a central focus of the team's efforts and planning. Most of these records exist only on paper, stored in archives that ensure their long-term preservation, but remain difficult for the general public to access. Even for professional researchers and scholars, it can be challenging to identify or locate the records they wish to view.

Eastman is a human rights lawyer from South Africa who joined the Center this year at a pivotal stage for two forthcoming collections in the Virtual Tribunals digital exhibit on the SUL’s Spotlight platform. The forthcoming collections comprise post-WWII trial records from the European and Asia Pacific theaters, microfilmed decades ago from paper originals archived at NARA. The project has been focused on digitization, production of machine-readable text, and creation of descriptive metadata for hundreds of these previously microfilmed reels, which contain records from the US military tribunals held in Germany, Japan, and the Philippines. These records are part of an often over-looked set of World War II war crimes trials, held subsequent to the trials of the German Major War Criminals at the International Military Tribunal (IMT) in Nuremberg. The IMT Nuremberg records and the records of subsequent proceedings have complementary research value, which is why the Virtual Tribunals Initiative has been focused on increasing their availability in digital form, and making them freely available to the public through a single online discovery environment. Since he joined the staff of the Center for Human Rights, Eastman has been integral to authoring descriptive text and building out the digital exhibit environment that will showcase these materials when the new collections launch at the end of this year.

With the launch of these digitized microfilm collections on the horizon, the principal collaborators of the Virtual Tribunals Initiative were keen to return to NARA, and explore the possibility of digitizing the remaining WWII trial records from paper. In order to make a realistic proposal for such a project, however, some concerted effort was required to identify the target materials across archival record groups. Eastman had developed a great deal of familiarity with these archives, from his work on the exhibit thus far, but in order to get a definitive answer as to the exact location, condition, and scope of the target records, Eastman needed to travel to College Park in person and start opening boxes. The National Archives welcomed him warmly, and were indispensable in helping him make the most out of his week-long visit to NARA. With the able assistance of more than twenty of NARA’s superb archivists, Eastman located and sifted through vast amounts of paper, photographs, and films—some of it seemingly untouched for nearly 70 years—that detailed the atrocities perpetrated by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. The in-depth report Eastman brought back to Stanford will form the basis of project planning for subsequent stages of collection development for the Virtual Tribunals Initiative.