Friday, October 5, 2001

YLS Avalon Project Provides Link to History

Half a million times each week an electric inquiry darts to the servers of Yale University requesting a page from the Avalon Project at Yale Law School. What is served up in response might be a 1795 treaty between the U.S. and Algeria or a section of the proceedings from the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. The person at the other end of the signal could be a scholar or student anywhere in the world.

One of the broadest collections of historical and legal documents available on the Web, the Avalon Project is the brainchild of YLS network services manager William Fray. Although he initiated the project in the mid-1990s as merely a way of learning how to code HTML, he has been steadily adding to it and expanding it with a view to providing as many people as possible access to the fundamentals of scholarship.

S. Blair Kauffman, librarian and professor of law at YLS, says that Fray looks at Avalon "from a librarian's point of view. . . . He has a pure love of making information available."

Fray does admit, though, that there is personal idiosyncrasy as well as high ideals in his construction of Avalon. Speaking in his office in the basement of the Law School, he says that the somewhat eclectic collection of documents can be "a reflection of my own mind." He adds, "If it interests me, I put it up."

And the interest exists to receive what Fray posts. Not only is the site inundated with hits from around the globe, the project has been cited in academic papers, used in symposia, and linked to by other websites.

After he mounted a series of documents about the 1960 downing of a U2 airplane piloted by Francis Gary Powers over the Soviet Union, Fray received a phone call from Powers's son. He has heard from other living participants in the history he has posted. For instance, a lawyer who had been in the Kennedy administration once pointed out an error in an official State Department document from that era. The error was from the original document and not Avalon's scan.

Fray tries to keep the technology of the site at a level where the vast majority of Internet users can access it without any complication, and only introduces new capabilities as they become widely adopted. He has sought to add some functionality beyond the printed page, though.

The "Code of Hammurabi" provides an excellent example. Parts of the document can seem like a list of unfamiliar deities and place names to a modern reader--except in the Avalon version, each unfamiliar term is hyperlinked. Clicking the mouse on a strange name (such as "Anunaki") draws up its definition in a glossary that lies along the bottom of the screen (the Anunaki are the seven judges of the underworld). A reader doesn't even have to look away from the window for that bit of enlightenment.

Other documents link to one another, so if you read in Andrew Jackson's 1832 Proclamation on Nullification about an ordinance passed by South Carolina, you're only one click away from the referent--rather than needing to dig separate volumes out of the library.

One thing Fray won't add to any document is his own opinion--or any other commentary, for that matter. "I'm not interested in influencing how you feel about any document," he says. "Read it and make up your own mind."

At the same time, he believes in the strength of historical reality that the documents portray. That's one reason he is glad to have the Nuremberg proceedings online through Avalon. As he sees it, there is a lot of "misinformation and denial" about the Holocaust, and having the evidence from the trials available forces those who would deny it to confront what the rest of the world considers convincing arguments.

As Fray posts the second set of the proceedings later this year, he will further this intent by providing links between arguments made in the trials and the specific evidentiary documents they refer to. "People can decide for themselves if a particular document supports [the prosecutor's] case," Fray says.

A recent development revealed one danger in this open approach, however. After the terrorist attacks of September 11 of this year, Fray received several irate e-mails from people who discovered the Hamas Covenant in the Avalon Project and were upset by its presence on a server.

It turned out these people had reached the site through broader Internet searches and were unaware of the Avalon Project's academic mission. Fray maintains that deleting a document such as the Hamas Covenant does nothing to refute it--and he never has removed a document from Avalon. He'd rather that people have the ability to read it in the context of other related materials.

The process of turning history into electronic bits can be tedious. Each document is scanned on a flatbed scanner, then run through a character-recognition program, and then spellchecked and proofread against the original. Only then can it be converted into a web page and mounted. Fray does the great bulk of this work himself, often while watching sports on TV. But he says he loves learning about the technology he uses, as well as the process of organizing the Avalon website.

There is also the evanescent thrill of locating fascinating tidbits buried in the documents he works with. For example, he got a kick out of finding multilateral treaties devoted entirely to the subject of lighthouses.

Fray hopes to continue the Avalon Project for as long as he can, because, as he points out, history never ends. He has already begun posting documents about the attacks of September 11 and their aftermath.

Although named simply because of Fray's love of Arthurian legend, the Avalon Project may prove a paradise of information. Think of it as where documents go for an afterlife--and William Fray is their electrical ferryman, operating a flatbed scanner.

Related Link:
Avalon Project