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Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy

Yale Law School
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Reviewed by:
Jonathan Rotondo-McCord
Xavier University of Louisiana
January 2004

This site is an actively growing collection of several hundred primary source texts (in translation where necessary) dealing with law, history, and diplomacy from the ancient world to the present, with emphasis on European and United States history from the 18th through 21st centuries.

Documents are organized by century and historical theme. All site pages provide ready access to pre-18th, 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st-century documents. Clicking any one of these chronological links brings up a list of sources in alphabetical order. Dynamic sorting by author or date is not possible, although the website’s home page provides author, subject, and title links that will list most site documents according to these categories. The user must click the “Document Collections” link to access an alphabetical list of approximately 65 topics. Some topics are specific (e.g., “Peace Conference at the Hague 1899” or “The Barbary Treaties 1816-1836”) while others are broad (e.g. “Slavery” or “United States Statutes”) in nature. The vast majority of documents provided by Avalon are located on-site; references to other sites are clearly indicated when they occur.

Avalon aims to provide primary source content; this goal accounts for both the strengths and weaknesses of the project. The site is most valuable where it has gathered together extensive sources about a specific historical theme or event. Its collection of documents relating to the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, for example, is extraordinarily rich, and includes all 22 volumes of military court proceeding transcripts as well as dozens of supporting texts documenting Nazi aggression, anti-Jewish propaganda, Adolf Hitler’s final orders and testament, and postwar military government in Germany. Such a site is a gold mine of primary source material for undergraduates assigned specific research projects on traditional historical themes.

Other extensive Avalon collections include the Federalist Papers, a chronological documentation of the Middle East from 1916 to the present, “Nazi-Soviet relations 1939-1941,” and an extensive chronological documentation of the events and aftermath of September 11, 2001 as reflected in official government statements and documents.

Some of Avalon‘s topical collections, however, are overly general and of limited use for specific research projects, though they can be of help to students looking for well-known, frequently cited primary sources. For example, the collection of ancient, medieval, and Renaissance documents numbers only about 45 sources. These have no thematic connection with each other except for their general tendency to be legal texts or treaties (e.g., Code of Hammurabi, Twelve Tables, Magna Carta, Statue of Laborers, Treaty of Tordesillas, and similar texts). For understandable copyright reasons, this collection relies on older editions and translations. While this is common on the Internet, some older translations are not only antiquated in terms of style, but also are not as reliable as translations based on more recent critical editions.

Another disappointing Avalon collection is entitled “African-Americans: Biography, Autobiography, and History.” It contains a mere five sources: Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and Freedom, W. E. B. DuBois’s Souls of Black Folk, Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, Sojourner Truth’s Narrative, and Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery. While these are important classics, to be sure, they are readily accessible via many other websites, and the absence of other key primary sources on African American history is troubling, especially on a site devoted largely to legal history. No distinct category listing can be found for “civil rights,” for example. The Civil Rights (1964) and Voting Rights (1965) Acts are included in another catch-all collection of “Selected Statutes of the United States,” and Avalon does provide a link to Yale Law School’s Project Diana (Online Human Rights Archive), but neither of these links are tied to Avalon‘s sparse African American history collection.

Students in Western civilization, European, or United States history courses will find Avalon‘s more specific collections helpful, although undergraduates may need instructor guidance in determining which collections are sufficiently focused and extensive for their research needs. Frequent website updates and document additions may remedy some of the gaps in collections noted above. Navigation from one set of documents to another is usually easy, and more advanced features such as glossary and text comparison frames are available for some sources. The site possesses a potentially useful search engine, which does not, however, always function properly on all site pages.

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