Foreign Office Files for China

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    This digital collection is stated to include the complete series FO 371 and FCO 21 from the British National Archives, issued during an extremely significant period in modern Chinese history, from the year the Chinese Communist Party took control of the government to the period just after Mao Zedongʼs death in 1976.

    May 17, 2024 7:37pm
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    Collection Content

    The source consists of two recently declassified archival series from the British National Archives: FO 371 and FCO 21. Documents from 1949-1956 were scanned from microfilm already available, while the remaining pages were scanned in color from the original documents. According to the publisher, files from 1980 will be added early in 2011, since they did not qualify for the 30 year government release when the collection was initially launched.

    The collection contains excellent primary materials on the Peopleʼs Republic of China (PRC) since its birth in 1949 up through 1980, an extremely important period in modern Chinese history. It is very valuable to have documents available in English from this period. The documents are grouped in three sub-collections: Section I 1949-1956; Section II 1957-1966; Section III 1967-1980.

    This is an impressive volume of detailed eye-witness accounts of life in China from western eyes. As noted by University of Hong Kong historian Dr. Priscilla Roberts in the collection introduction, “Britain was one of very few western countries to maintain diplomatic relations with China from 1950 onward, and from their vantage point in Beijing British diplomats reported on the turbulent and confusing political, social, and economic developments.” Annotations on printed reports and other documentation give an enlivened sense of history as written, such as a distribution note on the "Report on Events in China for 1948" (FO 371/75731) : “The main report is somewhat disappointing & conveys little impression that 1948 was a crucial year in China. The military on the other hand a clear and illuminating description of the destruction of the Central Govt armies N. of the Yangtse...”

    The editorial board consists of well respected historians of modern China. Links to external resources are very appropriate. The publisher has done an outstanding job of providing historical context, including an excellent event chronology and an extensive “Nature and Scope” description like those found in archival finding aids. Using this inventory of themes and content, students, faculty and librarians should have a clear view of why they would use the resource and could quickly determine if it contains what they need.



    Individual document descriptions are enhanced by index terms for significant places, names, and topics, and reference National Archives document numbers. Annotations on the documents themselves sometimes reference other documents.

    Technical platform & interface

    This material is included in the Adam Matthew Archives Direct suite of collections from The National Archives of the UK, sharing a portal platform with several other archival collections.

    A potential advantage of the Archives Direct portal interface is that it supports cross collection searches, displaying results from all digitized collections whether or not the local institution subscribes. Results are grayed out for those archival collections not accessible locally. On the other hand, it is potentially confusing because one must use the advanced search page in order to narrow a search to one collection. Even from what appears to be the home page of the China collection, basic search covers all of the archival collections, which are not necessarily related thematically (collections include British, American, and Middle Eastern topics).

    Searches include full text and index terms. “Popular searches” are actually browse lists of index terms for places, people, and topics. The full document browse lists for each of the three chronological sections of the collection display data very clearly and can be sorted by document number, title, or date.

    The document display is a standard PDF interface. The PDF page images are good quality and legible. The help sections are detailed, clear, and include screen shots.

    Some features of the interface could use improvement:

    • Although easy citation export is provided to RefWorks/EndNote, there is no Zotero support. Furthermore, no general view of a preferred citation format is provided, which might present some challenges for undergraduates who have limited experience citing these types of materials. Instead, under the “Teaching” sub-section of the “Help” section, users are advised to consult various standard guides for formatting citations.
    • Although selecting a place or topic from the document description metadata uses the database indexing to retrieve a relevant passage (just as a search would), the results display will only show one retrieved page, without highlighting the designated keyword, and always reads “Results: 0 documents with 0 instances”. This is misleading. Also, because these documents are in their “raw” form it is difficult to scan them for keywords without the benefit of the highlighting display available when using the actual search function.
    • Contextual navigation prompts are not obvious at first observation, and only advance one level at a time – potentially slowing down the userʼs advance between documents, from the document view back to the document description, back to search results, or back to the document browse list.

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    Following the acquisition of Adam Matthew Digital and Adam Matthew Education by SAGE in early October, 2012, Adam Matthew issued a statement indicating that all existing contracts will remain between Adam Matthew and its partners, not transferred to SAGE.  They have also posted details clarifying the status of licensing arrangements for the retention of digital materials and ongoing access to collections. Questions regarding Adam Matthew products, including licensing questions, will continue to be directed to the Adam Matthew team.


    Center for Research Libraries

    • Virginia Kerr, Digital Program Manager

    University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

    • Hsi-chu Bolick, East Asia Bibliographer
    • Nathaniel King, Librarian for Global Studies, Military Studies and Public Policy
    • Carol Tobin, Head, Davis Library Research and Instructional Services
    • Michael Van Fossen, Subject Librarian for Political Science, Peace War and Defense, and International Documents Librarian

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