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Documentary editor Annabel Harris visits Bowdoin College to explore George Mitchell's papers

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Academics from England and Ireland visited the Bowdoin campus recently to study the papers of Senator George Mitchell ’54, H'83, in particular his role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland twenty-five years ago.

Harris is a documentary editor with Quill, a digital humanities project based at Pembroke College that models formal negotiations, scanning and posting a range of documents that relate to a variety of constitutional and legislative milestones. The aim is to enable users to visualize how these kinds of events evolve and take shape over time. Quill’s first project, for example, was a presentation of the records of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that wrote the Constitution of the United States.

“We work on negotiated texts,” said Harris, “either constitutions or texts that have a strong constitutional component like the Good Friday agreement.” Harris is currently working on Quill’s “Writing Peace” initiative, which aims to develop a rounded view of the context and detail of the Northern Ireland peace process, through digital resource collections featuring innovative visualizations of primary source material. This online resource, she emphasized, provides cutting-edge analytical tools for scholars as they study the contributions of various parties and should help them, and the diplomats of today, learn lessons for resolving future conflicts.

“We track developments in the Northern Ireland peace process from the period following the Anglo-Irish agreement in 1985 to the implementation phase in the early 2000s,” said Harris. “Texts are written by multiple authors over time.” She spent several days in Bowdoin Library's Special Collections & Archives, poring over the Mitchell papers and scanning them so they can be incorporated into Writing Peace. “Having spent the last week exploring the papers, [I saw that] there were loads of things in there that we couldn’t find anywhere else, which was really exciting.”

Deane spoke about the development of the Mitchell Principles and how central they are to Quill’s Writing Peace initiative. “Years ago, when first I looked at the Mitchell Principles, there were eighteen different versions, and it took a very long time to study them.” Now, she explained, “as if by magic,” Quill can demonstrate visually, in an easy and accessible way, how these principles took shape, and how Mitchell painstakingly tackled the thorny issue of decommissioning—the task of prevailing on paramilitary groups on both sides to compromise and lay down their weapons. These negotiations took a long time, enthused Deane, and Quill enables users today to see how the delicate talks unfolded—hand-written notes and scratched-out clauses are clearly visible on the documents. “You can see layer upon layer of interest and excitement!”

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