How can the history of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union be studied through international organisations? For our archives and libraries series, Peripheral Histories? Editor Hanna Matt spoke to Fabrizio Bensi and Charlotte Mohr about the archive and library of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Read on to learn more about the multifaceted collections and extensive digital resources available to researchers.
What was your journey into working in the ICRC’s archive and library?
Fabrizio Bensi: After my High School Diploma from a commercial institute in Ticino (that is the Italian speaking area in Switzerland), I came to Geneva and obtained a master’s degree in history at the University of this city in 1987. After finishing my studies, I was appointed as a temporary assistant in contemporary history at this same university for the academic years 1987-1989. Then I worked in the private sector (including at banks and insurance companies) until my arrival at the ICRC archives in April 1991.
Charlotte Mohr: After completing my Master’s degree, I had the opportunity to do a long-term internship at the library of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). In 2019, I joined the team on a permanent basis. I'm currently the librarian in charge of our collections on the history and activities of the ICRC, as well as the institutional repository of ICRC publications. I also oversee our reader services.
I had previously hesitated between different fields, interning as a researcher for a public radio show, and as an editorial assistant and translator for publishing companies. But something clicked when I first started working in the ICRC library. Nothing motivates me like a good research challenge and I enjoy working behind the scenes and connecting colleagues and researchers with the information they need – being a librarian at the ICRC allows me to do all that, and a lot more.
Cover pages of three issues of the Soviet Red Cross’s journal, 1966.
Which of your collections or resources are consulted most frequently by researchers?
Fabrizio Bensi: The ICRC’s general archives are open to external consultation up to the year 1975. The archival sources most are related to the twentieth century and, more specifically, the section covering the years 1933-1975.
Charlotte Mohr: Our library is a research library specialising in international humanitarian law (also known as the law of armed conflict). We also hold collections documenting the development of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement since its inception, with a focus on the ICRC. Put simply, our collections reflect 160 years of history of humanitarian law and action. We serve our ICRC colleagues around the globe, as well as external researchers, international humanitarian law practitioners, policy makers, media, and anyone else interested.
The records of the Diplomatic Conferences that adopted the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols are definitively among our most consulted resources. The annual reports and news releases of the ICRC are also widely consulted, as well as the records of the International Conferences of the Red Cross and Red Crescent and issues of the International Review of the Red Cross.
Do you have any hidden gems in your collections? What do you have that has rarely or never by used by researchers?
Fabrizio Bensi: Based on my personal professional experience, the least exploited period in the history of the ICRC is roughly from 1863 (the foundation of the institution) to 1914 (the outbreak of the Great War).
Charlotte Mohr: Our heritage collections contain many hidden gems - sometimes even hidden from the librarians! Our 'Ancien fonds', for example, is a collection of 4,000 documents collected between the creation of the ICRC in 1863 and the First World War. As we are still in the process of adding these documents to our online catalogue, we regularly make new discoveries. The same is true of our collection of publications from the National Societies of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, not all of which have yet been individually described. If I were a researcher coming to the library, I would try to take advantage of the historical breadth of our collections and be curious to see how one type of publication — such as recruitment material for ICRC delegates, or the journal of a Red Cross Youth — has changed over time.
What materials does your collection offer for historians of the former Russian Empire and Soviet Union?
The ICRC’s archive holds materials on Red Cross mission in countries of the former Russian Empire and Soviet Union, for example relief for Russian refugees between 1921 and 1931 or the ICRC’s Wehrlin mission to Russia, 1920-1938. The archive also has files on the activities of the Russian and Soviet Red Cross and diplomatic exchanges with the ICRC.
Relevant fonds include:
ACICR, B CR 00, Union soviétique, 1918-1950 (this material also includes the former Tsarist organization).
ACICR, B MIS 54, Mission en Russie, 1920-1938.
ACICR, O Commixt, 1919-1939.
ACICR, B CR MIS 087, Secours aux réfugiés russes, 1921-1931.
ACICR, O UISE, Union internationale de secours aux enfants, 1920-1927.
ACICR, B G 003, Missions-Délégations, 1939-1950.
ACICR, B G 031, URSS, 1918-1950.
ACICR, B G 085 : Croix-Rouge : Union soviétique, 1939-1950.
Sub-fonds ACICR, B AG, 1951-1975 (various relationships and diplomatic series about the Soviet Union).
The Soviet Red Cross and peace, report submitted by the Soviet Red Cross to the 24th International Conference of the Red Cross, 1981.
Charlotte Mohr: First, we hold sources documenting the ICRC’s action in past and present conflicts in countries of the former Russian Empire and Soviet Union, from the 1917 Revolution to the Soviet-Afghan War and the Russia-Ukraine conflict today. Then, we hold materials on how the powers of the former Russian Empire and Soviet Union participated in the development of international humanitarian law and how they implemented it.
Last but definitely not least, we have a unique collection of publications from the National Societies of the International Movement of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, from the Armenian Red Cross to the Uzbekistan Red Crescent Society. The collection spans the early years of the Movement in the mid-19th century to the 1990s, with a high concentration of publications from the 1920s
and then from the post-war period to the late
1960s. It includes serial publications, many promotional brochures, activity reports, and substantive reports on humanitarian, social or public health issues (like famine relief, prevention and control of epidemics, wartime relief, first aid, maternity protection and childcare, or disarmament). It is quite special for researchers to find all these materials in the same library, reunited in a single collection.
A quick tip from Charlotte for finding useful materials quickly in the library catalogue: use the ‘keyword’ search and type in the name of the country or ‘RC + name of the country’ (RC stands for ‘Red Cross’ or ‘Red Crescent’.
The ICRC audiovisual archives also deserve to be highlighted here. The very first ICRC films, for example, presented in 1921, cover the repatriation of prisoners of war across the Baltic Sea, the fight against typhus in Poland, humanitarian aid for Hungarian children in Budapest and assistance to Russian refugees in Constantinople (watch them here).
Do you have any digital collections?
Fabrizio Bensi: We are currently working on a future program of digitization of the ICRC’s general archives. That, of course, will need important funding and additional human resources and if this programme is adopted, it will certainly take years to be achieved. However, some oft he ICRC public archival series are already available for consultation (on microfilm or digitally) in Washington, Madrid, London, Paris, Jerusalem, Seoul and Algiers, as a result of specific bilateral cooperation projects and agreements with historical centres.
Charlotte Mohr: Absolutely - We’ve been working on digitizing our core collections of primary sources for 5-7 years now. Among the collections mentioned above, the records and travaux préparatoires of the major treaties of international humanitarian law are available for consultation online, as well as all ICRC annual reports, press releases and circulars (plus selected reference publications), and all the documents submitted to the statutory meetings of the International Movement of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. Today, an important part of our acquisitions are digital publications.
Collection of reports submitted to the 13th International Conference of the Red Cross,1928.
What are the main challenges of managing your collection?
Fabrizio Bensi: In my opinion, the main challenge is the long term and accessibility of electronic files, which needs to be achieved in accordance with the professional working principles and procedures related to archives.
Charlotte Mohr: So much we’d like to do, so little time! Finding the resources for digitization projects is a real challenge as well. Developing and describing collections in languages we do not speak also requires a bit of creative thinking, and some external help from colleagues and/or technology. These challenges are also part of the fun – they force us to find alternative solutions and constantly improve the way we work to make the most of the resources we have.
Does your library engage in any public outreach activities?
Charlotte Mohr: In this post-Covid era, most of our library’s outreach activities take place online though we are really proud and excited to co-organize this year the annual course of the International Association of Law Libraries. We share news about the library, finds from our collections & reading recommendations on Twitter (follow us at @ICRC_library) and regularly publish articles on the ICRC Archives & Library blog, CROSS-files.
I would be remiss not to mention here the wonderful work done by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum. Their exhibitions and events often build on ICRC archives & collections and showcase them in a creative, thought-provocative way
Illustration from a report on maternity and child protection in the USSR, submitted by the Soviet Red Cross to the 12thInternational Conference of the Red Cross, 1925.
Is there anything you wish more people knew about your archives/collections?
Fabrizio Bensi: The ICRC archives provide very important perspectives to diplomatic, political, and cultural contemporary history. In this respect, they deserve to be more integrated in the general trends of social sciences.
Charlotte Mohr: First, that we are a public library open to all. Second, that we have collections available online – thank you for this great opportunity to share this information with the researchers involved in the Peripheral Histories project and beyond!
Charlotte has also kindly shared direct links for research guides that might be useful to our readers. To find out more about the statutory meetings of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement visit the dedicated research guide here: https://blogs.icrc.org/cross-files/international-conferences/ To browse more digitized and digital collections documenting the development of the world’s largest humanitarian network and of international humanitarian law, all our research guides are available at: https://blogs.icrc.org/cross-files/category/research-guide/