Lo and behold: a new finding aid for the Wellington Koo Papers

Processing collections and creating finding aids according to updated archival standards gives RBML archivists the opportunity to discover anew our collections. In this post, Processing Archivist Yingwen Huang reflects on creating a new finding aid for the heavily used Wellington Koo Papers. Wellington Koo, a graduate of Columbia and a prominent statesman and diplomat from China, played a major role in positioning China in the 20th Century international political scene. Koo used this papers as the basis for his extensive (10,000+ pages!) oral history interview held in RBML’s Oral History Archives.

“I hope this record will contribute in some small way to a mutual understanding between East and West, and to an understanding of history.” – Speech on the presentation of the Koo oral history to Columbia University, May 28, 1976

At the age of 31, Koo was the youngest delegate in the Chinese Delegation to the Paris Peace Conference. He was the key figure in speaking on the behalf of China in the direct restitution of Shandong province during the conference. He later went on to serve as the Chinese Ambassador to France, England, the United States, while representing China at the League of Nations and contributing to the founding of the United Nations.

As Crystal Lorch Seidman commented in the oral history’s preface (vols. IV-VII),  Wellington Koo was a firm believer in the intrinsic value of the historical record and wanted to leave behind records for future researchers. After Koo retired as the Ambassador to Washington D.C. in 1956, he was elected to be a Judge on the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Two years later in 1958, he received a letter from President Grayson Kirk. In the letter, Dr. Kirk invited Koo to join the Chinese oral history project as one of the major interviewees. Koo was delighted to accept the invitation as he had long been thinking about writing a memoir. He then spent the next two decades traveling between the Hague and New York collaborating with the oral history interviewers on his memoir while attending to his judicial duties at the ICJ. After his retirement from the court in 1967, he dedicated much of his time to the oral history project, which was completed in 1976. Wellington Koo hoped that one day, his memoir would be translated into Chinese for his countrymen. Between 1976 and 1983, scholars from the Chinese Academy of Social Science worked to translate his memoir. In 1983, the 13 volumes of his translated memoir were published.

Left to right: Richard H. Logsdon, C. Wilbur Martin, Wellington Koo (顧維鈞), T.K.Tong (唐德剛), Kai-fu Tsao, October 2, 1963. Chinese oral history project collection; Box 14 Folder 6.

During his collaboration with Columbia, Dr. Koo utilized his papers as reference materials to recall details about specific historical events and topics discussed during the interviews. In October 1963, he announced the donation of his papers to Columbia for research use. The following year in July 1964, Larry N.L. Shyu (徐乃力) completed the Directory to the Papers and Diaries of Wellington Koo (PDF) for those who wish to consult the materials in the collection.

However, the directory only reflects the papers initially donated in 1963. It does not contain information regarding additional papers the family donated additional papers to the library after Dr. Koo passed away in 1985. When archivists reprocess a collection it’s intended to create a degree of intellectual and physical control of the collection which allows better access to the collection.

“For the history of today has its origin in yesterday and such archives not only provide us with a mirror of the past but help us to better understand the great changes taking place in our world.” –  From the Preface to the Wellington Koo memoir

Koo’s papers at the RBML primarily document the diplomatic his legacy as a prominent 20th century statesman and diplomat. The papers include correspondence, diaries, memoranda, manuscripts, documents, notes, speeches, maps, photographs, printed material, and audio visual material. Koos papers also contain an abundance of primary source materials on various research topics relating to China’s domestic and foreign affairs, as well as 20th century world affairs. The Koo Papers also contribute to studies that bridge the East and the West. 

Photograph of the Lytton Commission, 1931, Box 263 Folder 4.
Photocopy of James A. Van Fleet’s Safe Conduct Pass, circa 1951. The Safe Conduct pass was used as a road pass during the Korean War. The passes were also issued to those from North Korea and Communist China who fled to the U.S. side during the Korean War. Similar passes can be found here.

For materials related to China’s domestic and foreign affairs, topics and events documented in the papers include: the Lytton Commission’s investigation into the Mukden incident, war reports during the Sino-Japanese War, Chinese Civil War, Chinese Communist, Japanese reparation, as well as China’s diplomatic history, such as international treaties and agreements between countries, U.S.-China military and economic aid during the Cold War, trade negotiations, loans, etc. 

The papers also contain files related to the daily functions of the Chinese Embassy in France, London, and Washington D.C. The embassy files include internal matters related to overseas affairs such as visa and passport issuance, financial records of the embassies, status and information on overseas Chinese, students, organizations, and many other subjects during Koo’s ambassadorship. The embassy files also provides a glimpse into the lives of the embassy staff as well as the internal affairs and communications between embassies in various countries.


Related to international affairs, the papers contain substantial materials related to the legacy and development of the League of Nations and the United Nations in addition to an emphasis on international issues and cases discussed at the international organizations. The series on the League of Nations and the United Nations also included materials that reflect the work and the involvement of the Chinese Delegation. There are also documents related to major international organization conferences such as the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, Washington Conference of 1920, Sessions of the League of Nations in Geneva, the Nine Power Treaty Conference (Brussels Conference), the United Nations Conferences including the Dumbarton Oaks Conversations, the San Francisco Conference, and the U.N. General Assembly Sessions, etc.

Speech given by Wellington Koo at the Ceremony of Signing the U.N. Charter on 26 June 1945.

The collection is now processed and open to the public. Since the collection was publicized in the 1960s, it has been heavily consulted by many researchers from the U.S. and abroad. Since the collection contains unique documents, such as Koo’s conversations notes that he meticulously kept over the years, the collection attracts attention from scholars conducting research on various international topics and historical events. 

In addition, due to the popular demand of making the collection more accessible to researchers in China, a portion of the collection (Box 1-225) was digitized and made accessible on-site at the Chinese Academy of Social Science and Fudan University in the People’s Republic of China. Further discussions are ongoing about the second phase of the digitization project which includes new materials from Box 226 and onwards. Digitization initiative and collaboration between institutions such as this one contributes to better access of oversea’s archival materials for researchers across continents.

For more information, please see the collection’s finding aid.