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Student group takes Virtual Library of Freedom to the world

  • Virtual Library of Freedom
    Virtual Library of Freedom  The group and website are the result of a senior research project by recent William & Mary alumna Hannah Thornton '10.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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A new student organization at the College of William and Mary is seeking to help promote moderation and curb human rights violations in the world through the power of information.

The group, The Virtual Library of Freedom, has developed a website that contains articles, portions of literature and other documents on topics such as civil liberties, human rights and non-violent protest. The students hope that the website will promote cross-cultural, political discussion and present an alternative ideology to people living in areas prone to terrorist recruitment.

The group and website are the result of a senior research project by recent William & Mary alumna Hannah Thornton ’10. Thornton, who majored in international relations, was research fellow with the Project on International Peace and Security (PIPS) during her senior year at the College. She and the five other fellows were asked to write policy briefs about global or national security issues. Thornton said she chose to explore why human rights are not enforced worldwide.

“I knew that was too broad, so I thought what kind of organizations are huge violators of human rights – well, terrorist organizations,” she said. “From there, essentially I thought, well, we’ve tried to hit them head-on, it doesn’t really work. What happens if we just try to present a different kind of ideology to the people that are prone to terrorist recruitment?”

At the end of her PIPS fellowship, Thornton presented her idea at the Brookings Institute in Washington D.C., garnering the interest of Werner Weingartner, a longtime friend of the College who began the Weingartner Global Initiative.

The Weingartner Global Initiative, which supports the Virtual Library of Freedom, also funds a faculty-student research team that focuses on international policy issues. Paula Pickering, associate professor of government, has recently been named William & Mary’s next Weingartner Professor, and she is currently recruiting two research students who will work with her in the summer of 2011. Pickering investigates the conditions under which international efforts to improve local-level democratic institutions produce positive results for communities in the Western Balkans. In his letter appointing Pickering as the College’s next Weingartner Professor, Dean of Arts and Sciences Carl Strikwerda wrote, “Your own research in this region, as well as your experience sponsoring The Bosnia Project, William and Mary’s longstanding service-learning initiative, make you ideally suited for this project.” 

With the support of Weingartner, Joel Schwartz, director of the Charles Center; and Dennis Smith, visiting assistant professor of government and co-director of PIPS; Thornton created a student organization for the Virtual Library of Freedom in the fall of 2010 and began working toward turning her project from a paper into a website.

Thornton said she envisioned the website as both a database of documents on human rights, good governance and international affairs and a place for discussions on those topics. She also wanted those documents translated into languages like Arabic, Farsi and Urdu, “so that the people who are in the countries where terrorist recruitment is high, they will have this information in their own language and be able to interpret it themselves and then be able to discuss on the website what they thought about it and what were the positive attributes and what would fit with their situation,” she said.

The members of the new student organization worked on creating the website, writing summaries of the documents and translations of those summaries during the fall 2010 semester. The site officially launched over winter break.

Now, the group is continuing work on the website, adding more documents, summaries and translations to its database. The students are also posting on social media sites in order to generate discussion, and blogging about current events, linking current events discussions to information available on the website. Thornton said she wants the blog to be a major component of the website.

The group is also reaching out to other schools to get others involved.

“We are in the process of talking to local schools with good Arabic or Middle Eastern studies or international relations programs,” Thornton said. “The goal is to get interest and support and hopefully start new ‘chapters’ at these schools. The ultimate goal is to make connections here so that we can reach out to educational institutions abroad.”

Thornton said she would love to see all of the documents on the website eventually translated into as many languages as possible. She also hopes the site continues to spark lively discussions.

“I think that’s really important for this site. We present these ideas, but they aren’t static ideas, they can be molded to different situations,” she said. “There clearly won’t be any cookie cutter solutions, so that’s why I think the discussion is really important.”

That kind of discussion is something that Thornton herself has experienced at William & Mary.

“I think William & Mary is a very open, very accepting culture,” she said. “You can just look around you and there are debates and discussions, contradictory organizations that still somehow get along and debate issues all the time in a positive way.”

Although Thornton, who currently works at the Charles Center, will be moving to Washington D.C. soon to begin a new job, she is looking forward to seeing the organization she started continue to expand and begin making a real difference in the state of human rights around the world.

“My end goal is to kind of open the hearts and minds of people to new ideas in a non-violent way, just to see another side,” she said.