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Bringing the archive to the people

l. to r.: ITS Director Floriane Hohenberg, Rikola-Gunnar Lüttgenau, Deputy Director of the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation, Jens-Christian Wagner, Director of the Lower Saxony Memorials Foundation on the occasion of the data presentation

For decades, the ITS archive grew without any classic archival arrangement. It was a tool used to search for the names of victims of the Nazis, to document their paths of persecution and to find traces of the millions of people who had been murdered.

It is still a challenge for the ITS to make its archive comprehensible to external users and accessible to researchers. One exceptional project in 2017 involved preparing what is known as Collection 1.1 for publication online. With 40 sub-collections from nearly all concentration camps and ghettos, it is a core part of the ITS archive. It comprises around 10 million images which will be made available online.

Five ITS employees took two approaches to describing this very heterogeneous collection. Their first approach was based on its content. They added information, mainly concerning the more than 100 different sources from which the original documents had come. This will enable users to correctly cite the information, for example, or retrieve additional information. The team also made structural preparations for publishing the collection online by arranging sub-collections, putting together series of documents and eliminating redundancies.

The ITS is benefiting here from its cooperation with the Yad Vashem memorial, which has experience in this area. Yad Vashem has provided technical support as well as the online platform it developed for similar purposes. Collection 1.1 is scheduled to be published online in the second half of 2018. 

The ITS also took another step in 2017 to facilitate access to its archival collection: it gave the concentration camp memorials digital copies of the documents relating to each camp. The memorials can incorporate these documents into their own databases and use the accompanying metadata to research people persecuted by the Nazis. Most of these documents – such as prisoner registration cards – pertain to individual prisoners, but some relate to the organization of the camp. The ITS is thus helping to fill gaps in information. Additionally, since these memorials receive so many visitors, the ITS will be able to help even more people explore Nazi history and the suffering of those persecuted. The memorials signed an agreement with the ITS to guarantee privacy and property rights and ensure the authenticity of the documents.

The ITS carried out other projects, too, in an effort to expand and facilitate access to its archive in 2017 – in a variety of ways:

  • Automating parts of the indexing process

    Searching for names and indexing its collections accordingly was especially important to the ITS. This is essential to many researchers as well. But today’s users are also interested in other search criteria for finding information in the relevant documents. Improved indexing helps the employees in the Tracing department, too, because it allows them to carry out research more quickly. In this way, the ITS can improve its service and reduce waiting times.

    For faster indexing, the ITS is testing automated text recognition systems from three providers on several of its collections. Modern programs have major benefits, particularly when it comes to very diverse collections: they can identify not only letters but also graphical patterns. This means they can sort collections by document type and enable the archive employees to find specific letters, prisoner cards or lists of names and to form new collections or sub-series. They can even find all of the letters from a specific sender, because letterheads can be distinguished as well. This results in convenient new filtering options for publishing the collections. The medical files of DPs, for example, include documents such as X-rays which are subject to data protection and not of interest to the public. The ITS could exclude this closed group of documents from publication – something that would be almost impossible to do without using software for a collection with nearly one million documents.

  • Explaining documents with the e-Guide

    While the documents in the archive were once used almost exclusively by ITS employees, today there are a variety of user groups. Students, historians and relatives of the victims of Nazi persecution have to grapple with a wide range of documents. They all want to find out quickly and easily who created the document, what it was used for and what the abbreviations mean.

    To share the expertise of the ITS employees with the public, an e-Guide is being developed which will be available on the website of the ITS. Christiane Weber, the historian responsible for the project, conducted research in various institutions and talked with external experts to supplement the information in the ITS archive and make it as complete as possible.

    The e-Guide will describe the most common documents, cards and questionnaires preserved in the ITS archive and will explain when they were created. In the first phase, information on 30 types of documents relating to concentration camp prisoners will be published. Later on, descriptions of the around 35 most common documents relating to displaced persons and forced laborers will be added.

    The documents will be explained in simple language, and a second version of the e-Guide will be available in English. A search function will make it easy to use. Users will be able to interact with the online documents by clicking on them for more information. Quotes from survivors and additional documents from the ITS archive will explain the historical background. The e-Guide is due to be completed in stages from the second quarter of 2018 and will be an important addition to the subsequent online publication of Collection 1.1. The e-Guide can also gradually expand to include explanations of other documents.

  • Releasing data for digital projects

    In order to open up new channels of information, the ITS was also active in the field of digital social sciences in 2017. At the Culture Hackathon in Berlin, participants were able to access the card file of the Reichsvereinigung der Juden (Reich Association of Jews), complete with its metadata. These 32,000 cards provide an insight into the lives of Jews in Nazi Berlin. Two of the Hackathon teams – made up of programmers, web designers and augmented reality experts – developed projects based on this information. The cards known as “student cards” were the basis of the prize-winning project “Marbles of Remembrance / Murmeln der Erinnerung,” which consists of a city tour with a chatbot to find the traces of Jewish pupils in Berlin. Users can enter names from “Stolpersteine" blocks and view the associated card, or GPS can be used to notify users when they pass a former Jewish school or a home where a Jewish family lived before being deported. On two city tours, users can also get to know two Jewish children, who introduce themselves and their families via a chat app and show photos and other documents from the ITS database. For the second project, “Visualizing Jewish Life,” a programmer primarily used the metadata from the card file. On an online city map, users can see where Jewish families lived in Berlin. Statistical information is also available, such as the professions and age groups of the Jewish residents.