Online collection helps people remember Holocaust
NARA, Footnote.com project takes records about looted assets and concentration camps online
Starting today, hundreds of thousands of Holocaust-related documents will be searchable online through an agreement between the National Archives and Records Administration and Footnote.com.
NARA officials said the massive collection of records about looted assets, concentration camp registers and proceedings of the Nuremberg war crime trials will form part of the Web’s largest interactive collection of Holocaust records. The release of the initial 500,000 images of individual documents will make research easier and greatly increase access.
View the collection here.
“We cannot afford to forget this period in our history,” said Michael Kurtz, assistant archivist and author of the book, "America and the Return of Nazi Contraband: The Recovery of Europe’s Cultural Treasures."
Footnote.com plans to eventually digitize – at no cost to NARA – about one million images of Holocaust-related documents. Users will be able to access the documents for a fee through Footnote.com, but access will be free at NARA research facilities, and the documents will be available on Footnote.com for no charge during October. The company specializes in making digital records from historic documents.
People will also be able to use Footnote.com’s social-networking tool to develop Facebook-like pages to memorialize Holocaust victims. Footnote’s "I Remember" application lets people share photos, comments and stories about victims. Users can create and access the pages through Footnote.com and then share them on Facebook.
“The reason why we put the social component on Footnote rather than just being a repository is, there are so many more pieces of the puzzle that need to come together,” said Justin Schroepfer, director of marketing at Footnote.com.
Because digitization is costly, NARA works out agreements with companies to help digitize the agency’s materials. For online access to Footnote.com’s roughly 60 million historical documents, users pay $79.95 per year, $11.95 per month or $2.95 for an individual image.
In the late 1990s, researchers began taking an active interest in Holocaust-era assets. At first, they focused on dormant Swiss bank accounts and looted gold, but in several years, interest expanded to looted cultural property and artwork, according to NARA. To meet the demand, the agency launched an ambitious project to put on microfilm some 2.3 million pages related to the records, said James Hastings, director of access programs at NARA. Footnote.com is doing its digitization work from NARA's microfilm.
The new online Holocaust collection has nearly 600 personal accounts provided by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Ardelia Hall Collection of records related to the Nazi looting of Jewish possessions.
Converting original records to microfilm and now digitizing them continue to improve public access, Hastings said. Before the agency began putting documents on microfilm, people could only view original materials at NARA’s facility in College Park, Md.
“Once it’s digitized and it’s online and indexed, there’s no limit to the access, so people can come to any of our research rooms and use these materials,” Hastings said.
Greg Bradsher, a senior archivist at NARA who compiled a 1,200-page guide for research on Holocaust-era assets, said microfilming was the first step in transforming the research process. “Once we started microfilming, that meant microfilm could be purchased or loaned and could be used elsewhere,” he said.
Digitization is the next step. “Rather than sitting down in front of a microfilm reader or a bunch of boxes and going page after page after page, there will be some search capabilities that will allow you to do word searches,” he said. “It just simply speeds up the whole process of research.”
NARA officials are working with British and German government archives to make other asset records available online, Hastings said, and they hope the French archives will also participate.
However, although the records will be more readily available and searchable, the complexity of the topic and the documents involved will still require sophisticated research skills, Bradsher and Hastings said.
“What digitization and online access does is it democratizes access,” Hastings said. “All of a sudden what was open only to the select few who could come to the research room is now open to everybody, so what will that mean – I don’t know – it’ll be interesting to see.”
Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.