Voices of the Holocaust Resonate on the Web

Jewish children on their way to Palestine after having been released from the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. National Archives.

The collections of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum include recorded accounts from people who experienced one of the most horrific events in history. And, by the very nature of these interviews, the Museum faces a unique challenge: the last of the potential interviewees are aging and dying.

Time is running out and opportunities to record more witnesses diminish each day. So the Museum is urgently pushing to acquire all of the interviews and stories it can, while it can and — adhering to the best digital preservation and access practices — safely archive them and get them online as quickly as it can.

The Museum  opened to the public in 1993. Its expansive collection consists of books and other publications, microform and paper material, over 92,000 cataloged photographs, over 65 million copied pages from state and private institutions, private papers, posters, memoirs, journals, clippings, ID cards, three-dimensional objects (e.g. textiles, camp uniforms, Star of David badges),  film and video documentary footage, and oral history interviews.

To date it has collected over 12,000 audio and video interviews, many of which they make available online. The Museum produced about 25 to 30 percent of these interviews; the rest came from personal donations and acquisitions from over 70 organizations. Some were born digital and some were digitized from tape and film media. All of the oral histories that the Museum produced are now digital; it is in the process of converting the rest.

There is a range of interviewees: survivors, liberators, veterans, postwar prosecutors, relief workers, nurses, social workers and more. James Gilmore, an archives specialist at the Museum, said, “We also have been conducting interviews with people who we might not consider direct victims of the Holocaust but who nevertheless witnessed events in their homeland relating to the Holocaust or other forms of Nazi brutality. We also have interviews with some individuals who were complicit in helping the Nazis, others who were clear collaborators and still others who were outright perpetrators. Interviewees could range from someone who might have seen something for just a matter of minutes to someone who was close enough to the brutality for months or even years.”

The importance of first-person accounts cannot be overstated, despite that fact that people’s recollections – no matter how vivid – can be deceptive. Peter Black, senior historian of the Museum, said, “The vital importance of preserving first-hand accounts of historical events, despite whatever inaccuracies or inconsistencies that an individual account might contain, lies in their collective contribution to the historical record. They reveal or shed additional light on facts that do not get recorded in the written historical record and would otherwise disappear into the mists of history. And they provide insight into how human actors felt in any given historical event, a significant piece of that event’s reconstruction that is often lost in official documentation.”

Though the museum has copies of the David Boder interviews, which were conducted in displaced person camps immediately after the war, most of the interviews were recorded years after the event.

Some interviewees were children at the time and their memories are from a child’s point of view, so as adults they may interpret or modify what they recall. Some compartmentalized the trauma in their memory in order to be able to go on with their lives. Some are practiced at telling their stories to the point where their narrative has crystallized and they can tell their stories dispassionately. Some were finally ready to open up after decades of silence. Gilmore stressed that each and every story is important. “In the end,” said Gilmore, “the voices of the interviewees are a valuable part of Holocaust history. They provide an opportunity to understand these events in ways the analysis of historical text cannot.”

The 15th Street/Eisenhower Plaza entrance to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Credit: Max Reid, USHMM Photo Archives.

The Museum applies the best possible preservation practices for its digital oral histories, as it does for all of its digital content. To accommodate its collection, the Museum is currently evaluating next-generation storage and digital asset management systems that will help ensure access control, proper metadata and proper identification of files.

Michael Levy, director of Digital Collections at the Museum, considers each step in the process of handling each file to be crucially important, including human workflows, application of descriptive, contextual, technical, and administrative metadata, naming conventions and migration paths, as well as machine systems such as bit-level fixity checking. Levy said of that last point, “If you can’t validate a file, how can you be sure that a thing is what you think it is?”

The Museum is a member of the National Digital Stewardship Alliance and Levy notes that the NDSA has provided a supportive environment for staff from the Museum. “The NDSA is a way to help exchange information with colleagues from other institutions and see where we have common problems,” Levy said. “We feel like we are part of a national-level challenge to preserve digital material.”

Staff at the Museum also deals with the challenges of ingesting and organizing donated digital files. Some files may be delivered on CDs, some on drives and some on aging rack mounted RAID spinning disk units. Naming conventions and organizational structure of the files vary. And metadata runs the gamut from rich and complete to non-existent.

The Museum follows strict archival principles in organizing their files (such as series, sub-series and so on). An interview might span several digitized tapes but intellectually — and at the item-level cataloging — one story gets one description. Still, each element, such as a tape or disk drive, needs to be cataloged and tracked as it relates to an overall event.

Their digital data resides on several different systems and databases, which is manageable for Museum staff but in the past has frustrated researchers. “We use one system to catalog 3-D objects and oral histories,” said Levy. “We use another disparate standalone system for film and video, another for photos and a different one for the library books. Researchers had to go to different places in the website to access different materials.”

The museum simplified their web-based search system to display a single search interface through which users can access all of the distributed collections and systems. Users can filter searches by language, geography and more, and display the resulting information on a single page. Museum staff engineered this data-integration through using and customizing the open-source Blacklight next-generation catalog search system, which provides an interface to disparate data sets indexed with the open-source Solr search platform.

Part of the index and search process involves manually adding keywords and descriptive metadata and by adhering to the Library of Congress subject headings. The museum also inherited some of the metadata descriptions with the video collection they acquired from the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation.

German students and S.A. members with books and manuscripts to be burned in a public book burning. Berlin, May 10, 1933. Credit: Courtesy U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum/NARA

Many of the oral histories also have full transcriptions, which get indexed and made keyword-searchable; some even have time-coded notes that enable users to find specific moments in audio and video recordings by keyword.

The museum creates high-quality master files of the recording for preservation (WAV for audio and Motion JPEG 2000 for video) and compresses copies of the recordings for online access (MP3 for audio and MP4 for video).

The result of the museums efforts is that researchers can locate, sort and connect a variety of media in ways undreamed of by historians before.

While I gathered information for this story, staff at the Museum constantly reminded me that putting as many oral histories online as they could is the best way of highlighting the collections and making the collections widely accessible. James Gilmore summed it up best when he said, “We don’t want to just keep the collections to ourselves. We want people to watch them and listen to them. And to learn from them.”

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