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Archival Workshop at the ITS

During a recent two-day meeting in Bad Arolsen, participants discussed such topics as methods of indexing, the use of archive terminology according to international standards and access for ITS (International Tracing Service) archive users. Fourteen participants from seven countries attended, including archivists from Yad Vashem, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the French and Belgian national archives, institutions which work with complete copies of documents from the ITS archive. In addition, representatives from the Vienna Library, the Dutch Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies (NIOD), the Federal Archive, the International Council on Archives (ICA) and archivists from the University of Amsterdam also took part.

Archivists first discussed the question of indexing the ITS holdings for scientific research. During the past several decades, the ITS used an inventory sheet showing only when documents were received but no information on their provenance. “In that way, the Tracing Service is unlike other archives,” said Karsten Kühnel, head of indexing. The physical storage of documents was also based solely on the Tracing Service´s requirements: the main criteria were that victims´ names were recorded on paper and their use at the Tracing Service.

By updating its indexing procedures, the ITS would also like to make the provenance of the documents clear and adhere to the principle of provenance used by archivists worldwide. The ITS´s goal is to become more than just a tracing service.  In addition to focusing on individual fates, it should be possible to research all historical questions in connection with the Nazi regime.

Archival Description

“Transparency is the basic principle of our archival indexing,” said Kühnel. “We will make the provenance principle available online in the database, while the physical collection will remain in its current form.” The description should also contain chronological progression and show the relationships to the various collections. “The parallel structures of pertinence and provenance which will ultimately be seen have to do with the history of the Tracing Service and its changing function,” said Kühnel.

Peter Horsman of the University of Amsterdam emphasized the importance of providing a context for the documents; the question of why a document exists is being discussed, as well as its provenance. “The physical ordering of documents has become less important in archival science,” Horsman explained. Institutions are focusing on depicting the multi-layered relationships between documents: “It´s about describing the collections, their provenance, their original function and their tasks within the institution where they are now held.”

Suzanne Brown-Fleming from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum raised some concerns. She is afraid that overhauling the indexing system to conform to the principle of provenance could be too time-consuming and believes that the ITS should instead concentrate on expanding and deepening its inventory sheet. Petra Links from the Dutch Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies (NIOD) noted the difficulties of making archival material on the topic of Nazi persecution available for research. “A researcher has to visit up to five places in order to compile all the necessary data on a particular concentration camp,” she said. The planned EHRI project will address this issue, creating an internet overview of the various relevant archives and a body of source material.

Sigal Arie-Erez from Yad Vashem pointed out how the behavior of archive users has changed: “They expect more exact information and want to be able to do internet research in multiple languages. Our mission at Yad Vashem is for everyone to have better access to the documents.” Internet users often have less research expertise, so in future archives will need to provide more and more information on the documents and their inventories, said Karsten Uhde from the Archive School in Marburg.

The experts disagreed on the extent of the descriptions of origins and relationships to be done either by archivists or through research. They agreed that archivists should work together to create an easily understandable framework for describing historical contexts, one which meets the indexing standards of the ISAAR-CPF (International Standard for Archival Authority Records – Corporate Bodies, Persons and Families).

Standards of Archive Terminology

The ITS pledged to adhere to international standards in the future during the discussion on archive terminology. Considering the necessarily multilingualism and the challenges inherent in finding synonymous expressions in the different languages, the ITS plans to use the fewest possible archival terms. An internet glossary will clarify the terms´ use and translation. The inventory sheet previously used by the Tracing Service adopted an internal terminology, which will not be used in the future.

Archive terminology will also be agreed with partner institutions which work with ITS holdings, ensuring that all parties involved mean the same thing when they discuss particular archive items. Horsman recommended “explaining as much as possible as clearly as possible.” Karsten Uhde offered the support of the International Archive Council on Archives. The ICA also presented its current project on a multilingual databank.

Usability and Accessibility of ITS Material

One of the first items discussed was the schedule of fees introduced in October 2010 by the ITS, which researchers had recently complained about. Researchers in Bad Arolsen have free access to all documents in the ITS archive. The charge for copies was limited by the schedule of fees. Afterwards the “publishing of the entire collection of files” was “no longer possible.” This formulation proved to be problematic in practice, as the ITS had not yet catalogued its holdings according to archival convention. Along these lines, anywhere from a single piece of paper to a hundred pages could constitute an “entire collection.” Hans-Dieter Kreikamp from the Federal Archives pointed out during the discussion that “a limitation of the number of copies can only be defended on the basis of conservation and no other reason.”

The most important changes in the planned new regulations are based on the reversal of the policy to limit the number of copies made. All archival specialist terms were removed from the schedule of fees. Future charges for copies will be included in research proposals under the rubric “purpose of use”. The international committee and its eleven members, who set the guidelines under which the ITS operates, will make a final decision on the new regulations at an interim committee meeting in November, 2011.

Lastly, different ways of using the digital ITS inventory were compared, using examples from the US, Belgium and the ITS. The USHMM and the ITS use a common database. The Belgian National Archives has developed its own solution due to financial reasons, but also to be able to provide a user-friendly application in the style of other databases at the National Archives.

Diane Afoumado offered to share USHMM auxiliary files with partner organizations.  This would allow them to use the ITS collection, including a description of the Central Name Index, in which various cards and abbreviations are explained. “Our goal is to open the archives to the public as quickly as possible,” said Afoumado. Horsman emphasized the importance of cooperation in indexing and working with the ITS documents, copies of which are available in seven countries. “We have the technology as well as the knowledge,” said Horsman. Uhde suggested that research done by partner institutions on individual fates also be put in the common database OuS-Archiv. To date, only correspondence from Arolsen was stored in the correspondence files, which were made public only after a 25-year waiting period. 

Program and individual presentations

Download conference program (pdf file)

Download individual presentations:

Section I: Making Archives Usable: Terms and Methodology of Archival Description

Karsten Kühnel (ITS): Competition of Principles? – Transparency as the Aim of Archival Description - Abstract and Text

Peter Horsman (University of Amsterdam): Wrapping Records in Narratives - Representing Context through Archival Description  - Abstract, Text and Presentation

Petra Links (NIOD, Amsterdam): Integrating Metadata into Networks - An Opportunity for Further Implementation of International Standards and Increased Accessibility - Abstract

Section II: Objects of Using and Archival Terminology

Filip Strubbe (National Archives of Belgium): Archival Terminology within the Framework of Archival Identification and Description at the Belgian State Archives - Abstract and Presentation

Karsten Uhde (International Council on Archives, ICA and Archives School Marburg): Multilingual Archival Dictionary Database – A Project of ICA-SAE about Archival Terminology - Text and Presentation

Jens Zirpins (ITS): Archival Terms and their Meaning in the ITS-Tradition - Text

Section III: Usability and Accessibility of the ITS Material

Suzanne Brown-Fleming (USHMM): Digitized Records of the ITS at the USHMM: Usability for Scholars - Text

Diane Afoumado (USHMM): Searching for Individuals in the ITS Collection and the Museum Holdings - Presentation

Filip Strubbe (National Archives of Belgium): Usability and Accessibility of the ITS Material at the National Archives of Belgium - Text and Presentation