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„At first everything was improvised“

Who were the first visitors and how did the ITS organize the change? Nicole Dominicus is now head of the archival management department. At the opening of the archives in 2007, she was responsible for enquiries and visitor support. She relates about the time after the opening and how difficult historical research was initially when the International Tracing Service (ITS) began to consider itself not only as a tracing service but also as an archive.

Do you remember the first visitors and the first requests after the archive opening?

The first requests came immediately after the International Commission's approval and the first press releases on the opening for historical research. At first, everything was improvised: from the terms of use to the visitor's room. I still remember the visit of the members of the board of "Stichting October44" to Bad Arolsen who came immediately in autumn 2007. They came from the Netherlands because they wanted to research many names for their memorial book. We also discovered that there were effects in our archive belonging to some of the individuals whom our guests wanted to research. The result was a long-standing cooperation which started on the return of these effects. The personal belongings could already be returned to family members in January 2008.

We received many enquiries, most of them from Germany, but also from the USA, France and the Netherlands: for “Stolperstein” projects, from local historians and the first memorials. Most requests were about victim biographies, as the ITS was able to use its metadata on personal details from the digitisation processes of the individual records for this purpose. Due to the lack of metadata, topic searches had involved considerable effort before.

What changes did it involve for the staff?

Direct contact with the visitors was something completely new. We received many very impressive guests at the ITS. Of course, many things changed: In the summer of 2008, a separate unit within the archive department with twelve employees was set up to deal with enquiries and visitor support. In the beginning, they all had a different level of record and document knowledge. It was therefore imperative to exchange knowledge in order to help new applicants as swiftly as possible.

How could the visitors use the service at that time? What did the ITS undertake to facilitate the search?

After the improvised start, everything became more professional: from summer 2008 on, there was a reading room with eight to ten PC workstations. The database with the digitised documents was still being set up. Initially, only the records regarding imprisonment, forced labor and the post-war period were available, as well as the Central Index of Names. The records of the IRO Care and Maintenance Programme (CM/1) from the post-war period were still missing. Gradually, further collections of Children’s Tracing Service and general information were added. The correspondence files were not yet part of the database. Digitisation of these collections did not start until 2010, which is why original documents were often used in the beginning. Whenever necessary, we handed out photocopies or provided digital images at a later date.

The indexing of the document collection for historical research purposes was started when the ITS hired an archivist at the end of 2008. An indexing strategy was developed which included digital finding aids. Previously, only those search tools could be used which had been created over time for search work. By the way, users are still working with them today. Indexing is a complex project.