a A

Pragmatic description

Giora Zwilling (front left), head of the Department of Archival Description, and his team

The ITS holds one of the world’s largest collections of documents on the history of the Holocaust, the concentration camps, Nazi forced labor and displaced persons. Unlike most other archives, this unique collection is very mixed and is not organized according to a uniform structure. For example, the documents are not arranged together based on their origin, as they usually are in an archive. In order to simplify the daily search for names, the ITS described its original documents, correspondence files and copies of other collections primarily on the basis of the names of people and places. For a long time, archival description in the interests of historical research was not part of the mandate of the ITS.

The opening of the archive in 2007 was a turning point. The ITS started to describe its collection in a way that would make it easier for external users to work with it. The ITS had not had any trained archivists before then, so departmental employees put together finding aids under the guidance of an archivist. These finding aids systematically described the collection – but only a very small part of it. After all, there are 30 million documents in total. “Now we’re striking a balance,” says Giora Zwilling, head of the Department of Archival Description. “We’re focusing on describing the archive in a central database – the way it actually is.” Zwilling is one of four historians currently working with an archivist to describe the ITS archive. He was previously head of the digitization preparation department at the Yad Vashem memorial, and in 2017 he focused on preparing for the online publication of the complex Collection 1.1 of the ITS. “I would call our approach optimal and user-focused, but also pragmatic,” he says, characterizing the description procedure. Part of this entails setting priorities for online publication. Even a department that has grown to five employees cannot describe 40 sub-collections with 3,000 smaller archive units on every level down to the finest detail – otherwise the publication would take decades. “But description on the top level, for example, is very important,” Zwilling explains.

For Zwilling, the ITS archive is something special, and it must be handled in a special way. “We are a historical archive and nothing like a classic administrative archive,” he remarks. He says the ITS has to work with this. Even though the older part of the online collection is structured differently than Collection 1.1, which is about to be published online, this is no reason for the ITS not to publish as quickly as possible. “A shared search mask for the old and new sections could be helpful to users," Zwilling says. The important thing is for as many people as possible to be able to access the archive and use it according to their needs. “We have a moral obligation to make the documents reasonably accessible and transparent,” he declares. “By publishing the collection online, we will reach many, many people. This is our future – and the future of all archives.”