Preserving a Bit of Holocaust History

Every once in awhile a story comes along that allows us to see how the wonders of modern technology can help us better understand and preseve our past. One such story hit the wire back in December when Gale, a part of Cengage Learning and McMaster University announced an agreement that allowed Gale to digitize McMaster University's collection of materials related to the Holocaust, propaganda, and the Jewish underground resistance movement during World War II. This spring, researchers will see the first fruits of those labors.

"The tragic, historical record of the Holocaust and the war-related stories and events of the victims and resisters should never be forgotten. McMaster University Library is committed to the description and digitization of its Holocaust and Resistance collections in order to make these unique materials available on a global basis," says Carl Spadoni, director of research collections at McMaster University Library.

McMasters' Holocaust collection spans more than a decade-1933 to 1945-and consists of nearly 2,000 letters in several different languages from or to prisoners in Dachau, Buchenwald, and Auschwitz, as well as in Gestapo prisons and POW camps. In many instances there are series of letters by the same prisoner. There is also a diary of the Nazi evacuation from Ravensbrück, as well as a hand-fashioned recipe book, which prisoners exchanged among themselves. This is just the tip of the iceberg as the collection also includes books, posters, magazines, newspapers, and air-drop leaflets.

"The collections are quite unique and represent one of the most extensive collections of their kind. They are a critical component for holocaust education and research. ..." says Jeff Trzeciak, university librarian at McMaster. "More importantly, they will now also be available to educators who are interested in promoting holocaust education. While they represent a uniquely horrific period in our history they are also relevant to understanding more recent events such as Rwanda and Darfur."

In addition to the Holocaust collection, Gale will digitize materials from the Jewish underground resistance collection, which includes documents from the personal collection of David Diamant, a Jewish communist and member of the underground resistance during World War II. Documents on prisoners and deportations, as well as songs and poems from prisoners, are included.

Gale has enlisted Ristech, a Canadian scanning vendor, to help with the large task of getting this massive and delicate archive digitized. "Ristech will set-up and utilize the book2net scanner technology and software in the library at McMaster University. The book2net technology will [ensure] that quality images are made available to end-users," says Jim Draper, vice president and publisher at Gale. The work does not end there, though. "Upon acceptance of the scanned images from Ristech, Gale will have the images OCR'd, and associated XML files [will be] created offshore. There are a number of quality control checks that are performed. The approved digital images and associated metadata is then dropped into the application."

The archives will be made available through Gale's Archives Unbound program, which makes full-text-searchable collections of highly targeted historical documents available. As you may imagine, though, irreplaceable 70-year-old documents need to be handled with care (perhaps, all the more reason to hurry up and get them digitized). "McMaster has a preservationist on staff who will be involved in the process. The materials will not leave the premises," says Trzeciak. "Ristech ... [has] staff who are trained in handling fragile and unique materials and in digitization."

"The digitized content will be made available, through the Archives Unbound platform, to staff, students, and researchers of McMaster University and those designated users having access via a McMaster University authentication," says Draper. "Walk-ins who make use of computers physically located within any McMaster University library are also included as authorized users." With many different languages-including German and Yiddish-represented in the collection, researchers will be able to use the "language search" function available through Archives Unbound to find what they are looking for.

Gale started the digitization process in November 2010 and expects to go live early this spring.