Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Bettina Schmidt-Czaia, Cologne Archives

I honestly don't know how I missed it, but on 27 March the Guardian Weekly published Bettina Schmidt-Czaia's first-person account of the collapse of the Historical Archive of the City of Cologne. Schmidt-Czaia is the director of the Historical Archive, and her matter-of-fact narrative is wrenching.

3 March 2009 began well for Schmidt-Czaia, who spent part of the morning reflecting upon the progress that she and her growing staff were making: they were improving the care of the collections and creating new programs and exhibits that raised the repository's public profile. However, shortly after lunch, an alarm went off, everyone was told to leave the building immediately, and everything literally fell apart:
I opened the door of the reading room on the ground floor, and was confronted with panic. People were running in different directions or frantically packing up their belongings . . . . The last thing I remember doing was shouting "Outside, everybody, outside!" And then I ran.

A few seconds after I reached the back door and ran out onto the street, the school yard behind our building collapsed. When I turned around I saw the upper part of the archive bursting into a big, brown cloud.

I screamed. A terrible pain grew in my stomach as I realised what was happening. Cultural remains, collected for much longer than hundreds of years, were being destroyed. And it was taking place within seconds.
Schmidt-Czaia discusses in detail the recovery effort taking place at the site and the impact of the collapse on the archive's donors and its users, which include not only scholars but also school groups, genealogists, and the many people who saw the archive's local history exhibits. Finally, she outlines her hopes for building a new archival facility in a different part of the city.

Schmidt-Czaia has all of the hallmarks of a truly top-notch archivist: love of the records in her care, deep concern for her staff, determination to carry on despite suffering inconceivable loss, and a clear vision for the future. No archivist worth his or her salt will fail to be humbled and moved by her simple, eloquent account of living through and responding to the unthinkable.

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