Wednesday, April 22, 2009

MARAC: There and Back Again: Nazi Anthropological Data at the Smithsonian

I wrote this post during a long layover at the Detroit Metro Airport on 21 April 2009, and finished around 8:35 PM, but simply wasn't prepared to pay $8.00 for the privilege of accessing DTW's wireless connection.

I attended this session simply because the topic seemed interesting, and I’m glad I did: the records at the center of this session are inherently interesting (albeit in a disturbing sort of way), have a complicated, transnational provenance, and processing them, reformatting them, and determining where they should be housed posed real challenges. Although most of us will never encounter a situation quite as complex, many of us eventually encounter records of uncertain or disputed provenance, materials that lack discernable order, or multi-stage reformatting projects. The decisions that the Smithsonian made and the lessons that it learned thus ought to be of interest to many archivists.

The records in question were created by the Institut für Deutsche Ostarbeit (IDO; Institute for German Work in the East), which the Nazis created in 1940 to settle all questions relating to occupation of Eastern Europe. Edie Hedlin (Smithsonian Institution Archives), Beth Schuster (Thomas Balch Library), and Ruth Selig (Smithsonian) took turns discussing the records’ complicated custodial history and the Smithsonian’s involvement with them.

The IDO had many sections, including one that focused on “racial and national traditions” and researched Polish ethnic groups; however, apart from one study completed in the Tarnow ghetto, the IDO’s racial and national section did not study Jews. The section gathered or created data forms (e.g., personal and family histories), photographs of people and objects, and bibliographic and reference cards and published articles based on some of this research.

U.S. and British troops captured the IDO’s records in 1945, and the U.S. Army brought the records to the United States in 1947. The War Department’s intelligence division and the Surgeon General’s medical intelligence unit went through the records (in the process destroying whatever original order may have existed) and then offered them to the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian accepted the records, but then transferred some of them to the Library of Congress, the National Gallery of Art, and the Pentagon (which then sent some of the records to the National Archives). As a result, there are small pieces of the collection all over Washington, DC.

The IDO records held by the Smithsonian were not used for research until 1997, when a cultural anthropologist reorganized some of them, created the collection’s first detailed finding aid, and eventually published a book based on her research.

In 2003, the Polish Embassy requested that the IDO records be returned to Poland. It took the Smithsonian about five years to figure out how to respond to this request, and its response was the product of repeated consultation between various units of the Smithsonian, the State Department’s Holocaust studies unit, and the Library of Congress, which had received competing requests from the German and Polish governments for materials that had been created by German authorities but which concerned Poland; the State Department, which noted that the Smithsonian’s decision might set a precedent, wanted the governments to reach some sort of agreement concerning the materials in LC’s possession.

In order to determine how it would respond to the Polish government’s request, the Smithsonian set up a task force that examined:
  • Accepted archival principles and guidelines;
  • Whether the U.S. Army had acted legally when it took the records and gave them to the Smithsonian;
  • Whether the other Allied nations had any legal claim to the records;
  • The Smithsonian’s authority to acquire, hold, and de-accession archival collections;
  • The records’ unique characteristics and potential research uses;
  • Whether various other parties—the U.S. Army, the Bundesarchiv and other German government agencies, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Polish government, and the U.S. State Department—had any interest in the records;
  • The impact of any precedents that the Smithsonian’s actions would establish upon the Smithsonian itself, the Library of Congress, the Hoover Institution (which holds most of the records of the Polish government in exile), and U.S. government agencies.
The process of determining whether other parties had any interest in the records required tact and discretion. However, the Smithsonian eventually determined that neither the U.S. Army nor the Bundesarchiv objected to returning the records to Poland, and the State Department, which was extremely helpful throughout the process, determined that the German government had no interest in the records.

In September 2005, the Smithsonian decided that it would make copies of the records and then transfer the originals to the Jagiellonian University Archives, which agreed to make them publicly accessible. It opted to digitize the records and then produce microfilm from the scans, and needed to raise a lot of money to do so. It initially requested funding from a private foundation, which deferred giving an answer for approximately a year. When the Polish Embassy inquired about the status of the project, the Smithsonian seized the opportunity to cc: approximately 20 other people and institutions in its response. As a result of this e-mail exchange, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum offered funding for digitization and for conservation and allowed the Smithsonian to use its standing digitization contract; the Polish university to which the records were headed also offered some support.

The Smithsonian engaged Schuster, an archival intern fluent in German, to process the records and oversee their digitization. Schuster humidified, flattened, and cleaned the records, which were trifolded and covered in coal dust and other contaminants, and rehoused them in boxes suitable for A4-sized paper. She imposed order upon them, which was no small challenge. The anthropologist who prepared the initial finding aid had attempted to arrange the records geographically; however, she was chiefly interested in the IDO’s Tarnow ghetto and Krakow studies, and as a result most of the collection was unarranged. Schuster ultimately organized the records by type. In order to preserve the initial arrangement of the records (which was reflected in the anthropologist’s published citations), she created an Access database that tracked the original and new order of each document in the collection and generated container lists that contained crosswalks between the two arrangements.

Schuster also shared a couple of lessons she learned during the digitization phase of the project:
  • Digitization should begin only after a collection is completely conserved and reprocessed. Project deadlines led the Smithsonian to start digitizing as soon as possible, and as a result, the image files had to be renamed after processing.
  • Do not underestimate the amount of time and effort needed for good quality control. The Smithsonian needed accurate, complete surrogates and to ensure that every original had been scanned, and as a result Schuster needed to examine each image and count the number of pages in each folder. She had to send back to the vendor many originals that were scanned crookedly or were missed, and she has a jaundiced view of outsourcing as a result.
The project wrapped up in late September 2007, when the records were sent to Poland via diplomatic pouch; however, Schuster continued to rename the image files and correct the finding aid, and the Smithsonian finished producing microfilm from the digital surrogates in April 2009. The transfer deeply pleased the Polish government: within a few months of the transfer, it tracked down people who had taken part in IDO studies as children and completed a short film highlighting their recollections.

Ruth Selig concluded by making a very important point: the transfer was successful because the Smithsonian committed to working through a complicated process in a very deliberate, step-by-step manner. Many different institutions were brought together in interesting and unanticipated ways, and everyone was pleased with the outcome. Even the State Department was pleased; the initial request was technically issued by Jagiellonian University and directed to the Smithsonian, which is not a government agency, so the Smithsonian’s transfer decision really isn't precedent-setting.

All in all, a good session full of practical tips for dealing with a wide array of complex issues.

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