Helping to Reveal a Present History

In the spring of 2006, Andover-Harvard Theological Library at Harvard Divinity School was contacted by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., with an expressed interest in obtaining copies of the library's records of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) for use at the museum.

More than two years later, a massive digitization project of roughly 243 boxes of archival material is underway that will serve to create electronic copies for online use and microfilm for long-term preservation. The project includes 28 collections from the Unitarian Service Committee (USC) and two collections from the Universalist Service Committee. Both collections are part of the archives of Andover-Harvard Theological Library, which is the official archive of the UUSC.

The extensive digitization effort is jointly funded by the museum and the Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporaine (CDJC) in Paris. Both organizations collect materials and resources related to the Holocaust and serve as influential centers for Holocaust research.

"This important collection will shed light on the relief efforts of the American Unitarian Association and Universalist Church of America in Europe before and after World War II," says U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum archivist Aleksandra Borecka. "These records complement the museum's archival collection on the American Friends Service Committee and Martha and Waitstill Sharp, all of whom were among the few organizations and individuals who worked to save Jews and others threatened by Nazism."

The digitization project will, upon its anticipated completion in early 2010, make roughly 250,000 documents and 2,700 images related to the Holocaust and the UUSC's humanitarian efforts during World War II available to researchers and the public online.

"This is one of the most exciting things we have done since I've been here," said Laura Wood, librarian at Andover-Harvard Theological Library. "We have had this collection, and we've been doing our best by it, but now we have an opportunity to do even more."

Led by its early pioneers, Martha and Waitstill Sharp, the USC was established in 1940 by the American Unitarian Association as a wartime relief organization to provide assistance to refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. In 1963, the USC merged with the Universalist Service Committee to form the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, now based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The contents of the UUSC's collection at Andover-Harvard date back to 1938 and document the efforts the Committees made during and after World War II to feed, clothe, and shelter displaced children and adults in Europe, and to help many of them establish themselves in the United States.

"We are hopeful that these archives will help families around the world unite, or at least trace, refugees of the diaspora who were clients of the USC in Europe before, during, or after World War II," said Charlie Clements, president and CEO of the UUSC.

Following congressional approval of the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, which allowed individuals who were displaced from their home countries to enter the United States, the USC reviewed applications for those applying for assistance and helped them find homes and employment in the United States. Some of the related correspondence and applications within these records include the biographical information and occupations of displaced individuals working and living in the United States.

Images from the collections, mostly taken after the war, tell the visual stories of refugees who stayed in the centers, homes, hospitals, and orphanages the Service Committee established in Europe to distribute food, clothing, and medicine.

The digitization project at Andover-Harvard marks another step in a process begun more than a decade ago to ensure that the collections of the UUSC are available to researchers. In 1997, the library completed a 15-month project of cataloging and preserving the institutional records of the UUSC. The new digital project will enable the library to be in a better position as it moves toward possible future efforts to allow broader access to its collections online.

"This project is a hugely significant contribution to the future scholarly study of dimensions of the defining twentieth-century tragedy of the Holocaust," said William A. Graham, Dean of Harvard Divinity School. "It is immensely gratifying for us that Andover-Harvard Theological Library is able to join forces with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, as well as the UUSC and the CDJC in Paris, to make available online these important archival materials bearing upon such critical issues as the many little- or unknown individual stories of bravery in the face of the Nazi campaign."

The UUSC records are stored at the Harvard Depository, an off-site storage facility. However, until the project is complete, the collection has been relocated on-site in Cambridge.

According to Fran O'Donnell, curator of manuscripts and archives at the library, the collection currently receives a great deal of use. O'Donnell handles numerous email messages from researchers about the collection and helps those who visit the library work with the documents.

"Many of the researchers want to know about the USC staff members and the kinds of work that they did and who they were," said O'Donnell. "That has been unexpected. You would think that most of the interest would be on the people they assisted, and certainly there's a lot of attention there, but there is a lot of interest in the staff workers, too."

By taking a sample size of the contents within the collection's 243 boxes of archival material, members of the library staff were able to get an estimate of how many pages would be in a typical folder, then how many folders were typically in a box.

"We assumed there would be around 250,000 total pages or exposures," Wood explained. "The collection is large enough that we don't have the resources to count every page, and the majority of the paper is very thin. We call it 'onion skin' typewriter paper."

In preparation for scanning, the library hired three HDS students to comb through the documents to remove any staples, paperclips, and old rubber bands. The students also identified and flagged duplicate copies of the documents, so that they would not be recorded a second time.

The process of scanning each page and image of the collection has been turned over to Crowley Micrographics, a commercial imaging company based in Frederick, Maryland.

On November 3, 2008, the library received a hard drive from Crowley with the first test batch of digitized scans from the collection. The test batch included six boxes of documents and one folder of images.

With assistance from Harvard's Office of Information Systems, the library staff is currently undertaking quality control measures. They will examine the digital aspects of the scans and will ensure that images are set at the appropriate resolution and that all documents are legible.

"So far it looks pretty good," says O'Donnell. "We really don't know just how time-consuming this whole thing is going to be from here on in, so we'll be learning more as we go along."

The test results will enable revisions to the digital specifications outlined in the original agreement between the library, Crowley, and the museum. The modifications are mostly related to fine-tuning the processes, including reworking the process for photographs.

Though the finding aids on the library's website will be the gateway for accessing each item of the collection stored in Harvard University's Digital Repository Service, text-based documents, such as letters and financial documents, will be viewed through Harvard's Page Delivery Service. Images will be viewed through Harvard's Visual Information Access, which is the visual images catalogue of the University libraries.

Ultimately, HDS will receive a copy of the digital collection and a microfilm copy, while also holding on to the original records. The museum will receive a complete set of the digital collections and will hold the master copy of the microfilm. The CDJC will receive a sublicense from the museum and will hold a full copy of the digital materials.

According to Wood, the reason a digital archival project such as this is so new is because of its expense. It is generally very difficult to find the funding and the justification for digitizing everything in a collection.

"Most of the digitized manuscript material at Harvard is just partial," added O'Donnell. "If you go onto a finding aid at the Houghton Library, you'll find parts of it that are digitized, but it's pretty rare to have this kind of mass digitization. It is still a very new thing in the archival world to do this, and people are just feeling their way."