Library digitizes Holocaust testimonies


Yale University Library is in the midst of the digitization of the Fortunoff Video Archive’s roughly 4500 testimonies from the Holocaust, many of survivors, without which the testimonies would soon become inaccessible.

The machines that play the 13,000 one-hour tapes in the Fortunoff Archive, which was officially acquired by the University in 1981 but received a large donation to its endowment fund from Alan Fortunoff in 1987, are no longer in production, so the transition to a digital format is essential for preservation, said Joanne Rudof, archivist for the Fortunoff Archive. Rudof added that digitization will allow researchers to access the archive remotely in place of having to go to the Sterling Memorial Library to watch a physical tape.

“People all over the world are waiting for access to this,” Rudof said.

The digitization began in February 2010, Rudof said, and will conclude “sometime in 2014.” Once the project is complete, users will be able to access parts of the archive electronically with a password after a registration process.

Rudof said the initiative “dwarfs” any other digitization project on campus since most collections have only text or still images and require less storage space. Rudof said she estimates that 2,600 digitized of the 13,000 have been digitized already, though none of the digitized material will be available to researchers until whole project is complete.

Rudof estimated that around 100 to 150 people utilize the Fortunoff Archive every year, watching a total of roughly 900 testimonies. The new digitization will enable the library to measure the frequency with which testimonies are viewed, which it is currently unable to do. She added that a new time-coded summary online will also allow users to more efficiently move between segments of videos, while patrons must currently use a hard copy and fast-forward on the tapes.

Christine Weideman, director of the Department of Manuscripts and Archives, said in a Thursday email that the testimonies have been used in award-winning books, articles, documentaries and musical compositions.

Prior to the creation of the Fortunoff Archive, only audio and written testimonies existed for researchers’ use, Rudof said, and Fortunoff set the standard for making Holocaust video archives intellectually accessible.

“It pioneered the process of creating, cataloging, and providing access to video testimonies and is viewed by the research and library communities as an exceptional leader in the field of Holocaust studies and documentation,” Weideman said.

Jessica Helfand ’82 ART ’89, a lecturer in Yale College who teaches the freshman seminar “Studies in Visual Biography,” said she took her students at the Fortunoff Archive to teach them to use primary sources, but she said the testimonies made her students “grow up a little.”

“Something happens when they spend time with these testimonies,” Helfand said. “[Students] reach deeper, because the experience of bearing witness to these extraordinary testimonies is visual and historical and meaningful and unforgettable.”

Yale Hillel co-president Sam Gardenswartz ’13 said he is excited about the digitization of the archive because future generations of Yale students will be able to hear the stories of the Holocaust survivors included in the collection.

The Fortunoff Archive consists of testimonies in 19 languages.

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