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published: April, 2002

© Archives & Museum Informatics, 2002.
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MW2002: Papers

“Whaddya mean that’s not on the Web?”
Using Your Web Site to Provide Access to Your Undigitized Collections.

Megan Lewis, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, USA



The Registry of Holocaust Survivors, at the United States Holocaust Museum, answers research requests about the fate of specific individuals, and also maintains a database of over 120,000 Holocaust survivors. The Survivors Registry and the records held in the Museum’s library and archives are of great interest to member of the public searching for family members, survivors who need documentation, and genealogists. Neither the Survivors Registry nor the majority of collections used in our research are on-line. Unable to come to the Museum, researchers e-mail the Registry to ask that we look up the information for them.  However, the requests that come in lack important information, and delay the research process. What can the Registry do to ensure that research requests contain the proper information, and provide partial access to some of our non-digitized collections? This paper examines how the Registry is using its Web site to improve the quality of the requests that come into us, as well as  ways we can facilitate access to undigitized records.

Keywords: Undigitized collections, public access, research request, archival sources, automated forms


Many people have written papers about putting a museum’s collections on the Web and improving visitors’ access to that material, but what happens when a collection is not on the Web?  How can a museum use its Web site to provide access to information in its undigitized collections? This paper will look at options a museum can use, particularly the ones used by the Registry of Holocaust Survivors (Registry) at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM).


The Registry maintains a database of over 120,000 Holocaust survivors and is also the department of the USHMM that answers research requests about the fate of specific individuals. The Survivors Registry is available on touch-screen computers on the second floor of the USHMM, or in published form (either as a book or CD-ROM) at Holocaust centers, libraries and universities around the world.  Neither the Survivors Registry nor the majority of collections used in research are on-line.  The sources used in our research include published sources such as yizkor (memorial) books written for a specific town, books of victims published by camp museums or research foundations, and archival documents available on microfilm in the USHMM archives.Reasons for Keeping a Collection off the WebThere are several reasons a collection is not on the Web: privacy concerns, copyright issues, other demands on staff time, or a lack of funds. Privacy is a major concern for survivors.  Because of their experiences during the Holocaust, survivors have negative connotations about being on a list.  They worry about being targeted by Holocaust deniers and others because they are survivors.  Being identified as a Holocaust survivor also reveals a person’s age-the youngest child survivors are now in their late 50’s-and survivors worry they might be targeted by unscrupulous people because they are elderly. The Registry is understandably very protective of the survivors’ privacy. 

Most of the sources we use in our research are published works, databases created by other institutions, or copies of documents held by archives around the world.  Often, we do not have permission to put these sources on the Internet.  Even when the Registry can digitize a collection, such as records from the National Archives that are in the public domain, we do not have the staff time needed to set up the project; create the database and project protocols; and recruit, train, and oversee volunteers to do the data entry work.  Outsourcing to private firms can be costly and still requires a staff member to oversee the project. In the past, the Registry has worked to improve access to information by creating databases that index large archival collections.  Two examples of these databases are the Lvov Ghetto Database and the Krakow Ghetto Database, done as joint projects with Jewish Genealogical groups and available on the genealogical Web site Jewishgen.org. These efforts were time-consuming as well, and staffers are not always available to coordinate such efforts.

Nonetheless, the public knows our collections exist.  The Registry actively advertises to encourage survivors to register with us, and the USHMM’s library and archive catalogue is available on the USHMM’s Web site.

The Registry’s Web Site Users

The users who come to the Registry’s Web site are often looking for information on relatives whose fates are still unknown after sixty years.  Two other large categories of users are survivors who need documentation for compensation claims and genealogists who are often very Web-savvy.  Our users have a high emotional stake in their research requests and are often disappointed to discover the sources they want to check are not available on-line.  Genealogists in particular have expressed their disappointment that the Registry of Holocaust Survivors is not available on our Web site. 

Visitors come to our Web site from all over the United States and the world.  In 2001, we answered requests from 44 U.S. states and territories, 6 Canadian provinces, and 35 other countries, including requests from Albania and Laos.  Obviously, many of these visitors cannot come to the USHMM in person to do their research.

Thus, outside researchers e-mail us asking that someone look up the information they seek.  These e-mails can be vague or contain incomplete information, and  necessitate that staff members e-mail back for more information - time that could be better used to answer requests.

In 2001, the Registry answered approximately 2200 research requests, with over 1200 of them answered by e-mail.  The majority of research requests arrive via e-mail.  Oftentimes, these requests were incomplete, missing, for example, a birth date, residence before the war, or maiden name ;or the request was overly general; for example, “I would like to know if any of my family died in the Holocaust.  Their last name was Katz, and they were from Poland.” This incompleteness required a staff member to send at least one follow-up e-mail to get enough information to start research.  Also, requests were sometimes written in a narrative style that jumbled information together, sometimes making it difficult for the research staff to determine the details of a subject’s history.

Web Sites of Other Institutions with Similar Missions

I did a brief survey of Web sites of institutions with similar missions, similar collections and similar users to the Registry’s.  These Web sites visited were American Jewish Archives, the Jewish Museum of Maryland, Center for Jewish History, Beth Hatefutsoth, Museum of Jewish Heritage, Leo Baeck Institute, Auschwitz Jewish Center, Jewish Historical Institute, Auschwitz State Museum and Yad Vashem.  These institutions were chosen because staffers there are part of two small listserves, one relating to Holocaust name data issues run by Michael Haley Goldman of the Registry of Holocaust Survivors, and the other to Jewish Genealogical issues by Rachel Fisher of the Center for Jewish History.

The survey revealed that these institutions’ Web sites fell into five general categories in providing access to their non-Web holdings:

  1. Web sites that did not have information on accessing their collections remotely. (Auschwitz Jewish Center, Museum of Jewish Heritage)
  2. Web sites that provide general information on their collections but not a direct way to contact them (for example, no e-mail link on the page, and the postal address elsewhere on the site). (Jewish Historical Institute)
  3. Web sites that provide general information on holdings and explicit instructions on how to submit a request. (Auschwitz State Museum, Jewish Museum of Maryland, Beth Hatefutsoth)
  4. Web sites that have the catalogue and/or finding aids for their collections and explicit instructions on how to request information. (American Jewish Archives, Yad Vashem [Yad Vashem’s list of record groups in their archives is incomplete])
  5. Web sites that have the catalogue and/or finding aids for their collections and have a form to submit a request.  (Center for Jewish History and Leo Baeck Institute, which is part of the Center of Jewish History, but also has its own Web presence).

Our Plans to Increase Access to Non-Digitized Collections

Because of the issues described above, the Registry of Holocaust Survivors is working on several methods to streamline access to our non-digitized collections.  These methods are:

  1. Heading off questions before they are asked:  Using FAQ’s and other methods to educate the user on how to ask better questions;
  2. Improving information about the collections:  for example, putting finding aids for archival collections on-line
  3. Using standardized research request forms to ensure the necessary information is submitted in the first e-mail;
  4. Protective Queries: allowing limited access to sensitive information; and


The FAQ section is geared towards novice researchers who often do not have their family’s complete history.  The FAQ’s provide information on how inquirers can find more information about their relatives before submitting research requests to us.  As we mention several times on our Web site, the more information submitted to us, the more likely the research will be successful.  While not a new method of educating users, the FAQ section is part of our larger strategy to educate the public about what we have in order to help them ask better questions.  Other parts of this strategy include speaking to survivor groups and attending genealogical conferences.

Improving information about the collection

In November, 2001, the Registry unveiled its new Web site at http://www.ushmm.org/remembrance/registry/.  This site can also be accessed through the “Research” section of the USHMM’s Web site.  The new site, done in collaboration with the USHMM’s Web team, was part of the overall redesign of the USHMM’s Web presence.  Several components of the new site, including a FAQ section and an automated submission form, are designed to improve access to the Registry’s research services and improve the quantity and quality of information submitted in a research request.

The research request form

The other major part of the new Web site is the research request form, which asks for last name, first name, maiden name, previous/other name, date of birth, town and country of birth, town and country of residence before the war, any known war-time locations, and a text field to include additional information. Having the fields on the form prompts inquirers to submit all the information they have about a sought person, whereas before the form we found the inquirers had the information but would not always realize they needed to include it in their request.  The request form has three required fields of information on the sought person: last name, at least an approximate date of birth, and at least one place name, whether it be birthplace, residence before the war, or location during the war.  The required fields permit us to do some research, while recognizing that not all inquirers have complete information about the people they seek.

Inquirers are told that if they can only submit a last name or a country as a location, the Registry will only be able to do limited research. The form also informs inquirers that requests submitted with invalid information in required fields, including the address fields, cannot be answered.  These statements are included to encourage inclusion of as much information as possible and to discourage frivolous requests.

Inquirers are also required to fill out their complete postal and e-mail addresses.  Since we provide copies of any records found, having an inquirer’s postal address from the time of the initial request allows us to send our answer complete with copies directly, without have to send another e-mail asking for an address.

Benefits of the form

  1. The information we receive is much more complete, cutting down on the time staff members must spend corresponding with inquirers to ask for more information.
  2. The information submitted is easier for our staff to work with.  While occasionally a narrative-style e-mail will provide subtle details that can help with research, these types of e-mails can also be confusingly written.  A comment field is provided at the end of the research request form so inquirers can add details that may be helpful in the course of the research on the sought persons.
  3. An automatic acknowledgement is built into the form, thanking the inquirer for submitting the request and  suggesting when to expect a response.  This automatic response saves staff time by eliminating the previous e-mail confirmation that we used to send manually out to each inquirer.  
  4. Requiring a postal address up front saves more staff time.

Drawbacks of the form 1. The text field for additional information is not used as often as we feel it could be, leaving out details that might be helpful to our research.  We recognize that we need to find a way to encourage inquirers to use this section.  We do tell inquirers in the automatic acknowledgement that we will e-mail them if we need additional information. 

2. Inquirers are sometimes not careful in filling out the forms, dropping letters from names, for example.  We have proposed adding a confirmation screen to the submittal process, but have not had the time to do so yet.

Protective Queries: a future improvement

Of course, the Registry has discussed improvements that we hope to make in the future, including several additional ways to improve access to our non-Web collections.  One project we hope to undertake soon is to create a “Protective Query” to allow limited access to the Registry of Holocaust Survivors in the form of a surname search.  What we envision is a search that would allow a researcher to type in a surname and automatically get back a list showing how many survivors with that surname are in the Registry.  The list would also show each survivor’s birthplace or residence before the war, if that information is listed in the Registry.  Survivor’s first names would not be given, nor any current address information.

This “Protective Query” would balance the needs of researchers who cannot visit the USHMM in person with the need of Holocaust survivors to protect their privacy. Researchers would be told that they could contact the Registry staff for more historical information about survivors, including first names and wartime locations.  When researchers ask for the additional information, we would get their full contact information, including their full names, as an extra level of security and comfort.  However, survivors’ current addresses would remain private.  Researchers who wish to contact a survivor could use the Registry’s third-party contact service, where we forward letters from researchers to survivors.  Survivors have told us that they appreciate our protection of their privacy.  

Admittedly, the “Protective Query” would be of limited use to someone researching the surname Schwartz from Germany.  However, it would be helpful to someone researching a less common surname or a family from a small town or village.

Other future improvements

Another future project is to expand the FAQ section or create a “Before you submit a request” section.  This section would point inquirers to Internet collections that may have the information they are looking for and enable them to find answers to their questions more quickly.  For example, someone researching a family from Krakow would be pointed to the Krakow Ghetto Database mentioned earlier. Another possible use of this section would be to educate inquirers on how to search our library and archives catalogue, and how to see if finding aids for archival collections are available.  This section could also include a link to the USHMM’s library and archives catalogue, which the Registry section currently does not have.  I see two advantages to educating inquirers to use the catalogue: first,, it would help researchers narrow their requests to us, saving the Registry staff time, and sedond, it would give researchers a good idea of what resources are available to answer their requests.


Institutions have at their disposal several methods to improve Web access to their undigitized collections, including overviews of collections, catalogues of collections and research request forms. By employing several of these methods, the Registry of Holocaust Survivors has improved access to our services, especially our research services.  The new features have helped our staff assist the public better by saving time and speeding research. We feel confident that our Web site is on a par with the Web sites of similar institutions when it comes to user access to non-digitized collections.  Future plans to improve our service to the public include adding the Protective Query and “Before You Submit a Request” sections. 

We had hoped to collect user data and user feedback for this case study. Unfortunately, other projects have prevented us from doing so.   We wish to do a survey of our users in the future to see what they like and dislike, what they would like to see in the future, and what was effective.  Other ideas for feedback include doing a more in-depth survey of institutions with similar organizations, surveying institutions with dissimilar types of collections, and doing an analysis of user data. A balance between researchers’ desires that all collections be digitized and the privacy, copyright, fiscal and logistical issues that prevent that from happening must be found, for the benefit of everyone involved.


Web sites of institutions surveyed:American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, OH http://www.huc.edu/aja/collect.htm#gen

Auschwitz Jewish Center, Oswiecim, Poland http://www.ajcf.org/center.html

Auschwitz State Museum, Oswiecim, Poland http://www.auschwitz-muzeum.oswiecim.pl

Beth Hatefutsoth, Tel Aviv, Israel http://www.bh.org.il/

Center for Jewish History New York, NY http://www.cjh.org/family/index.html

Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw, Poland http://www.jewishinstitute.org.pl/archives.html

Jewish Museum of Maryland Baltimore, MD http://www.jhsm.org/genealogy.html

Leo Baeck Institute, New York, NY http://www.lbi.org/researchservices.html

Museum of Jewish Heritage, New York, NY http://www.mjhnyc.org/

Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, Israel http://www.yadvashem.org.il/about_holocaust/index_about_holocaust.html and http://www.yadvashem.org.il/remembrance/temp_remembrance/temp_index_remembrance_how_to_search.html