Crowd-sourcing for Holocaust research

December 16, 2011

Tapping into the power of an eager crowd, the U.S. Holocaust Museum has been turning to Ancestry.com users to help sort its massive archive of primary material. Called the World Memory Project, the collaboration aims to bring the power of the public to the Washington museum’s primary research.

“At the museum we collect millions of documents that shed light on what happened during the Holocaust, and we receive thousands of requests every year from survivors and family members who want to find out what happened to their loved ones during the war,” said Lisa Yavnai, the museum’s director of marketing operations.

The museum has a team of dedicated researchers in place to help with those personal requests. But it also wanted a way to make its records searchable by a victim’s name and other identifying factors. The museum has been digitizing its archives, but it’s a long, tedious process. So the museum began to brainstorm how it could open its archives to amateur historians who may want to help.

Cue Ancestry.com. One of the largest online genealogy sites, ancestry.com offered not only the technical capability to do the research but also a willing group of volunteers.

The partnership launched in May, and Ancestry.com users have processed hundreds of thousands of records for the museum.

“The synergy came together in a meeting that had us both realize that we have similar missions,” Quinton Atkinson, the genealogy site’s director of content acquisition.

Using a tool that members can download from Ancestry.com, the museum makes some of its archived images available to for indexing.

The unprocessed documents are not viewable to the public but only to the ancestry.com contributors. The museum verifies the information by comparing the same set of images input by two or three independent contributors. The records can then go public.

Alison Shein, a public policy researcher from Virginia, said she learned of project while doing her own research online and volunteering for another project at Ancestry.com.

“I was interested in doing the volunteer work,” Shein said. “My family’s Jewish, and I thought maybe there were records there that would be interesting.”

Shein knew from her family oral history that her great-,great-grandmother had died in the Holocaust. And she wanted to help others find information about their own pasts.

Shein also noted that Jewish people were not the only ones persecuted by the Nazis and that the records are not always Jewish-specific. “Those are mostly pertaining to suspected communists,” she said. “The work could be valuable to more than just people descended from Jews.”

Shein said that she works on the project a few hours a week.

“I like giving a voice to these people who’ve been lost,” she said. “Entire families were killed, and there’s no one around to remember them. It memorializes them in some way.”

Yavnai said the response to the project has been encouraging. “With a little time, anyone anywhere can contribute a bit of time to making the records available to anyone around the world,” she said. “To us, the main thing here is that during the war the Nazis tried to erase these victims from history. And here the public is given the opportunity to restore the identities to the victims.”

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Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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