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The USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive: Making Connections Through Witness Testimonies

Article by: Larry Milliken, Liaison Librarian for the Humanities and Social Sciences

Watching a witness to history recount her life’s story can be a deeply moving experience. It is not the textbook version of events. You don’t just learn the facts, the names of politicians or generals, the order in which things happened, the broad geo-political or social implications. You can, for a moment, see what happened through another person’s eyes. Feelings, hopes, fears, joys and sorrows are conveyed in ways that other forms of evidence simply do not capture. Video testimonies offer a powerful tool for understanding complex events including the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide and how communities and lives rebuild after terrible experiences. Beginning this fall, the Libraries will provide access to USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive, connecting this unique collection of video testimonies with the Drexel and Philadelphia communities.

Established by Steven Spielberg in 1994, the USC Shoah Foundation has recorded nearly 52,000 video interviews with Holocaust survivors and other witnesses. USC Shoah Foundation’s mission is to overcome prejudice, intolerance, and bigotry-and the suffering they cause-through the educational use of its visual history testimonies. While Jewish survivors are the largest group represented, the collection includes many interviews with members of other groups, such as Roma and Sinti survivors, homosexual survivors, and political prisoners. Liberators and other eyewitnesses are also included.

The Visual History Archive is the portal through which Drexel’s scholars, students, and community members will access the video testimonies. The Libraries will host a locally curated subset of the full collection, with access to the remainder via downloads over Internet2 from the USC Shoah Foundation’s servers. The Archive includes more than 105,000 hours of video with interviews in 34 languages, recorded in 58 countries. Each testimony is around two hours long and consists of an interview with a survivor or eyewitness to the Holocaust, or the Rwandan genocide. The interviews cover the individual’s experiences during the Holocaust along with their lives before and after. The interviews are conducted in the interviewee’s language of choice. At the close of the interview, the witnesses often share documents of photographs.

The Archive’s 50,000 index terms and searchability make it possible to select testimonies for a wide range of teaching and research purposes beyond courses on the Holocaust. With witnesses whose lives spanned the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first, who represent the full spectrum of professions, the Archive could be an important resource for courses in History, Sociology, Judaic Studies, Psychology, and more. Beyond the classroom, the testimonies in the Archive can help connect us as a community through the commonalities we will find with the witnesses, whether it is a shared heritage, interests, location, or profession. In sharing their life stories with us, the witnesses to genocide in the Visual History Archive open a path to empathy and compassion to the whole Drexel community. As Drexel President John A. Fry said in the announcement of Drexel’s access to the Visual History Archive, “Eyewitness testimonies like these, and the scholarship they inspire, can be powerful tolls in the quest to overcome intolerance.”

For more information, contact Larry Milliken, liaison librarian for humanities & social sciences.

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