A Team Effort

by Jen Wachtel

The International Research Portal for Holocaust-Era Cultural Property (IRP2) is nearing its final phase. The portal began as the result of several international conference that called for greater public access to documentation concerning Nazi looting and efforts to return cultural property. Currently, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the host for the portal’s eighteen contributing institutions. The goal of IRP2 is to significantly enhance the usability of the portal in retrieving relevant information for use by many different audiences.

Since I joined the project a year ago, I worked with dedicated master’s students and faculty in the Digital Curation Center at the University of Maryland’s iSchool to expand the portal. Under Dr. Michael Kurtz’s leadership, the tool has grown from its simple keyword search of a handful of institutions to a robust federated search across eighteen international institutions. The records available in these searches range from finding aids to fully digitized archival and collections material. This resource is invaluable in locating records of looted cultural property stolen by the Nazis. We envision descendants of victims of the Holocaust as well as Holocaust survivors utilizing this portal to find long-lost artifacts, art, and documents.


photos courtesy of Greg Jansen

Working as part of an interdisciplinary team entailed some unique challenges and opportunities.  The students on our team include master’s students studying Information Management, Library and Information Science, and Human Computer Interaction. When MLIS students attempted to search in German using umlauts (the two accent dots above vowels in certain German words), or by the names of cities, we initially encountered system errors. We reported our findings to our MIM colleagues and faculty member Greg Jansen. Now, thanks to both our recommendations and their skillful coding, users can search in German, English, and French. The portal returns results in the language of the host institution.

The true functionality of the portal lies in extensive behind-the-scenes provenance research about records at each participating institution. Taking advise from our external Advisory Panel of experts, we developed the ability to link directly to relevant collections within participating institutions and indicate The portal now indicates, where possible, the availability of digitized records. Additionally, my MLIS colleague Torra Hausmann and I conducted searches of collections available at each institution. We developed sample searches in order to simulate what each portal might produce and noted the results’ language and extent of digitally available content. This most recent phase of development allows us to fine-tune portal results.

Reflecting on this process as an MLIS student also studying history, participating in the IRP2 project has been an exercise in enhancing the research experience. As an MLIS student, I am learning how to best serve the information needs of any user or researcher. Joining this team provided the opportunity to apply skills I learned in MLIS coursework to a functional product. I learned that in order to achieve a lofty goal in the information world, such as improving access to international records of Nazi theft, the best results come from pooled expertise.

A search engine by any other name…

by Torra Hausmann

Welcome to the International Research Portal Project (IRP2), where historians, archivists, graduate students, programmers, and information professionals work earnestly to discover the true meaning of a research portal. What does it look like? And how does it work? And crucially, are we creating a search engine or a simple aggregator?

Before IRP2 and the work the DCIC has done, the iterations of this project could b24549E2900000578-2891431-image-a-57_1419956922547e traced back to 2011 when the National Archives set out to compile a list of institutions that housed records relating to Holocaust-era cultural property. For two years, NARA reached out to institutions ranging from domestic institutions like the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to international institutions in countries as far away as Israel. The only stipulation was that the institution house relevant records in such a way that those records or the finding aids of those records could be accessed remotely and digitally.

And what are relevant records? Well, that’s complicated, but suffice to say they’re records pertaining to property that was in some way looted, seized, stolen or otherwise compromised during the Nazi-era. The term property can be applied as loosely or as stringently as the user sees fit, but that’s a discussion for another blog. As I found out when signing on to this project, as it was set up by NARA stopped at compiling the institutions. There was no aggregator or search engine. There was just a simple list of institutions and a link to each of the relevant collections. Each search required a new tab, a new search, and a series of ever increasing headaches if one had a specific topic of research in mind. The portal as it was didn’t look a lot like a portal and that’s where the DCIC stepped in.

IRP2 aims to create this missing functionality, enabling provenance researchers, historians, lawyers, and family members to search across all of the
participating institutions to get the best picture of what resources are really out there. While we explore this functionality and what it might look like, the team endeavoring to accomplish t1234his task tackle questions of design interface, user experience, and the multilayered needs of a potential user.

Through several different prototypes, we have not only created a platform to simultaneously search across different collections, but we’ve also added a unique search features that allow the user to taper searches in a more clearly defined way. Although the prototype is far from finished, the team has successfully answered some very fundamental questions about what a research portal should look like and what a research portal should do. In this blog, we will take a look at the answers to these questions and how they shape up to best serve the user. Moreover, we look at what a potential user might look like and why a potential user might need our services. Finally, we’ll take time to consider the role of other stakeholders and what it means, if anything, to subscribe to NARA’s International Research Portal. Stay tuned! And until then…A search engine by any other name is a….federated search