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.
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.