Memory & Action
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Memory & Action

Digitizing the Collections: A Conversation with John Swanson

A Museum film archivist assesses the condition of a new acquisition. —US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Why is digitizing the Museum’s vast collection a priority for you?

JS: The Museum and I share the same goal: to protect the evidence of the Holocaust. For me, the priority has been what’s most at risk and how do we protect it. If you have a solid object that is only in one place and something happens, it’s gone. A digital record can be duplicated in multiple places, so you have much more security. Plus, you don’t have to be where the object is to access it; you can be anywhere in the world. Putting it out there is the icing on the cake. It’s a great benefit, but our intention is to preserve.

John and Janet Swanson generously supported the digital reformatting and preservation of more than 7,000 hours of at-risk video, audio, and film materials on the Holocaust. —US Holocaust Memorial Museum

You focused your first grant on digitizing endangered oral history testimony and film footage. Why?

JS: I asked the Museum, “What’s in most danger — where should we start?” And that’s why we started with the audio and video tapes that were physically degrading. And now, we’re digitizing the paper materials. Eventually everything — even solid objects — needs to be digitized.

What fascinates you about this behind-the-scenes, meticulous process?

JS: I’m an engineer — we work in the background, we’re enablers. We do what needs to be done to support what’s out front. That’s exactly what this digitization project is.

With less than 20 percent of the Museum collection digitized to date, are you concerned with the amount that remains at risk?

JS: It’s up to the Museum to continue to prioritize and make sure that the most fragile, most at-risk materials are at the front of the line. And it’s up to the Museum’s donors who understand the priority nature of this project to look at that list and say, “I can do that one…that’s important to me.”

This article was first published in fall 2015.

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