42nd Annual Meeting – Book and Paper Group Session, May 30, “Conserving the Iraqi Jewish Archive for Digitization” by Katherine Kelly and Anna Friedman

Katherine Kelly and Anna Friedman presented on a two-year project funded by the Department of State and carried out at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to conserve and digitize the Iraqi Jewish Archive. This is not an archive that was collected in the traditional sense, but rather materials taken from the Jewish community over many years–the collections were discovered in the flooded basement of the Iraqi Intelligence Headquarters in Baghdad in 2003.
National Archives conservators Doris Hamburg and Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler traveled to Iraq shortly after the discovery to advise on recovery and preservation of the collection. The damaged materials were frozen and flown to the US, where they were vacuum freeze-dried. Following a smaller-scale project in 2006 to assess the collection, the hard work to clean, stabilize, and digitize the heavily-damaged and moldy collections was carried out during the two year project that was the focus of this presentation.
I am always amazed at the sheer scale of projects undertaken at NARA and the organization required to tackle the work within a limited timeframe. Katherine and Anna’s presentation included discussion of adaptations of the usual National Archives workflows to increase the efficiency of the project and to aid conservators in their work. For most materials, the first step in stabilization was to remove inactive mold. Distorted items were humidified and flattened, and tears were mended. Items that had originally been attached to documents with water-soluble adhesive, like stamps and some photographs, had often released due to the flood waters and subsequent humidity; these items were repositioned and reattached whenever possible. Once stabilized, materials could be rehoused, catalogued, and digitized. Through every step of the process, materials were tracked through the workflow using SharePoint software.
The culmination of the project is a digital collection of all 3846 items, which allows the materials to be made available to everyone. An exhibition featuring highlights of the collection was shown both at the National Archives in DC and at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. Another component of the project was the creation of a website with detailed information about the collection and its history, documentation of procedures, and an online version of the exhibit. I particularly enjoyed the short video describing the history of the project, featuring many of the conservators who were involved over the years.
I often listen to NPR while working in the lab, and last November I was excited to hear my former classmate Katherine Kelly in a feature on All Things Considered. If you missed Katherine and Anna’s presentation in San Francisco, I highly recommend a visit not only to the project website, but also to the NPR feature to learn more about the important work to preserve this collection and make it accessible.