Report on Discovery and Recovery: Preserving the Iraqi Jewish Archive

Dr. David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, gave the welcoming remarks for the panel discussion on Discovery and Recovery: Preserving the Iraqi Jewish Archive (IJA).  An exhibit centered around the collection can be found in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery of the National Archives Building, and will be available through January 5th, 2014.  This program will be the last one for the year 2013. Future programs held at the National Archives include: Associate Justice Stephen Breyer talks with Constituion scholar Akhil Reed Amar (January 14);  various noontime lectures; and an Introduction to Genealogy workshop (January 8).

          On May 6th, 2003 sixteen soldiers from the Mobile Exploitation team Alpha entered Saddam Hussein’s intelligence building. They discovered thousands of books, manuscripts, documents and torahs lying under four feet of water in the Mukhabarart basement; the collection was rumored to have a 7th century Talmud, but no such item was found. A hasty production was implemented to preserve the material while the National Archives was called in to preserve the material in a long term project.  The initial stages involved draining the facilities of the water while the documents were taken outside, into the hot Baghdad environment, to dry where they quickly became molded. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) secured a freezer truck to prevent further damage to the material while archivists and preservation experts from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) mounted up an expedition to Baghdad to see how best to go about preserving the material.

          Doris A. Hamburg, the Director of Preservation Programs at NARA, informed the audience that the decade long project of preserving this material was nearing it’s end. Hamburg provided more background on the project, including information on the background of the Jewish people in Iraq (dating back 2500 years).  After reiterating what was said by Dr. Ferriero, she went on to add that the freezer truck smelled of mold by the time that the NARA team arrived, and that there were twenty-seven trunks of material to sift through. The material was never collected, in it’s originality under Saddam, to be an archive, but was just a collection of material. Efforts to locate local options in Iraq for drying the material were unsuccessful. It was decided that the material would be brought to the United States for preservation and would be returned to the people of Iraq once the collection was restored. A Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between the CPA and Iraq representatives was signed and funding would be provided by NARA.  By August of 2003 the material was being transported  to Ft. Worth, Texas to freeze dry the material in a vacuum. More funding for the project was to be provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and by the Department of State for the third phase of the project.The material was sorted by size and nothing was thrown away. A database was created and every item was assigned a number. Thus began the physical processing and condition assessment for the 2700 books and tens of thousands of documents that were part of the extensive collection. It was recommended that the archives would digitize the more interesting and rare material, while books that were more common would not be digitized because they were available elsewhere.

          Dina Herbert, the project librarian, said that there are 3486 entries in the database, 2700 of which are books ranging from the 16th to 20th centuries. Each of these entries was cataloged under a time constraint of two years. Part of her task was to set the priorities for the digitization project, the decision for which was based on “were the items unique or rare.” The collection includes prayer books, Rabbinic literature, Bibles, and textbooks. One of the earliest books in the collection was from 1568 (Hebrew 5328).

          Anna Friedman, senior conservator for the IJA project, talked about her teams role in the conservation effort.  Mold can start to grow on wet paper and breaks down connection fibers. Well established mold can eat holes in paper. A mandate was introduced to clean paper well enough to not pose a health risk to the catalogers. Her teams tools, such as the vacuum, were modified to meet the more demanding challenges of the project. Fragile materials were placed in polyester sleeves. One of the problems discovered in the project was that the stamps came off easily from their location.  To resolve this issue, a drop of glue (a more technical term was used, but I could not find a correct spelling) was used to reattach each of the stamps that the correct location could be found for. The primary goal for the digitization effort was stabilization of the material for digitization and access. When possible, the conservation team would flatten the material with weight. After the conservation effort was completed for a book, they found their home in custom sized boxes.

          Katherine Kelly, another member of the conservation team, went on to talk about the exhibit.  Twenty-four books and documents were chosen for display.  An 1815 Zohar commentary on the Torah was one of many books that received a washing to remove many of the impurities from the flood. This washing process helped to improve the physical stability of the items.  Cyclododecane, a wax like substance, was placed over hand written text on pages before they received a bath. The conservation team collaborated heavily with the project librarian. All of the material was tracked throughout the project using Sharepoint. This included dividing the material to be cataloged and boxed. All of the info for the material was pulled from the website database.  Guidelines for this portion of the project were based on NARA standards.

          Jennifer Seitz, a Digital Imaging Specialist within the Digitization Services Branch of NARA, spoke of her work in the imaging lab centering around providing high quality photos for access by the public. The lab is equipped with two digital overhead cameras, a system which was designed for museums. The cameras were fully integrated with a pneumatic foot pedal for hands free image capturing. Capture One Software was used to provide the best pictures for digital preservation. The IT infrastructure utilized RAID 5 formatting to provide secure data recovery and repair. Different approaches were utilized for archiving the imaged material.  Folio view provided a solution to the ink bleeding, while original folder view was captured on the table top instead of beneath the glass helping with emulsion. A simple page capture was used usually on oversized items.  Non standard arrangements were used for a detailed view of photographs.  Book scanning was done as a double page spread where possible. Some books scanned by single page had special page holders built. 100% of the material was reviewed for accuracy and completeness as a means of quality control, because this was the only chance for the material to go through this rigorous process, as the collection will soon be returning to Iraq. Several file types were created for each picture: Tiffs, JPEGS, and PDFs.  Many of the JPEGS had “slugs” imposed upon them to provide a brief line of text to accompany the image.  PDF’s were created with each page for easy viewing and download of the material.  So far, over 240,000 pages have been created.

          Noah Durham, the website project manager, discussed the process of designing the website for the project. There are four primary branches of the website: the preservation projectsearch the collectionview the exhibit, and connect with us.  The preservation project tells the story from recovery through preservation. The search page was designed to be as simplistic as searching google. The search page contains all entries, and provides the viewers with an ability to comment (for a limited amount of time). The exhibit was recreated online, but, it was stressed, does not recreate the experience of personal visitation and viewing.  The connect with us page allows users to provide feedback to the team. Some of the original concepts for the sites were: a simple search much like google that would allow the user to refine results as per libraries and retail sites; user experience was key and the website was loaded with fast loading images in the browser while high quality versions (PDFs) would be available for downloading; the site would have a commenting feature so that the public could contribute and foster a community; posting the technical guidelines and documentation about the project on the site; and provide an online version of the IJA exhibit. Durham said that “Planning is half the work (or more).” A publishing workflow is required to approve user comments prior to their being made visible on the site. Three months of planning went into establishing a wireframe of the site so that the look and feel of the pages could be established. All versions of the material were uploaded into a Project Management Portal (PMP), a version control repository. The file of record could be found in the PMP.

          There was also a period for questions and answers at the panel discussion. One audience member asked about the personal opinions of the project members on the return of the documents to Iraq, to which Hamburg replied that the focus of their project was on the preservation of the material.  Another member of the audience asked what the overall cost of the project was and how much of the funding was from the public trust and how much was from private trusts; he also asked what confidence the panel members had that the collection would be kept safe in Iraq. The answer to the question was that $100,000 had been provided by NEH, just under $3 Million was provided by the State Department (much of which went to support the staff), the Center for Jewish History donated their time to the project. Iraqi fellows, who assisted throughout the project, were able to get a good sense of the material, which should help in it’s preservation once returned to Iraq. On Sunday, December 15th, 2013, Iraq sent a delegation to deliver 49 parchments of text, including fragments of Torahs) to the Iraqi Jewish Community for burial. One audience member asked what the material was doing where it was found, to which the reply was that “we don’t know,” it was scooped up by the government at some point and that there was more material in the national library. One member of audience asked about the treatment of the religious artifacts, to which Friedman replied that they didn’t really do an extensive clean of them except for a surface clean (keeping in mind Jewish customs). Another member of the audience asked about why they chose to do a ritual burial rather than preserve the fragments and texts. In Judaism, anything with the name of God cannot be thrown out, and since the material was no longer able to be used it must receive a proper burial. I asked the panelists about the reason behind a limited timeline for commenting on the site.  The response was that they only had limited funding for staff to review comments, and that once the funding ran out for the project there would be no one left to review. It was added that the comments would be able for viewing indefinitely. The last question asked was how much of the website is up. The panelists estimated that between 80% and 90% of the images are up and that 2000 documents are available for viewing.


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