Archival access

An in-depth look at why access to the Holocaust archives is important, both for Holocaust research and beyond, and how you can take part.

Accessing information to ensure Holocaust remembrance

Nearly 80 years since the end of the Second World War, it remains difficult to locate and gain access to documentation related to the Holocaust. Ensuring full and open access to Holocaust-related material is not a niche issue – it is essential to fostering open and democratic societies that deal openly and accurately with the past. Taking all necessary steps to facilitate the opening of archives is one of the important commitments Member Countries have made under the Stockholm Declaration.

Understanding archival access

What does open advance access to archives mean?

Open access means researchers and the public can find and use Holocaust-related documentation for commemoration, education, and research purposes. Access to archives means access to the truth. And the truth has an impact far beyond Holocaust research. The Monitoring Access to Holocaust Collections IHRA Project developed recommendations that help to ensure policymakers and stakeholders know the steps that should be taken to provide open access to Holocaust collections. 

Why is it important to have access to Holocaust collections?

Access to Holocaust-related materials has been central to the IHRA’s work for more than a decade and is an IHRA priority. Under the 2020 Ministerial Declaration, Member Countries have underlined the importance of identifying, preserving and making available archival material for educational purposes, commemoration and research. The Nazis and their collaborators not only murdered Jews, Roma, political enemies, and others; they did so with the intention of erasing all traces of their existence. Each document pertaining to life before, during, and after the Holocaust is therefore extremely valuable. Soon, survivors will no longer be with us, and access to Holocaust archives will be one of our only tangible links to the stories they leave behind. These stories are of paramount importance in Holocaust remembrance, and archives allowing access to them ensure that the facts of the Holocaust will be protected – and accessible – for generations to come. This increased interest for the identification, preservation, access and use of archives should contribute to humanist and democratic values at the service of global peace.

What are the obstacles facing open access to archives?

Common obstacles include:  

  • Vague definitions of Holocaust-related archival material  
  • Restrictive protocols for accessing materials  
  • Data protection and privacy regulations applied too stringently  
  • Materials are not accessible online  
  • Catalogues only available in the local language 

The Holocaust archives at risk

Across the world there are hundreds of millions of documents, films, recordings, and other materials related to the Holocaust – and some of them are in danger of being restricted to the public or lost forever. That’s because many external factors threaten the existence of these materials.
As part of the IHRA project Monitoring Access to Holocaust Collections, the following risks were identified along with recommendations on how to mitigate them, depending on the situation:

Environmental conditions.

  • Digitize collections so that, in the event of environmental damage or vermin threat, the collections will still be preserved and available to access online. 

Political instability, political upheavals or war.

  • Governments should support archives to develop proactive procedures in case of emergencies, such as disrupted access to archival material or destruction of it.

Socio-economic threats.

  • Governments should fund digitization of archives to ensure socio-economic threats, such as lack of resources to preserve the material properly, a lack of knowledge on practices and staffing issues are mitigated.

Improper and unsustainable storage of material.

  • Uploading materials to a digital, sustainable platform instead of storing it on CDs and DVDs ensures preservation and access to archives for generations to come.

The IHRA and the GDPR

At the EU level, the GDPR is a set of uniform rules and principles relating to the collection, processing, and storing of personal data. EU Member States have also adopted national data protection legislation, which complements the GDPR.  

Such legislation is an important response to the requirements of an increasingly global and rapidly changing digital landscape. However, this legislation is general in scope and may have unintended consequences in other areas – including historical research.

As the GDPR regulations reached their final stages in the European Union, the IHRA identified that these privacy regulations would unintentionally restrict access to Holocaust documentation. The IHRA intervened and added Recital 158, a directive that protects access by giving exceptional status to Holocaust-related documentation.

However, it soon became clear that Recital 158 was not sufficient. Because recitals are not automatically implemented into national legislation, many documentation collections remain closed and inaccessible. The IHRA adopted Guidelines for Identifying Relevant Documentation for Holocaust Research, Education and Remembrance to empower researchers, archivists, and civil society to identify Holocaust-related documentation using a broad approach.

The IHRA has launched FAQs to help navigate the GDPR and Recital 158 when accessing Holocaust-related material.

Take action to ensure archives are accessible in your area

Inform yourself about Holocaust-related materials

Understand which material needs to be accessible by reading the IHRA’s working definition of Holocaust-related material. 

Remove legal obstacles

In order to deal with privacy regulations and GDPR obstacles, the implementation of Recital 158 in national law should be promoted. To help navigate the GDPR and Recital 158 when accessing Holocaust-related material, read the FAQs.

As a means of navigating more obstacles, we recommend legislation amendment to provide an exception for Holocaust records, exercise discretion in favor of access and exercise Parliamentary power to obtain Holocaust-related records.

Reduce risks to archives

IHRA experts have identified that risk factors to the archival holdings include: environmental conditions, political decisions and uncertainty, socio-economic aspects, and inherently unsustainable media. IHRA delegations are to support archives to develop procedures and measurements in case of emergency, as well as prioritize funding for digitalization. IHRA Member Country governments are to provide sufficient funding and support for better access and preservation of archival materials.

Implement good practices

To state archives and other archival entities, IHRA recommends to digitize collections and standartize metadata. To use existing tools, join professional networks such as EHRI, Arolsen Archives and others. Refer to IHRA Guidelines when identifying documentation and translate general information on access to materials in addition to finding aids.

International Archives Day on 9 June

Organize an event to highlight the importance of access to Holocaust-related archives.

Why are networks important for archival research and for open access?

Holocaust-related documents are spread over archives, depositories, and continents. They are open-ended both geographically and in their time frame. When dealing with the archival record of the Holocaust, there is no institution that holds all records or that has the expertise on all the sources. Therefore, networks to support all efforts to adequately preserve, describe and open up the records on the Holocaust are of crucial importance.  

It’s like building a huge puzzle when each piece is held by a different person or entity. Only by networking and working together can the puzzle become whole and the picture clear. Networks help connect the actors who hold pieces of this puzzle; they create communities. And these communities can then work together to share information and good practices. The more the sources can be made accessible, the stronger the communities can become, and vice versa. 

The European Holocaust Research Infrastructure (EHRI) provides tools to build your archival network.

Sign up to our newsletter to 

receive the latest updates