Digitization: Strategies for tracing services

Digitization: Strategies for tracing services

What are the benefits of digitization for tracing services and archives? How has the pandemic changed their work? Which digital processes are helpful for tracing work that has to be done from home? The Tracing Service Directors’ Conference 2021 brought together the Arolsen Archives, German Federal Archives (Department PA “Information on Personal Data related to World Wars I and I”), German Red Cross (GRC) Tracing Service and German War Graves Commission to discuss current challenges and promote cooperation between the institutions.

The annual Tracing Service Directors’ Conference took place virtually for the first time in January 2021, in keeping with the current situation and main topics of the event. This year’s conference was organized by the Arolsen Archives. The attendees included the four institutions as well as representatives of the Federal Ministry of the Interior and Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media. They were all impressed by the close cooperation and trailblazing digitization projects of the tracing services and archives.


Virtual conference: New format for the Tracing Service Directors’ Conference 2021.

Working together to clarify fates

With respect to World War II and its repercussions, the tracing services carry out special but overlapping tasks – with the ultimate aim of clarifying fates and giving a sense of certainty to family members. The focus of the War Graves Commission is on German war casualties abroad, while the Arolsen Archives focus on victims of Nazi persecution worldwide and the GRC Tracing Service is concerned with German prisoners of war and civilian detainees. At the German Federal Archives, Department PA “Information on Personal Data related to World Wars I and I” took over the documents of the former Wehrmacht records office.

Flyer: Clarifying fates in the Second World War

Pandemic strategies

How does a tracing service actually work when all of its employees have to stay home? The institutions presented their strategies at the conference and talked about the advantages and drawbacks. For example, the employees of the Arolsen Archives have mostly been working from home since March 2020, but this hasn’t really hindered the work of the tracing service. Delays only occur when the employees need documents that have not yet been scanned, or which only exist as poor quality scans, because the on-site archive is currently staffed by just a small skeleton crew. The parts of the facilities that would otherwise be publicly accessible, such as the reading room and permanent exhibition, will probably remain closed until June 2021.  A few employees have taken on new tasks, such as indexing documents as part of the #everynamecounts crowdsourcing project.

The Arolsen Archives have already digitized the majority of their extensive collection and uploaded the documents to an online archive. The #everynamecounts project is now enlisting the help of thousands of volunteers to process these digital documents so the names of the victims and other information can be searched. The more documents have been fully indexed, the easier it is for relatives and other members of the public to find information online.

Christian Groh

“The pandemic was like an accelerator for our #everynamecounts project. Anyone can join in from home to help build this digital memorial to the people persecuted by the Nazis. We now have 17,000 volunteers.”

Christian Groh, Head of Archives at the Arolsen Archives

For the GRC Tracing Service, personal contact with clients is very important, particularly when it comes to international tracing and providing advice on reuniting families. At the start the pandemic, the organization launched a new website and set up central telephone numbers, e-mail addresses and advisory centers. In June 2020, a number of DRC branches were able to resume their personal tracing advisory services thanks to good hygiene measures.

New digitization projects

All of the conference participants agreed that it is easier to get through the pandemic if you have a good digital structure and can access all information from home. However, many documents from the archives have not yet been digitized, so the institutions began a number of digitization projects in 2020. For example, the German Federal Archives and the War Graves Commission worked together to digitize 136,000 documents relating to Soviet prisoners in British custody as part of a government project coordinated by the Commission on “Soviet and German Prisoners of War and Internees.” The Commission also reallocated funding so that more money could be invested in document digitization. The Central Name Index of the GRC Tracing Service and more than two million files on German prisoners of war and civilian internees from the Russian State Military Archive have already been complete digitized.

The next Tracing Service Directors’ Conference will be organized by the GRC Tracing Service and held in Munich on January 20, 2022 – either in person or as an online event.

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