I recently began work on a fascinating new archival project that has nothing to do with Girl Scouts, but it does take me back to my archival “roots.”
I am not an archivist by training; instead, I have degrees in political science and Russian and East European Studies. I came into the archives through the back door, so to speak.
After working on the American Bibliography of Slavic and East European Studies at the Library of Congress, I took a job at the International Research and Exchanges Board in 1990. IREX arranged for US scholars to do advanced research (dissertation level or higher) behind the Iron Curtain and, in return, placed Soviet and East European scholars at US universities to do similar research.
Within months, I found myself working with a Harvard-based scholar, Patricia Kennedy Grimsted. Pat is a renowned expert on Soviet and post-Soviet archives and has published the definitive guides to their collections. With the Berlin Wall down and the USSR about to collapse, Western scholars were gaining unprecedented access to communist archives and finding aids. Pat was updating her guides into an online source that she developed, ArchaeoBiblioBase. I worked with her editing and formatting those guides as well as several articles.
The early 1990s were an exciting time in the archival field, with lively debates about provenance, censorship, restitution, copyright, and fees for access. Westerners discovered that the Soviets had quietly tucked away a wealth of trophy archives, as well as works of art, books, and other cultural property, including many seized by the Nazis in World War II and presumed destroyed, but actually recovered by Soviet troops. They even claimed to have part of Hitler’s skull disguised in a box labeled “blue ink for pens.”
Pat contacted me several months ago to help with a new project. She has been documenting the current location of the records of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), the “Special Task Force” engaged in looting cultural valuables in Nazi-occupied countries during World War II. Their original files are scattered across 34 repositories in ten countries. Those records are vital to verifying the claims of families requesting the return of their stolen property. The first version of the Survey, published in 2011, was over 500 pages long, and it is only growing.
Some of the looted items and documentation were recovered at the end of World War II by the “Monuments Men,” as loosely portrayed in the recent Hollywood movie by George Clooney. If Clooney ever needs an editor, I’ll make room on my calendar!