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A Look Behind the Visual History Archive

The public is now invited to free monthly tours of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, where they can learn about the preservation and educational use of nearly 52,000 video testimonies of Holocaust survivors and other witnesses.

By Michelle Salzman
July 24, 2012

Visitors are invited to tour the USC Shoah Foundation Institute. This wall display maps out the institute's history preserving nearly 52,000 video testimonies of Holocaust survivors and other witnesses. Photo by Kim Fox.

Visitors are invited to tour the USC Shoah Foundation Institute. This wall display maps out the institute's history preserving nearly 52,000 video testimonies of Holocaust survivors and other witnesses. Photo by Kim Fox.

Cool air filtered through the videotape processing room of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, housed in USC Dornsife. A group of visitors studied the bulky tape decks that lined the walls as a steady mechanical hum whirred from the air conditioner through the brightly lit room.

Here, the nearly 52,000 interviews of Holocaust survivors and other witnesses collected by the institute were copied from their original Betacam SP videotapes and transferred to the Motion JPEG 2000 digital format, which will ensure their preservation for years to come.

“Motion JPEG 2000 is the same format that the Library of Congress uses to archive their video collections, so we’re in good company,” Leo Hsu explained to the group. A programmer analyst, Hsu led the technology portion during the institute’s first public tour held July 13. Hsu explained how the technology team oversees quality control for the recordings, then showed visitors the computer servers that house the testimonies.

The USC Shoah Foundation Institute is welcoming the public to attend free monthly tours of its facilities on the USC University Park campus. The community is invited to learn how the personal stories of Holocaust survivors and other witnesses are being used to overcome prejudice, intolerance and bigotry.

Established in 1994 by Steven Spielberg to collect and preserve testimonies of survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust, the USC Shoah Foundation Institute maintains one of the largest video digital libraries in the world. The nearly 52,000 video testimonies in 32 languages from 56 countries are only the beginning, as the institute is now gathering testimonies from survivors of other genocides in countries such as Rwanda and Armenia.

Tours include a visit to the institute’s state-of-the-art technology facility where the testimonies are digitally restored and preserved, as well as a demonstration of the visual history archive — a search engine that enables users to locate specific segments of testimony on topics that interest them. Visitors can preview IWitness beta, the institute’s award-winning educational Web site, which enables teachers and students age 13 and older interact with more than a thousand of the testimonies. Guests also learn how the institute works globally to promote tolerance and justice, improve education and preserve memories of the Holocaust and other genocides.

 


Interviews conducted by the USC Shoah Foundation Institute were originally captured on Betacam SP videotapes. Transferring the videos to the Motion JPEG 2000 digital format ensures their preservation for years to come. Photo by Kim Fox.

The public tours provide the community a new way to engage with the institute and deeper insight into the work it carries out, said Sonya Sharp.

“Many people are familiar with the work we did in the nineties, when we conducted interviews all over the world,” said Sharp, the institute’s public outreach and marketing specialist. “But we’re also engaging educators worldwide with testimony in order to provide learners with transformative educational experiences. We’re supporting scholarship and research that seeks to understand real-world problems and are committed to expanding the archive to include testimonies from other genocides. By opening up the institute to the community, we’re hoping to engage people in the transformative education we’re undertaking and inspire them to become a part of it.”

The tours are also intended to encourage the USC community to get involved with the institute and its resources. For Glenn Fox, taking the tour was a way to more deeply understand the research he is already conducting as a doctoral candidate in neuroscience in USC Dornsife.

Fox uses the visual history archive in his dissertation research on gratitude. Studying testimonies in the archive, Fox and his research assistants search for scenarios in which a survivor received some sort of gift or good deed. To gain a better understanding of the emotions they experience, researchers take on the perspective of the survivor and read about his or her experiences while monitored by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.

Fox wanted to learn more about the resource that is so central to his research.

“I had never seen the mechanics of the archive itself or what goes on to support such an endeavor,” he said. “It was just so impressive. It reminded me how important it is to preserve eye-witness accounts.”

The next tours will take place on August 1 and September 11. A reservation is required. Visit the USC Shoah Foundation Institute event calendar for more information: http://dornsife.usc.edu/vhi/events/. To RSVP for a tour or learn more, contact Krystal Szabo, coordinator of external relations, at klord@usc.edu.