Army digitizes Nazi documents

Army digitizes Nazi documents

Mary Eybs says the Army Intelligence and Security Command's efforts will put important history on the Web.

Since World War II, millions of images chronicling Nazi war crimes have gone unseen in reels of microfilm in the Army's Investigative Records Repository. Within a year, the images will be open to the public as historical documents, thanks to custom software that turned the poor-quality photographs into digital images.

Army Intelligence and Security Command soldiers, civilians and contractors, joined by several other federal departments, conducted the conversion project under direction of the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act, signed in 1998 by President Clinton.

The act requires federal agencies to locate, inventory, recommend for declassification and make available to the public all Nazi war criminal records or related documents.

'This is living history,' said Mary Eybs, chief of the program and visual information division in the Army's Information Management office. 'They're basically opening up history to the public.'

The Army documents have been turned over to the National Archives and Records Administration. NARA is still declassifying the data and expects to release the documents to the public by next summer, said Dick Myers, a project archivist.

Myers said NARA auditors are checking the war documents to ensure that they meet all of the declassification guidelines. He said it is unlikely that the release of the records will spur meaningful investigations.

'I don't think anyone will be brought to trial,' Myers said of the war crime perpetrators. 'Most of these people are dead.'

Also, some of the subjects named in the documents were not guilty of war crimes. At the end of World War II, authorities made many arrests and kept files on each suspect, Myers said. Some of the people never committed a crime but were called in for questioning.

Postwar news

Still, turning over the documents will benefit historical records, Myers said.

'For the historical record, we are seeing a tremendous amount of new information on the conduct of World War II, and Germany and Japan and the postwar period,' Myers said.

The project was conducted using Kofax Ascent Capture software from Kofax Image Products of Irvine, Calif., on the Army's Compaq servers. Ascent Capture is a high-volume document capture application for image processing, said Dr. Lonnie Manning, an independent contractor who worked on the project. The Army also used high-speed microfilm scanners from Wicks & Wilson Ltd. of the United Kingdom, Manning said.

The number of documents received for the project peaked at 60,000 per week. Workers converted more than 1 million documents altogether, feeding 11,400 reels of microfilm through scanners.

The microfilm, which had been stored in cabinets at Fort Meade, Md., has about 1,500 frames per reel. Scanning a reel took roughly half an hour, Manning said.

'It was pretty poorly photographed,' Manning said of the scratched and deteriorated images the Army documented. 'Because of the poor quality of the microfilm, there was some black on the documents.' Scanning techniques mitigate this, he said.

In addition to the Nazi war project, the Intelligence and Security Command is also converting 14 million pages of paper records in the Investigative Records Repository at Fort Meade into electronic documents. The process makes the documents suitable for posting to an Internet server and allows keyword searches.

No finger smudges

Electronic records are more cost-effective than paper documents, Eybs said. They are also more durable and allow the government to keep track of who retrieves information.

'This is something that won't be damaged by handling over the years,' Eybs said. Many of the investigative documents include interviews conducted for security clearances.

'We have a large archive,' Eybs said. 'They used to do investigations of people for clearances. All the paperwork was shoved in a folder and stored on a shelf somewhere. The repository has been around for many, many years.'

Defense Department mandates for electronic records and paperless processes are driving the Army's digitization projects. DOD officials tout the security advantages and cost efficiencies of electronic documents over paper.

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