I-MAGAZINE Interviews The Wiener Holocaust Library’s New Director Dr Toby Simpson

  1. The Wiener Holocaust Library has existed for over 80 years. How much has it changed since its beginnings?

Alfred Wiener set up the Library in 1933 living in exile in the Netherlands. Facing the growing Nazi menace, Wiener ultimately chose to ship the organisation and its collections to London, just before the war. Once there, he established an unrivalled network of collectors and researchers, who helped the Allies to gather, digest and disseminate information about the Nazis as the Holocaust unfolded. After the war, the Library increasingly became a hub for early researchers shaping the evolution of scholarship on topics including genocide, fascism and of course the history of the Shoah. In that sense, our original mission is still crucial to the work the Library does today

2. How has the Library adapted to the modern world and the digital age?

Throughout its history, the Library has focused above all on being a resource on the history of Nazism and genocide, and working with organisations that assisted the community of Jewish refugees who fled the Nazis to Britain. In the 1990s, the Library slowly began a process of ‘computerisation’. Without adapting to technological change, it is hard to imagine how this institution could have found the new lease of life it enjoys today since the collection moved to Russell Square. In our new home, we have built a social media presence as a means of sharing our collections and reaching new audiences. In the near future, I think that people will become increasingly interested in engaging with people face-to-face as well as online, and the Library can satisfy both needs, offering something on a human scale but with a strong digital presence.

3. How accessible are the Library’s collections to on online audience?

Our collections are increasingly accessible online and in English. For example, we hold 356 eyewitness accounts of Kristallnacht written in the weeks and months that followed 9 November 1938. The majority of these were written down in German, with a handful in English, Dutch and French. Working with a team of volunteer translators and with the help of some prescient and benevolent funders, we managed to translate the entire corpus into English, digitise the originals, and build a website. Anyone can now read the accounts just by typing the pogromnovember1938.co.uk URL into a browser, wherever they are in the world.

4. Do you think that viewing documents on a screen will ever render working with collections in person obsolete?

Using digital copies brings great benefits, such as preserving material and making it more searchable, but in my view this will never make archival research obsolete. We should also always consider the risk of digital formats becoming obsolete! It is very difficult, if not impossible, to use digital technology to emulate chancing upon an unexpected item. This is often an invaluable part of the research process, and going to the archive is still the only way to get that. On the other hand, the power of online content should not be underestimated either. I am proud of the Library’s Kristallnacht project, because the reports are unlike any other content available online and deserve a wider audience. They are different in nature from accounts based on memories recalled years later, which intervening personal experience and other people’s interpretations necessarily modify. We know the digital versions have a powerful impact on readers of the material because of the feedback we get from social media. On 11 November this year, for example, the bestselling author Jeremy Dronfield tweeted us to say that, while researching The Boy who Followed his Father into Auschwitz, he had read all of the reports relating to Vienna from our collection.

5. What sort of materials does the Library add to its collections every year and how does it go about collecting? How many collections do you get a year?

The Library’s collections are very diverse, consisting of books, pamphlets, photographs, periodicals, posters, artworks and documents. We retain our status as the leading collection of printed sources in the country by purchasing and cataloguing new books at a rate of approximately 100 per month. We also work to add to our large and steadily growing collections of original contemporary documentation. Each year, we acquire between 50 and 60 unique collections of documents. For example, a significant quantity of fascinating family papers are still out there relating to the experiences of the tens of thousands of Jewish refugees from Nazism who settled in Britain. Some remains at risk of being lost forever. On one occasion, our Archivist had to rescue precious documents from a skip. Although it may seem obvious to us that documents relating to the Holocaust and other genocides should be preserved, many people cannot read the original material due to language barriers, are not fully aware of its significance, or lack preservation skills and knowledge of archives. That is where we come in.