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Archive conservation and digitization project of the International Prisoners-of-War Agency

16-03-2010 Feature

Although at the outbreak of World War I the ICRC was not yet mandated to protect displaced persons and prisoners, the organization nevertheless took initiatives throughout the conflict, its ambition being to extend its humanitarian action to as many victims as possible.

On 21 August 1914, it set up the International Prisoners-of-War Agency in Geneva, whose main purpose was to restore family links. Millions of messages were thus exchanged amongst prisoners of war, civilian internees and civilians in occupied regions and their families.

The Archives of the Agency comprise:

  •  over 6 million filing cards in the form of lists containing the names (ID particulars) and details of prisoners of war communicated by the detaining Powers. These lists are organized in sequences of folioed pages and classed according to detaining Power and/or prisoner nationality.

  •  2,000 registers (450,000 pages): index files created by the Agency and containing references to the relevant pages in the lists. The index cards are classed by name; the files are organized by nationality - more specifically by national army in which each prisoner involved in the hostilities is enlisted.

  •  200 boxes of general correspondence comprising minutes and reports of the Directorate and general departments of the Agency.

These archives are of considerable historical and symbolic value. They are conserved in the ICRC, and several series are exhibited in the International Red Cross and Red Crescent MuseumMemory of the World . They were listed by UNESCO in the Register in 2007.

In 2006, the ICRC decided to conduct a restoration and digitization project with a view to preserving the archives more effectively and facilitating consultation. All of these archives will be made available to the general public on the Internet in 2014.

Restoration programme  

Many documents were damaged in the period from 1920 to 1980. The natural ageing of the paper and frequent consultation of the documents have resulted in creasing, tears and damage to the binding. Even more worrying, the periods of considerable damp to which the documents were exposed have promoted the growth of microorganisms, which have colonized a large proportion of the records, causing considerable damage ranging from slight staining to the partial destruction of pages.

Several external archive restoration shops have been cooperating on the implementation of this project since 2006 in accordance with the ethical principles of the profession. The ICRC Archives staff analyse the damage, attend to quality control, and process the restoration records. They also attend to the general cleaning of the documents, prepare them for digitization and package them with protective covering. A scientific expert in paper conservation is advising the ICRC throughout the running of the programme.

Digitization project 

The digitization programme aims to safeguard the information and to produce copies as backup files. The digital format will also enable the ICRC to provide general access for the public to one of its most prestigious collections.

The digitization work is scheduled to commence this summer (2010). Several types of technical equipment will be needed in order to produce the 10 million images of lists of prisoners, the originals of which vary in format and quality. In this context, the descriptive data (metadata) will be consolidated and expanded with a view to rationalizing archive management and improving the search functions.

The bulk of the work is to be outsourced to professional specialists. Files with complex structures will be digitized by the ICRC Archives staff, who will also prepare the documents for digitization, package them in protective covering, and consolidate the metadata.

See also WWI prisoner archives join of UNESCO Memory of the world  

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