As Israel State Archives Go Digital, Academics Fear Work Will Suffer

Researchers complain that they will have to wait for as-yet unscanned materials and will no longer be allowed to see original documents, just digitized copies.

Israel's State Archives in Jerusalem, in 2012.
Michal Fattal

Historians, researchers and human rights activists are worried that the new digital revolution at the Israel States Archives will interfere with their work and reduce their access to reliable information. This week the digitalization process at the Jerusalem-based facility took a major step forward with its new archival website going online.

But state archivist Dr. Yaakov Lazovik rejects the claims and talks about the “great improvement” that can be anticipated in the service the archives provides the public. Its new website features scanned documents, but only 5.5 million pages of them so far out of a total of 400 million pages.

“The basic principle of the website," Lazovik explains, "is for the entire archive to be scanned and put on the Internet, accessible to everyone."

In practice, because this scanning project, the largest ever undertaken in Israel, will take many years to be completed — estimates are about 20 years, he says — researchers who want to examine materials off-site can order documents through the website. “We will scan and upload [those documents] to the site; all of it, I hope, in less than two weeks and at no cost," adds Lazovik.

His enthusiasm over making the materials accessible and simplifying the procedures for viewing them is not shared, however, by dozens of Israeli academics. They say the digitalization process as it is being conducted form will harm their work. Their fear is that they will not be able to access the original paper documents that are stored in the archives, just online copies. A notice posted recently in the archives announced the end of “paper files,” and added that in “preparation” for the process, the archives would “stop lending the original paper files.”

Academics are worried this means that from now on, historical documents will accessible only on a computer screen.

“We are worried that digitization will not allow us to understand the full significance of the documents and will not allow us to ask questions,” said Dr. On Barak of the Department of Middle Eastern and African History at Tel Aviv University. Barak has drafted a protest letter on the matter, which was signed by some 30 other academics.

While he says he recognizes the importance of the digital scanning process, which means there is no need to come to the archives and makes materials accessible to the general public at home, Barak warns about losing what he calls the direct and essential connection between the researchers and the documents they want to see.

digitSometimes researchers do not want to leave their search to focus on a specific document, which is how the new website functions, but are trying to search a broad range of documents quickly in order to find a clue, the historian says.

That ability could be lost through the digitization. Even the feel of the paper, its smell, its material nature – all these have great value. It is not just the textual material that is important, but often the file and carton in which it is stored, as well as the order of the documents, Barak explains, adding, “Digitization cannot reconstruct this."

The researchers are also worried having to wait for the documents they request to be scanned will slow down their work. In the past, academics simply sat down in a room at the archives themselves and could page through hundreds, if not thousands of documents at a time, choosing the ones they wanted to take examine more closely.

The researchers are asking that the existing methods of viewing at the archives continue for now, along with the new digital website.

Another possible problem involves limitations on public access to archival materials due to heightened involvement by the military censor as part of the new digitization process. This is because there is a difference between allowing a historian to use certain sensitive materials for research purposes, and exposing them on the Internet to the entire world. Approval from the censor would first be required before publishing such documents on the new site.

For now, millions of pages from the archives have already been scanned, at a pace of 100,000 pages a day. Last year Lazovik told Haaretz that within 15 years, all the documents from the 20th century would be scanned within 15 years, but there are some glitches with scanning more recent materials. Moreover, some materials that were supposed to be catalogued in the archives have still not arrived for technical reasons stemming from the move to the digital era.

The website is only in Hebrew and does not provide service in English or Arabic at this stage. It is still suffering from some labor pains, but anyone who wants to check out the site will find such things there as a letter sent by Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to his daughter Ofra; an emergency economic rescue plan; an exhibition of photographs under the heading “Children Build a Nation"; and emergency military-induction orders.