Wilhelm Weinberg Collection Rededicated, 1989

In a previous post we wrote about the dedication of the Wilhelm Weinberg Hall of Records at the HIAS headquarters on Lafayette Street, in December 1958.

A press release from 1989, found in Executive Vice-President Karl Zukerman’s files during a survey of files from the 1980s before they were processed, indicates that HIAS sought in 1989 to make amends with Wilhelm Weinberg’s family for having dismantled the Hall of Records when HIAS moved to new headquarters on Park Avenue in 1965.

Rededication of Wilhelm Weinberg Collection, now at YIVO, 1989

YIVO received many of the HIAS files in 1965 when HIAS moved to a new office without room for the voluminous administrative and client files they had accumulated over 40 years on Lafayette Street.

If you read the letter from Ilja Dijour (in the link at the beginning of this post) to James P. Rice written soon after the 1958 dedication, it is clear that in fact the “meticulous evaluation and cataloguing [sic] of records” described in 1989 had been a problem since long before 1958. In fact, according to the excerpt from the 1918 survey (in the same link to the earlier post), even in 1918 the files were disorganized and difficult to access when needed.

Many of the HIAS files that were sent to YIVO throughout the 20th century, including many World War II-era case files, have been microfilmed and cataloged or listed. The files that form the HIAS collection at AJHS will be arranged and accessible at the end of 2018.

We have created a database to many of the post-World War II case files, which will indicate whether a file exists; because of privacy issues physical access to the files depends on parameters set by HIAS. The many thousands of case files that remain physically with HIAS are in need of weeding, rearranging and eventually digitization to create easier access, and HIAS is well aware of the importance of their continuing stewardship of this valuable family history.

It’s a costly project, and after all, records management is not specifically part of the HIAS mission. It is of course not a part of any not-for-profit’s mission. Records that are not legally or fiscally required to be retained become a huge financial burden. We hope in the near future it will be possible to further organize and make accessible the remaining HIAS files, allowing for privacy restrictions as necessary.

And then the challenge is the long-term preservation of their electronic records – something we all have to think about, professionally and personally … but not today.



The integration of HIAS and USNA files, 1954

In 1954, shortly before the official merger between HIAS and the United Service for New Americans (USNA), Mildred Tuffield, a files consultant, was hired to survey the file systems in use by both agencies.

Cover letter from files consultant Mildred P. Tuffield, August 1954
Cover letter from files consultant Mildred P. Tuffield, August 1954

Tuffield’s general findings included the fact that “each agency [has] a departmentalized structure organized along functional lines”, and then went on to say that the Survey and Report on HIAS/USNA Files Integration,  “had to concern itself with the major problems of the central records used by all departments”.

10 pages of the report deal with the system each agency used to maintain their case files prior to the merger; 5 pages deal with their respective systems for indexing and filing what Tuffield refers to as “General Files” – files that we refer to as “Administrative Files”; these would have been the files maintained by the central filing department, separate (although often duplicative of) individual department files. Subject headings included Executive Overseas Files, US Branch Files, Congregations and Federations.

While there were many specifics in the 15 pages of Tuffield’s report, she advises in her cover letter, above, that a staff committee be appointed immediately, with representation from both agencies, to negotiate a records merger plan.

There are just a few boxes of files from just after the merger in the 1950s that have become part of the HIAS archives project, and these early files, so far, are scattered through the US Operations department in New York, and in some of the files from the Paris office. (Many more of the USNA and HIAS files from this era can be found in the HIAS collections at YIVO.) I recently completed the processing of European Personnel and Administrative files from the HIAS office in Geneva, and many of those files begin at the time of the merger in 1954, so it is not possible to directly compare indexing systems from before and after. I would guess, however, that Tuffield’s recommendations were followed, and ultimately were successful in categorizing at the very least the documents and files created post-merger.

Large Collections and Aberrations in the Finding Aid

The HIAS collection consisted of over 1500 unprocessed boxes as of January 2016. Labels at the box level were, at times, neither accurate nor consistent among boxes of related files. As a result, the first Communications boxes I received were very disorganized, to the point that they lacked a discernible, original order.

For this reason, I had to impose an order on them; I processed them as Subject Files, with Subject Headings such as “Campaigns,” “Media Placement,” and “Publications.” While this order, admittedly, will make it easier for researchers to search by subject, it is not in keeping with best scenario, accepted archival practice, which is to maintain the original order at all costs.

As a result, it wasn’t until about ten boxes in that a discernible, original order began to emerge, and by that point I had already done too much work to go back and re-do everything.

This order resided not in file type, but in file creator. The vast majority of the Communications materials were created at the behest of, or belonged to two Heads of the Public Relations/Public Affairs/Communications Department: Brenda Schaefer, Head of Public Relations/Affairs between 1983 and 1989; and Roberta Elliott, Director of Public Affairs/Communications between 1989 and 1993, returning once more in 2011.

With no time to go back and redo all the processing, I simply made sure to note Brenda Schaefer and Roberta Elliott’s names on any files belonging to them. That, at least, would retain the original order in an intellectual sense.

After completing the Communications boxes, I moved on to process the Finance boxes, and made sure not to repeat this mistake.

In between completing my processing of the Communications boxes and the Finance boxes, my coworkers discovered at least ten additional boxes of Communications files erroneously labeled as “Overseas Operations,” or “Executive Files.”

For the sake of consistency, I continued to process the materials from these “stray” Communications boxes as Subject Files. However, these boxes contained files belonging to two different Directors of PR/Public/Affairs/Communications: Hyman Brickman, Director of Fundraising and Public Relations between 1974 and 1983; and Morris Ardoin, Director of Communications between 2000 and 2005.

With these two “new” staff members, I could finally arrange some of the Communications files by creator instead of type. And that is why, in the Communications Folder List, Hyman Brickman randomly (in the eyes of the researcher, accustomed to the subject-based imposed order) appears in the hierarchy in between “Biographies” and “Campaigns,” and why Morris Ardoin does the same in between “Administration” and “Biographies.”

Folder List
Circled in red, this image demonstrates how the sections of the folder list where department head, as opposed to subject type, is the primary element of the hierarchy appear.

Thanks to the wonder of searching a folder list electronically, as our completed folder list will at the end of our projects of the Ctrl + F function, it will still be easy for researchers to locate a particular file no matter where it appears in the folder list!

HIAS and the Floating Department

One of the complexities of processing an institutional collection is that the institutions themselves do not function with the intent of making life easy for future archivists (shockingly enough). While the goal of the archivists processing this type of collection is to represent the internal organization of the institution as clearly as possible, sometimes organizations can become so complex that archivists must make difficult editorial choices in the name of accessibility and ease of use.

As I have previously discussed on this blog, HIAS—typically in cooperation with the Department of State and the UJA-Federation of New York—awarded grants to Jewish organizations across the country, which in turn used the money to resettle refugees. It was the Matching Grants Department which handled and kept careful record of that money.

Matching Grants comes across as a department that rather intentionally made itself difficult to trace. It would be reasonable to assume that Matching Grants existed within the Grant Management Department, which itself was situated within the Finance Department. However, that assumption would be incorrect.

Before 1993, Matching Grants was handled by an organization outside of HIAS; between 1993 and 2000, Matching Grants existed as its own department, separate from both Grant Management and US Operations; after the year 2000, Matching Grants existed under the umbrella of US Operations, a department which handles refugee resettlement. Complicating the picture is the fact that the staff names and handwritings attached to Matching Grants papers remained stable, even as the department floated around the HIAS organizational structure.

To represent this movement in the collection and finding aid, while aligned with the goals and practices of processing a large institutional collection, would prove confusing and unintuitive for future researchers. Therefore, we made the decision to organize Matching Grants into the Finance Series, as the vast majority of materials from Matching Grants are financial in nature.

Institutional Records and Original Order

I recently finished processing the HIAS Communications records. For me, this functioned as a bit of a crash course in the processing of institutional records.

Of course, when processing institutional collections, the processing goal is to arrange the materials in an order which reflects the organizational structure. But what do you do when no original order—let alone structure—is present in the unprocessed boxes? This is the reality I encountered with the first batch of HIAS Communications boxes I had to process.

With no clear structure or order to work with, I instead created a structure, and organized these materials as subject files.

As I got deeper into the Communications boxes, a subtle order became apparent. Most of the records I processed were created between 1970 and 1995. During that time, there were three heads of the Public Relations/Affairs Department: Barbara Wachtel, Brenda Schaefer, and Roberta Elliott. In later boxes, their files were frequently grouped together, and I began to recognize their handwriting, and retroactively identify how each woman marked and organized her own papers.

Upon seeing this emerging order, I realized that arranging the files according to Department Director would have been more faithful to the original order. However, because of the constraints of our project, which has tight deadlines and schedules and is “minimally processed” (MPLP), it was too late to go back and recreate that order. Instead, I represented this order by marking down Barbara Wachtel, Brenda Schaefer, or Roberta Elliott’s name on folders containing their files. This was a way to recapture their files intellectually, even though the folders were physically arranged in A-Z subject order.


Finance boxes just waiting to be surveyed.

With Communications behind me, I am beginning to dig into the unprocessed Finance boxes. This time, I understand much more clearly the importance of the initial, quick survey of the boxes, and will be able to group them intellectually before processing begins. I now know to wait and see what sort of order emerges from these boxes before making the decision to impose one.

From Chaos to Context

The maintenance of original order—the organization and ordering of records as established by the records creator—is a fundamental archival principle. It allows archivists to preserve record contexts and relationships within the collection and guides the archivist as they provide access to the records.

I am processing the records of HIAS’ Communications/Public Affairs Department (this department changed names several times), and many boxes arrived to my processing table in no discernible order.

HIAS Communications files pre-processing

There are many possible reasons for this, including that the records may have long been out of active use and were shifted around too much in agency storage, the order may have been displaced when a new employee took over the position entailing responsibility for the records, or because of shifting organizational priorities. It is probable that several of these factors are responsible for the lack of original order.

Without clear sense of original order, I am often in the position of having to impose order on and rebuild the context of HIAS’ Communications and Public Affairs records. This process is a bit like doing a puzzle—there are a lot of small pieces of information I need to put together in order to determine an appropriate intellectual order for these materials.

The records I’m working with generally span from the 1940s through the 1990s. Thus, it is imperative that I have a strong understanding of twentieth-century Jewish and humanitarian history. Because these records served as HIAS’ mouthpiece, I must also understand the changing needs and priorities of HIAS as an organization, needs which typically shifted along with the aforementioned histories. These two pieces of information allow me to make educated guesses about the provenance—within the Communications/Public Affairs Department—of a record or record group sans additional information. For example, a pamphlet published in Cyrillic with no other information is most likely related to the crisis of Soviet Jewry, which dominated much of HIAS’ work in the last 40 years of the twentieth century.

The last piece of information necessary to making sense of unorganized boxes is the history of the Communications/Public Affairs Department. For example, Brenda Schaefer and Roberta Elliott were heads of the Department in the 1980s and 1990s. Thus, a box of seemingly disconnected files can suddenly make sense if one or both of those names show up in the majority of the folders or documents.  This indicates that these documents came from the files of those employees and can thus be placed together in the absence of other linking characteristics.

HIAS Communications files post-processing

Imposing order is not a simple process, but with the right background knowledge and pieces of information, it is possible to tame the most chaotic of collections.

Re: Old Files

As archivists, we are very attentive to how an archive—the collection as a whole as we received it—is arranged. The arrangement of an archive says something about the organization that produced it, the business processes that shaped the records remain as a sort of after-image of the arrangement of the records. So it’s funny to us to find instances of HIAS trying in various ways to understand how it maintains its own records. You can see here, in a letter from May 1956, Louis Horowitz, director of HIAS’s European Operations, looking for advice on records management.

“Re: Old Files,” Horowitz’s letter on the “question […] of how to dispose of old files and records.”
We have noticed in the records from the mid-50s a move to close a lot of branch offices in Europe. We assume that at this point most WWII refugees had been resettled—either in the US, Latin America, or Israel—and HIAS was turning its attention to helping Jews in the Middle East and North Africa.

In the late ’50s, HIAS got the idea to consolidate all of their archival records (mostly case files serving as the official record of immigration) as part of its 75th anniversary celebrations into the newly named (“brisened”?) Wilhelm Weinberg Hall of Records, named for the banker and art collector who had fled the Nazis in 1941 and had recently died. We are still finding out more and more about the Hall of Records, but even before the hall was opened, one HIAS employee had a few complaints about the proposal.


Ilja Dijour served as the Director of Research for HIAS at this time. We first came across his name in a letter he’d written (in French) to Executive Director James Rice a few years prior. It seems that he’d worked with HIAS in some capacity from 1928 to 1940. We like Dijour, something about him seems very cosmopolitan, and the candor and stubbornness revealed in his letter suggest he is a man of principles. Also he advocates for a professional archivist and for a standardized catalog of the records—what’s not to love!

Below is a promotional photograph for the Hall of Records—Rice is in the middle. Absent from the festivities, of course, was Mr. Dijour, who did not attend—purposely!



But Dijour’s wasn’t the first call to action regarding HIAS’s recordkeeping practices. Below is a page from the “Survey of the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society,” circa 1918, by the Field Bureau of the National Conference of Jewish Charities.


The section of the survey called “Files and Records” points out that there is “no central files and records room or unified system of filing [….] Records are scattered through almost all the offices in the building [….] The result is that the valuable material is frequently mislaid […] and not infrequently, frantic and fruitless surveys are made of all available files in the search for a needed case record or letter.” Surely, if Dijour had known about this survey (by then nearly 40 years old), his letter to Rice wouldn’t have been so cordial.