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Digitizing Holocaust memories

USC system backed by Spielberg and Sun uses robots to help make more than 100,000 hours of genocide testimonials videotaped on Betacam SP available on the Internet.

Dr. Josef Mengele calmly greets a trainload of prisoners to Auschwitz as human ashes fall from the sky. This scene, from the Steven Spielberg film Schindler's List, is unforgettable, but a dramatic rendering is nowhere near as powerful as hearing from someone who once stood before the real-life Todesengel, or "Angel of Death," as the brutal Nazi came to be known.

Itka Zygmuntowicz, a Holocaust survivor, recounts in a 1996 interview seeing Mengele dressed in his SS uniform and white gloves as he calmly sent people to a concentration camp or to die in a gas chamber. Zygmuntowicz is one of nearly 52,000 Holocaust survivors whose interviews were recorded initially on videotape but will soon be preserved in a massive digital archive.

Now playing: Watch this: Recalling Holocaust horrors

The University of Southern California's Shoah Foundation Institute has begun digitizing 100,000 hours of interviews at a cost of more than $8 million, including a $2 million hardware donation from Sun Microsystems. The five-year project requires a state-of-the-art system, which includes the use of robots and an 8-petabyte archive. The goal is to save and disseminate testimonies of genocide survivors, including those from Rwanda.

"We'll be helping to preserve interviews so people can refer to them as they build educational programs," said Sam Gustman, chief technology officer of the foundation. "Obviously, whatever people need to learn from the past hasn't been learned yet, since we continue to have genocides like (in) the Sudan. Maybe first-person experiences can help in a way that textbooks haven't been able to, to date."

A digital library is needed because videotape rots, Gustman said. According to some experts, digital magnetic tape may last only 20 years.

When Spielberg launched the project, formerly called the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, in 1994, digital technology was still in its infancy. An added benefit of a digital library, besides helping preserve the interviews, is that it's easier to disseminate than videotape. To share it with schools, governments, and the public, all you need is the Internet.

Before the testimonies can be moved to the Web, a truck must begin transporting the more than 230,000 videotapes across the country, to the USC campus--15,000 at a time. The interviews, which are now on Betacam SP tape, will be fed into a high-volume digitization station, where robots do most of the work.

To make the interviews available on a wide range of digital formats, separate copies will be preserved in MPEG-2, QuickTime, Windows Media, Motion JPEG 2000, and Flash formats. A master copy and sub-master copy of all this material will be loaded into separate 4-petabyte digital-storage units. Gustman said that each day, six employees are needed to help load the tapes and maintain the system, which was modeled after one being built by the U.S. Library of Congress.

Now full Internet access to the archive is available at USC and 16 other institutions, including the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Eventually, the foundation wants to make 1,000 interviews available on its Web site. Another goal is to store archives on hard drives at multiple research institutions, Gustman said.

All this technology is welcome by those involved in the project, including some of the interviewees. Throughout many of the videos I watched, people expressed gratitude that their story would be preserved. According to one survivor, despite all the horrors he had seen, "humanity is making progress."