By Tobias Schweitzer
Editorial note: Tobias Schweitzer recently finished his Bachelor/undergraduate studies in philosophy and political science at the University of Münster in Germany. His interests include the history of political thought, intellectual history of the 20th century, theories of history and historiography, as well as questions related to the work of Hannah Arendt. He completed an internship at the GHI Washington from April to July 2022.
Barbara Bair is a curator and historian in the Manuscripts Division of the Library of Congress, where she works with eight other historians and subject specialists. Her main field of expertise are literature, culture, and arts. She has worked as collection curator and framework author on the team that produced the digital relaunch of the Hannah Arendt Papers at the LOC in 2021. I’ve had the opportunity to meet her virtually while in Washington and speak with her about the digitized version of the Arendt Papers.
To start with, I would like to begin with some personal aspects. What are your tasks at the LOC and what relation do you have to the Hannah Arendt Papers?
I’m working as a historian in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. In my own area, which is literature, culture, and arts, I curate different collections in physical and digital form and give advice to scholars, journalists or independent researchers who are interested in our collections.
Now let us turn to the papers. Was it Arendt’s own decision to gift her unpublished works to the LOC? If yes, have there been connections between Arendt and the LOC during her lifetime? If not, how did it happen that the papers were subsequently collected at the LOC?
Yes, it was Arendt’s own decision to give her personal papers, including notes, writings, correspondence and other documents to the LOC and yes there were contacts between her and the library during her lifetime. I believe that it was important to her that the papers be preserved, and that accessibility was public and international. In the case of the LOC, access to collections is free to anyone living in the United States or from another country. There are additional Arendt materials archived at places like the New School for Social Research in New York, where she taught, and the Arendt Center at the University of Oldenburg, and her library of books is at Bard College, where her husband was a professor, but the LOC is the principal repository of the bulk of her personal papers. Her wishes in this respect, stated in her lifetime and through her will and an instrument of gift with LOC, continued to be carried forward by her estate after her death.
When and for which reasons did the LOC decide to digitize the Hannah Arendt Papers?
I wasn’t involved when the papers were originally digitized, but it was done between 1998 and 2000 with the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. At that time, there was a big push to digitize collections at LOC and to find a quick way of making many special collections electronically accessible. This meant that select collections that were available in microfilm as a preservation and research format were scanned and upgraded to availability via online access through what was in that era known as the LOC’s American Memory projects. In the case of the Arendt Papers, as opposed to say, collections stemming from the nineteenth century, there were intellectual rights issues of work by others represented in her papers which needed to be considered.
What led to the relaunch of the papers in the last year?
Over the past several years, the LOC has revamped and upgraded its platform for digitized collections. In the case of the Arendt Papers, this involved the standardization of the framework design and template to match the updated platform now being used for digital collections, and also increasing the availability of the papers to users anywhere in the world. Before 2021 only some of the papers were widely available, and others could be accessed by researchers through three dedicated workstations located at the LOC, the New School, and the Arendt Center in Oldenburg. After addressing remaining right issues, and with the agreement of the institutions involved and the Arendt Trust, LOC relaunched the digitized papers in a new updated manner in summer 2021 that guarantees broader access from anywhere in the world.
The LOC recently started a campaign to help transcribe LOC documents, among which one can also find the Arendt Papers. Under the title “Woman of the World: Political Thinker Hannah Arendt” you ask virtual volunteers to engage in the transcription process of the Arendt Papers. What feedback did you already get?
Since the launch in May 2022, there are about 400 participants actively registered in the transcribing campaign, but more individuals can also help transcribe without registering to do so. Some are scholars or students, but many of the volunteers are nonacademic people who are willing to engage in her papers. Some of them are just eager to transcribe and are interested in all kinds of collections. Others are particularly interested in Arendt, or understand themselves as lifelong learners. The Goethe Institute of Washington, D.C., the German Historical Association, and the Arendt Center at Bard College have all helped get the word out about the campaign to individuals who might want to help transcribe, especially the German language content. The By the People crowdsourcing project started off just a few years ago with papers of Walt Whitman as its first campaign. Since then it has launched a variety of campaigns, including ones associated with important historical anniversaries, such as woman suffrage, or areas of high research interest, like the Civil War. Each campaign has unique qualities and they differ from one other. Doing Hannah Arendt meant launching a transcription project of a philosopher or political thinker for the first time. The campaign has gotten high interest because of the questions of thought and public intellectualism we continue to ask in our own times
How would you explain the ongoing fascination towards the work and person of Hannah Arendt and what fascinates you personally about her?
I think, it’s about the continuing relevancy and ongoing difficulty and complexity of the questions she posed and that we still ask of ourselves as human beings. We are still grappling with and debating so much with versions of these issues today. Think of the problems of refugees, the question of genocide, and all the questions concerning Zionism. I personally have a very deep appreciation of her and her work, and I am again and again astonished by the variety of what is available in these papers as well as how profound the content really is. Whether or not you agree with Arendt, the questions she asks, and the debates she inspires, continue to be very important today. As well as the things she asks us to remember. The papers are also a way to discover her private side and more of her character and personality, and through her many drafts and her letters, the creative process of her mind, as well as her rich associations with other people.
You can register as a transcriber of the Hannah Arendt Papers at the Library of Congress By the People Campaign: https://crowd.loc.gov/campaigns/arendt/