Founded in 2005 through the efforts of Len Blavatnik, the Blavatnik Archive is a true smorgasbord of archival material pertaining to 20th-century Jewish (and indeed, world) history. Focussing particularly on the two World Wars and Soviet Russia, the Archive has collected more than 113,000 items, these including but not limited to: video testimonies, photos, illustrations, and a range of documents both personal and political. A key aspect of the Archive is its stated commitment to online digital access. Users can thus expect “high-resolution reproductions and…seamless, user-oriented delivery”, which the Archive certainly delivers.
Arriving at the Archive’s landing page, users are presented with a scrolling banner of high quality photos and a selection of the site’s core content: Stories and Collections. To begin with the Stories, each Story provides the historical context and individual/personal stories behind a particular collection of archival material – think a couple’s love story in wartime spread across hundreds of letters, or the wartime and general life experiences of local heroes in West Hollywood. While some Stories are shorter than others, users can always expect links to the original archival material and thoughtful write-ups about the topic. Currently, there are 32 Stories available to explore and users can access them via the Explore tab in the site’s navigation bar.
In contrast to the Stories which function as an easy way to ease into each archival collection, the Collections section allows access to all (digitised) archival material in a particular category. Each Collection is based around a specific theme (e.g. postcards from World War One, or Jews in the Military) and generally comes with an overview of its contents, as well as a number of featured entries from the Collection. It’s worth keeping in mind that as with the Stories, the amount of content provided in each overview and featured entry varies between Collections. Some are essay length, while others only provide a few sentences of background.
Another thing to point out is the fact that not all items in a Collection might be available online. This can be somewhat frustrating, as it’s not currently clear as to whether the remaining materials are yet to be digitised, or if they need to be accessed in-person. Given the site’s overall slick and user-friendly design, it’s also a bit surprising that navigating to the actual records can sometimes be a bit fiddly due to the links not being particularly obvious. This minor quibble aside, the Archives team has done an excellent job of collecting, digitising, and archiving such a range of materials. Each item record is thoughtfully laid out, with the main focus obviously being the high-resolution image of the record in question. Below the viewing panel, the digitisation team has also included as many details about the item as possible, with some even coming with a transcript. Should anyone wish to explore all the collections as a whole, an easy to use search function is also avaialble, with users being able to filter by item type, which collection it's from, subject, place, date, and other parameters. Further to that, another nice touch is the inclusion of a periodic newsletter (see top left-hand corner of the site), which can keep subscribers up to date with new additions to the Archive’s Stories and Collections.
While all the Collections are important and interesting in their own right, it’s definitely worth highlighting the Veteran Testimonies and Ephemera section. This collects almost 1,200 video interviews with Russian Jewish people who fought in the Soviet armed forces during World War Two, along with their associated military documents, photos, and postcards. Taken together, there are more than 2,800 records available online. Given the sheer number of records available, the Archives has also thoughtfully provided an option to look up particular individuals via the All Veterans filter, which can be accessed under the Browse tab in the main navigation bar. This lists all 190 persons currently included in the Veteran Testimonies section and provides individual records for each, these often coming with a short biography, military profile, and links to other associated archival materials.
The site as a whole is a beautifully presented one, with the focus clearly being on digitising materials to a high standard. Most, if not all of the longer write-ups, too, have clearly been worked on a fair bit and provide much-needed historical background to the material at hand. While it would have been good to see more of this across the site, it’s understandably a large undertaking and the site in its current iteration already does a commendable job of contextualising each Collection/Story.
In this case, K-12 and university level educators alike will have plenty of material to draw on for teaching purposes. Students in grade or middle school will likely benefit from one of the longer Stories being included in a History unit, as these really drive home the human side of primary sources. For further engagement, upper year levels can be asked to create a short Story of their own by drawing on the materials in a particular Collection. Given the thematic grouping of each Collection, educators can also consider structuring a class around particular types of sources – postcards and their uses, for instance, or propaganda across different mediums.
On a whole, the Blavatnik Archive site does a great job of ensuring that a range of important archival material can be accessed by anyone with an internet connection. While many digitisation projects can end up too intimidating for the average user, the Archive’s inclusion of Stories and curated Collections lowers the barriers a bit more. The clean, uncluttered layout, too, goes a long way in ensuring that the attention is always on the digitised item. Given that a transcription section has been included for most item records, it will be interesting to see whether the Archives moves towards transcribing/translating more of its holdings in the near future as doing so will truly open these collections up to an even wider audience.