Are Archives Sexy and Dynamic?

Amsterdam’s new city archive on Vijzelstraat is one of the largest in the world and is now open for business. Can you feel the excitement? Well, some folks can—especially when the numbers and the details turn into some hardcore stories.

By Steve Korver,  13-09-2007, cover feature, Amsterdam Weekly

‘So can archives be hot and thrilling?’

‘Very,’ replies Hans Visser (1958), head of information services at Amsterdam’s Stadsarchief, as his eyes begin to glimmer. His response was not quite a ‘hell yeah!’ but it was very close.

Of course, part of the excitement stems from the archive’s new location, the epic De Bazel building, a former bank built between 1919 and 1926, which is now, after a ‚¬65 million renovation, as light-infused inside as it is in-your-face imposing from outside. Open since August, the Stadsarchief this week unveils, complete with Queen, pomp, and much circumstance, its Schatkamer or ‘treasure room’.

This intricately designed and restored two-floored hall—really the ultimate hang-out for the Egyptian mummy crowd—will feature such prizes as the paperwork that shows how Amsterdam bankers helped finance the ‘Louisiana Purchase’ in 1803, when the US doubled in size by making the largest land deal in history with a cash-strapped Napoleon. But it will also have seven-inch singles from the great Rotterdam singer of Amsterdam songs, Louis ‘De Kleine Man’ Davids (1883-1939).

But the true richness of this collection is its 35 kilometres of files—and it ain’t just knipsels. The stored memory of Amsterdam and its millions of residents also includes books, magazines, newspapers, letters, drawings, prints, photos, films and sound recordings. Visser himself began working at the archive as a librarian in 1991, when it was still the Gemeente Archief and located on Amsteldijk. In 2000, he took on his present job of making the archives as accessible as possible to the public. He can still get all worked up about the role. ‘I can’t imagine anything more suspenseful. The whole of life, and especially society, is locked up in the archive. It’s not just official government records, but also private collections from cultural institutions, businesses and famous Amsterdammers. Pretty much “everything” tussen haakjes.’

‘Now, thanks to digitalisation and a proper organisation of the collection, a lot of it is easily accessible through the website. We have two million scans online already. If we continue at the rate we’re now going at—ten thousand scanned documents a week—we should have the most important parts of the collection, which number approximately two hundred and twenty five million pieces, online in the next ten years.’

Good God. These ambitions sound near Mormon-like.

Mormons as the archivist’s archivist
The Mormons come up a lot in conversations with archive aficionados. A quirk in the religion has members tracing their family trees to find the names of ancestors who had died before benefiting from being saved, Mormon-style. Once documented, these past relatives can be baptised by proxy in the temple. Currently, about 2.4 million rolls of microfilm containing two billion names are stored behind 14-ton doors in the Granite Mountain Records Vault, a climate-controlled repository built into a Utah mountain range. And, yes folks, it was designed to withstand a nuclear blast.

‘We know the Mormons well, of course. They started coming here in the 1960s to copy huge amounts of information. There’s nothing childish about their approach,’ says Visser. Of most interest to the Mormons, and anyone wanting to do a bit of carving into their family tree, are the Stadsarchief’s identity records. Currently all 1.1 million ‘person cards’ from between 1939 and 1964 have been digitalised, along with about 600,000 ‘family cards’ from between the late 19th century and 1939. And before 1811, people were registered through the church via ‘birth books’, ‘wedding books’ and ‘grave books’. The database now has five million names and counting.

Numbers into stories
But numbers are numbers that only get exciting when they become a story. Visser comes up with a serious one: ‘There was a Jewish man, who came from a family of market traders, who was given away during the war by his parents, who were being transported to concentration camps. He ended up in the countryside, being raised by [another] family. After the war, no one from his [birth] family returned and he had no mementoes of them. About four years ago, he had heard about our files of market licences, and that on these licences are photos. Through them, he actually found photos of not only his parents but also his grandparents. That had an impact, let me tell you…

‘Or it can be more trivial. A friend of mine who lived on Westerdokstraat during the 1950s looked it up in our image bank [the online beeldbank currently has over 220,000 photos] and not only found a picture of his house but, in front of it, his mother and aunt, along with his father’s VW Beetle. If you look closely, you can even make out his grandmother in the window. That’s just fantastic. Imagine that moment of recognition! And it’s exactly those instances of petit histoire coming to life that makes this great work.’

The glint in Visser’s eyes is now turned up to 11.

Murder and manslaughter
‘Well the gleam in my eye is from the fact I’m allergic to dust—not really the best start for someone who spends so much time in archives,’ states Eric Slot (1960), journalist and crime historian, who was recommended by several archive users as the best person to help find a nice, hot archive story. In his favourite bar—Cafe De Zwart on Spui—he is smoking cigars. We drink beer. It is old-school journalism at its best.

Slot is naturally happy about the squeaky clean and freshly dusted Stadsarchief. ‘The only thing I miss is Louise’s soup, now that the staff canteen is separate from the public one.’ Slot made a splash last year with the book De dood van een onderduiker (Mouria, 2006) which used archival research to question film-maker Louis van Gasteren’s claim that, in 1943, he had beaten to death the hiding Jewish man, Walter Oettinger, because Oettinger’s erratic behaviour threatened resistance people. Whenever anyone suggested other motives besides this relatively noble one, Van Gasteren would initiate a lawsuit, as he did against Slot himself when the ‘Murder on Beethovenstraat’ was featured as one of 100 murders covered in his 1998 book Wandelingen door moorddadig Amsterdam [‘Walks through murderous Amsterdam’].

Slot’s publisher decided to remove the book from the stores. Understandably resentful, Slot was motivated to dig deeper, and spent a total of three working years—spread over the next seven—doing just that. When Van Gasteren took him to court to stop the product of his toils, the judge saw no reason to ban the book, since it was based on documentation and made no mention of what could have been the real motive.

Slot has also dug deep into other affairs. His first book Vijf gulden eeuwen. Momenten uit 500 jaar gemeentefinancien, Amsterdam 1490-1990 (Gemeente Amsterdam, 1998) was commissioned by the city itself to investigate its own financial dirty laundry. Not surprisingly, Slot found lots of fraud.

Mixing it up
‘The Stadsarchief is especially interesting since it’s so impossibly huge,’ says Slot. ‘When taken separately an archive may only be of passing interest, but when you use it with others you can really get somewhere. Of course those “family cards” and “residence cards” are incredibly boring stuff, but by combining that with other information, such as from the police archives, which you need special permission for, or from some other private or business archives—not to mention the newspapers and magazines. ‘Newspaper clippings alone are an incredible source of information, and at the Stadsarchief that’s all thanks to some crazy guy who started to preserve newspaper clippings in 1840 on every imaginable subject. So now if you want to know something about bathhouses in Amsterdam—I wouldn’t know why, but just imagine—you now have in one handy a place all the articles on bathhouses since 1840. And it’s the same with murder and manslaughter. Very handy.’

Another amazing feature of the archives is the staff. ‘There’s a specialist in everything there. If you have a picture of an Amsterdam street and you have no idea where it is, there’s someone there who will know—as long as you can catch them running down the halls. And that kind of knowledge only builds up over many, many years.’

In other words, by working in and creating archives, one becomes an archive. With your own personal built-in search engine.

So what has been the happiest of eureka moments for Slot? ‘With De dood van een onderduiker, it was probably what I found in the child protection service archive—and very lucky it was, since they only saved one out of every ten boxes of their collection. There was a dossier about the sister of Van Gasteren—who was having some trouble raising her child—and there was an actual statement from Van Gasteren in 1956 about something that happened ten years before. Bingo. He said she had had a relationship with a German soldier—and that was information that I could do something with. Only then did I realise the power of combining these different archives.

‘But, of course, there are also these other moments of pure coincidence. For example, I was looking for one of the original detectives working on the Van Gasteren case. All I knew was that he was called Timmerman. And while I was actually working on a whole other subject I just stumbled across him. And those kinds of moments happen a lot. Especially because you don’t go through an archive once or twice or three times. You go through them at least ten times because you have to go back every time you find something new. Only then can you make more connections and discoveries.’

Keeping it present
Currently, Slot is busy working on a book about the criminal underworld of the penose on the Wallen during the 1950s and 1960s and is in the archive almost daily, out to reconstruct life as it was then. ‘You can take the police records and compare with pictures in the Stadarchief’s image bank with all these pictures of buildings, where you can see exactly what they were: a liquor store or a carpenter workshop or a bordello. And all these details you can use to fill in the blanks of a particular police report of a crime that occurred there. The more extra information and local colour you get, the more you actually begin to see it as it actually was.

‘As far as I’m concerned, the nineteenth century could have never existed. But there are still so many interesting and entertaining stories to be written from archives that can say a lot about what’s happening right now. This Wallen book will reflect what’s happening now in the criminal circuit. For instance, with the famous prostitute murders of Magere Josje and Chinese Annie in the 1950s: there’s a lot more in the police report than ever reaches the papers. And it’s those extra details that help make the story. The basic story is very simple: woman murdered and killer never found or convicted, anyway. But the real story is about the relations between the people involved. These dossiers can also tell you exactly how those peeskamers looked. Everything is described and in words that never made it to the Dikke van Van Dale. You just can’t invent that sort of stuff… Reading these reports you really begin to sense the police’s relative naiveté. They were used to the husband standing over the wife with a bloody knife, and now they were confronted with these murders of prostitutes by unknown assailants. They were just not used to it. And actually it’s these murders and a few others that are the precedent for the liquidations of today. Those murders changed everything. The police had to become more systemised and detailed in their documentation to ensure a conviction.’ In other words, the archives had to become much thicker.

What story is Slot itching to research next? ‘My latest book De vergeten geschiedenis van Nederland in de Tweede Wereldoorlog (2007) ended with a few post-war affairs One of them began in 1945, when a man claiming to be Paul George de Bruyn Ouboter was arrested heading east across the border at Enschede. He had a SS mark tattooed on his arm. But he was Dutch. And, most likely, he did something highly criminal on the eastern front and maybe even in the Netherlands itself. The authorities spent five or six years trying to figure out his real name. He said he was born in Amsterdam, but there were no records. There’s still a huge dossier on him. But who was that man? They never found out, so eventually he was freed and he went directly to South America.’ Slot pauses, ‘And that says quite a bit… And I think I can still find out his true identity by diving into the archives.’

‘And there are thousands of stories like that still to be found yet within the Stadsarchief. And really if you can’t find something, anything, no matter what it is, go to the Stadsarchief. It’s probably just waiting there.’

It’s enough to make a person into a glinty eyed Mormon.

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