Fifty years of the Archives of Contemporary History

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 The beginnings: founder Klaus Urner in the mansard room, which he could rent 50

The beginnings: founder Klaus Urner in the mansard room, which he could rent 50 Swiss francs a month. (Photograph: AfZ)

What began as a student initiative has today become one of Switzerland’s most distinguished archives. Time for a quick retrospective and a glimpse into the digital future.

Birthdays - particularly big ones - are the perfect time to take a look both back and ahead. At the ETH Zurich Archives of Contemporary History (AfZ), which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, surprises are in store right from the start as we discover that it was founded as the result of a student initiative. Driven by his own research interest in Switzerland’s history during the Second World War, and dismayed by the lack of access to government records, the then 24-year-old Klaus Urner founded the ‘Arbeitsgruppe für Zeitgeschichte’ (Working group for contemporary history) with fellow student Hans Rudolf Humm. Shortly after the company’s foundation, the students rented two attic rooms in an ETH building on Weinbergstrasse. The rooms quickly filled with their collection of documents: newspaper clippings, brochures and microfilm.

The grassroots project found two important proponents in former ETH Rector Karl Schmid and Professor of History Jean-François Bergier, and, when ETH Zurich founded its Institute of History in 1974, the Archives of Contemporary History became an affiliate. Founding father Urner retained his position as head of the Archives until his retirement in 2007. The AfZ continued to develop under his leadership, reaching its present status as a repository dedicated to three main areas: politics, the economy and Jewish history. So-called ‘oral history’, i.e. the verbal records of contemporary witnesses, has been one of the organisation’s key focuses from the outset.

A commitment to critical thinking

The AfZ has today established itself as a modern and celebrated information centre. Researchers from across Switzerland and abroad, historians, media professionals and history enthusiasts use the AfZ’s extensive inventory comprising more than 30 million pages of printed material (of which 10 percent is digitalised) and 2,500 audio and video files, whether in the reading room or increasingly via remote access to the digital library. In addition, the AfZ also runs courses, seminars, tours and book launches both at the university and in the public sphere.

Contemporary history is unlikely to spring to mind immediately when you think of the fields traditionally associated with ETH Zurich. So how much sense does it really make for the Archives to be housed at a technical university? Head of Archives Gregor Spuhler is quick to explain: ‘Engineers are more focussed on the future than the past. But it’s precisely because of the responsibility they will one day bear that they must develop an understanding of the past and situate their activities in a historical and social context.’

By safeguarding significant contemporary documents, the AfZ also assumes responsibility on a national level - a federal university is thus particularly well-suited as an anchor. ‘And last but not least, the public places great confidence in ETH Zurich, which means that private and institutional actors are prepared to entrust us with their collections and archives,’ says Daniel Nerlich, Deputy Head of Archives at AfZ.

Digitalisation: a blessing and a curse

Social change and digitalisation also present new challenges for AfZ. The Archives’ management is open-minded and sees digitalisation as an opportunity to make information more readily available and accessible over long distances. However, digitalisation also creates a new pressure linked to users’ expectations - the archive inventory now needs to be available quickly, free of charge and in its entirety. Archivists must devise strategies to structure and process the flood of sources in a meaningful way; digital expertise is becoming an increasingly important part of the job description.

But major questions arise regarding the content, in particular: what information should the AfZ collect today and in the future? While the term ‘contemporary history’ originally referred to the time of National Socialism, today it has come to refer to an era: a period shaped by the people who lived through it. The variety of potential topics is enormous. And not only that: the data media have changed drastically as well. Diaries, letters, verbatim records, agendas and photo albums have become less common. Should a contemporary archive in today’s world instead store blogs, Facebook posts and WhatsApp chats so that future generations can understand our present time. One thing is certain: in our era of rapid digital communication, printed documents form only one part of the reality.

Anniversary event

On Sunday, 27 November 2016, the Archives of Contemporary History is celebrating its anniversary with a programme of events:

Researchers will offer insights into their work with the archive collections and present current projects. A panel will discuss how the digital age is impacting the Archives. The day will be rounded off with a ceremony honouring the groundwork laid by founder Klaus Urner and the Archives’ current importance.

Individual events can be attended separately. Places are limited. If you are interested, please: .

Programme flyer (in German)

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