Skip to Main Content
Go to Penn Libraries homepage   Go to Guides homepage

USC Shoah Foundation Institute's Visual History Archive: FAQ

Frequently asked questions

What is the USC Shoah Foundation Institute?
Established in 1994 by Steven Spielberg to collect and preserve the testimonies of survivors and other witnesses to the Holocaust, the USC Shoah Foundation Institute maintains one of the largest video digital libraries in the world: nearly 52,000 video testimonies in 32 languages and from 56 countries. These testimonies are collected and made available to the campus community through the Institute's Visual History Archive (VHA), an interface which allows users to search and view the visual history testimonies and any additional corresponding data.
How is the University of Pennsylvania Involved?
The University of Pennsylvania has partnered with the USC Shoah Foundation Institute to make these testimonies available to the campus community via the Internet. The Institute's Visual History Archive provides a rich bed of educational opportunities, for both classroom use and as a research tool. Access to the Visual History Archive is available from any computer on campus.
What is the USC Shoah Foundation Institute's Visual History Archive?
The Visual History Archive (VHA) is a software tool created by the Shoah Foundation Institute that allows users to both search for and view the digital video footage contained in the Institute's archive. The VHA provides a way for users to search for and to locate whole testimonies of relevance, as well as to locate more specific segments within the testimonies that relate to their interests.
The digitization, cataloguing and indexing of the testimonies allows users to create educational value from the raw testimonies by permitting full searching of the archive. The VHA currently contains access to video and data for most of the testimonies, and digitization, cataloging and indexing is a work in progress. Because of this, users will find that they have varying levels of access to the information contained in the testimonies. Most are fully accessible, but some are only partially accessible.
What is a visual history testimony?
Each testimony consists of one survivor or witness speaking about his or her life before, during and after the Holocaust. About a week before the videotaping session, the interviewer assisted the survivor or other witness with completing a “Pre-Interview Questionnaire” (PIQ). This 40-page document was designed to elicit detailed biographical information such as birthplace, education, wartime experience, and information about family members. The answers provided a basis for the interviewer's preparatory research and enabled him or her to formulate questions appropriate to the interviewee's age, education, social and religious background, and experience during the Holocaust.
During the videotaped interview sessions, survivors are guided by questions from the Shoah Foundation Institute interviewer. At the end of the testimony, the interviewee is given the opportunity to display artifacts (such as photographs) and at this time family members are also given the opportunity to speak. These testimonies were recorded on videotape and preserved on digital master tapes. The testimonies average 2.5 hours in length.
Who did the USC Shoah Foundation Institute interview?
The USC Shoah Foundation Institute's Visual History Archive includes testimonies from nine survivor and witness experience groups. These experience groups all lived under the rule of the Nazis or other Axis powers; all experienced persecution and/or the exclusionist policies of the Nazi regime. Over 90 percent of the interviewees are Jewish.
Are the interviews fully indexed and fully catalogued?
The Shoah Foundation began the indexing process with the English-language testimonies, which make up nearly half of the archive. The English-language portion of indexing was completed in January 2004. Now the Foundation's staff is indexing interviews in other languages. Indexing will be complete by the end of 2005.
The Shoah Foundation's Cataloguing Department catalogues and indexes each testimony. The cataloguing consists of the entry of brief biographical information about each interviewee while the index links a controlled vocabulary of 30,000 key words to time codes in the video. Keywords include cities, villages, and other geographical locations (e.g., Oswiecim, Poland) and place names (Auschwitz [Poland: Concentration Camp]), as well as descriptions of experiences during the Holocaust ("sense of time in the camps"). Much of this information was collected in a Pre-Interview Questionnaire (PIQ), a tool that interviewers employed to gather background information from survivors, so that they could tailor the interviews to each survivor's experience.
In addition, staff members also index each testimony by assigning index terms to every one-minute segment of video viewed. This level of indexing permits researchers to locate all instances in which interviewees discuss a given topic in detail, and provides access by time-period, place, and theme. The names of individual people are also indexed, using a set of basic biographic data associated with each person in the testimony.

Technical FAQ

What do I need on my computer to use the USC Shoah Foundation Institute's Visual History Archive (VHA)?
You must be on the Penn network to use the VHA.
Please see the instructions for System and browser requirements (below).
Even though you are viewing the VHA over the high-speed Penn network, display of video testimonies may be slow. This can be due to your computer's processor speed, video card, or amount of memory.
I am on the Penn network through a dial-up connection. Why can't I access the VHA?
A dial-up connection is not able to handle streaming testimony video, although it can handle searches and request testimonies for viewing. You can then view the testimonies from a computer directly connected to the Penn network.
What can I access through Penn's link to the USC Shoah Foundation Institute's Visual History Archive?
Our local server can hold about 3000 testimonies locally, out of some 41,000 digitized testimonies. Most testimonies have to be downloaded from the Shoah Foundation Institute's central digital storage location to our local server, which can take up to 24 hours. Please be patient!
What should I do if I can't remember my password?
If you have forgotten your password, please email
The testimony I want to view is marked "Not Yet Viewable." When can I view it?
A portion of testimonies have not yet been digitized. These testimonies must be specially requested from the Shoah Foundation Institute and may take several weeks to be digitized. Send email to to request digitization of a testimony.
I requested a testimony for viewing more than 48 hours ago and it still is not available. What should I do?
Please email for assistance.
Why can't I see everything on the screen? I don't want to have to keep scrolling!
The VHA interface is too large for a typical browser window and was designed to be viewed full-screen. Press F11 to maximize the screen.
What if the picture looks squeezed?
First, make sure that you are using the latest version of Windows Media Player (at least version 9 - version 10 is prefered). Then, while the testimony is playing, do the following:
  1. Right-click anywhere on the video, and select 'Options...'
  2. Click on the 'Advanced...' button.
  3. Under Video Acceleration, uncheck the 'use video mixing renderer' option.
  4. Click 'OK,' then click 'OK,' then click 'Yes' if asked.
  5. The video should now be displaying correctly.
(There is presently no way to correct the 'squeezed' display on Macintosh computers.)
The testimony audio doesn't sound right. What is wrong?
Make sure that your headphones or speakers are plugged into the correct jack on your computer's sound card. If they are plugged in correctly, check to see if the system sound is muted by double-clicking on the volume icon in the system tray at the bottom right of your screen. Adjust the volume to a comfortable level.
What if it still doesn't sound right?
Some testimonies have issues with the audio that we cannot control. In some cases, the interviewer being much louder than the interviewee, which makes the sound of the interviewer much louder than the interviewee. In other cases, the audio was not processed properly in the digitization phase. If you think there is a problem with the audio that you cannot solve by turning up the volume or checking your system settings as above, please email
Where can I find out more about the USC Shoah Foundation Institute?
Please visit the Shoah Foundation Institute's website at
What if I am still having technical difficulties and my question is not answered here?
Send email to
Penn Libraries Home Franklin Home
(215) 898-7555