First-of-its-kind symposium forges pathways for repatriation in libraries and archives

university librarian handing document over to Czech consulate
As the repatriation of cultural artifacts remains a high-profile issue in museums and corresponding institutions, libraries and archives are just beginning to acknowledge the topic and to address the complicated histories of Western cultural heritage collections.

"UCLA is fortunate to be at the forefront of the conversation," said Virginia Steel, Norman and Armena Powell University Librarian. "Issues of ownership become complicated when provenance is hard to determine. In these circumstances, librarians and archivists have an ethical obligation to find a way forward."

The repatriation of books and materials from UCLA Library began in earnest in June of 2021 when Diane Mizrachi, the Jewish and Israel Studies Librarian, received an email from Ivan Kohout, the curator of rare documents at the Jewish Museum in Prague (JMP). 

While searching for lost volumes from Prague's Jewish Community Library, an institution that was looted by Nazi occupiers during World War II, Kohout discovered that three digitized books in the UCLA collection bore the Prague library's property stamps and accession numbers. He sent a request for the return of the physical artifacts, and Mizrachi quickly retrieved them for confirmation.

"They had accession numbers that were clearly marked, and they matched the Jewish Community Library's 1939 catalog," she said. "It was very evident that the library in Prague, which is now part of JMP, was where they belonged."  

While following up with JMP, Mizrachi reached out to colleagues in the Library's International and Area Studies department. Jade Alburo, who leads their outreach team, saw an opportunity for a much larger conversation. By highlighting the repatriation of the Jewish books, the Library could create a platform to explore broader questions of institutional responsibility.

Alburo and her colleague, Tula Orum, began to conceptualize Contested Collections: Grappling with History and Forging Pathways for Repatriation, the first symposium of its kind to look at repatriation from both the library and global perspectives. Taking place online in May 2022, the four-part series featured inclusive panels of international experts.

"We knew that repatriation was not a well-known topic in the library world," said Alburo. "Librarians wouldn't necessarily know about all of the communities and countries seeking restoration of cultural items. While some libraries had been talking a bit about decolonization in relation to anti-racism and inclusion practices, we hadn't looked at repatriation. We really wanted to examine our responsibility to those who've been harmed."

The symposium's first program, “Returning Home: Reclaiming Nazi-looted Jewish Materials,” featured the story of UCLA's repatriation of books to JMP and included a digital exhibit. Told within the context of the Holocaust and the struggle to reclaim European Jewish history, the panel provided a foundation for the programs that followed. Additional topics explored everything from the intersection of collections with colonialism, conflict and genocide, to the politics and ethics of ownership and restitution in the following programs: 

There were several themes that recurred throughout the program. Panelists concurred that the work of identifying, cataloging and communicating narratives had to be centered within communities and countries of origin. They also communicated that dialogue and diplomacy was critically important when approaching institutions that were not legally bound to return misappropriated items. 

Recordings of each session, and other repatriation resources, are available for free online viewing on the Library’s website

Written by Elisabeth Greenbaum Kasson

Photo caption: Symbolic handover of Judaica books between Consul General of the Czech Republic in Los Angeles, Jaroslav Olša, Jr., (left) and Ginny Steel at a ceremony in the Charles E. Young Research Library. Todd Cheney/UCLA