Posted by: michaeldaybath | June 6, 2014

Digitisation and the First World War Centenary

On Tuesday, I attended a Digital History Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) in London, where Professor Sir Deian Hopkin, President of the National Library of Wales, was talking on “Digitising the First World War: opportunities and challenges” [1]. In truth, however, I didn’t actually physically attend – despite being probably less than 20 minutes’ walk away – I listened in online through the IHR’s HistorySpot channel on livestream.com.

Professor Hopkin was on provocative form. His main theme seemed to be the inverse relationship between the growth of “datasets” (in the main, the products of digitisation programmes) and the decline in the historical skill sets needed to interpret them [2]. He started with a lament about the current status of computational history, commenting that the wave of enthusiasm for something that had seemed essential 20 years ago – citing things like the CTI, History Data Archive, the journal History and Computing – had declined very quickly since then.

cymru2014

Figure 1: Screenshot from: Cymru 1914: The Welsh Experience of the First World War:
http://www.cymru1914.org/

Turning to the main theme of his presentation, Hopkin then introduced some of the content (datasets) being made available as part of the First World War centenary commemorations, including Europeana 1914-1918 and the initiatives of a range of UK organisations, including: the Imperial War Museum (e.g., Lives of the First World War), the National Archives, the British Library (a new set of web pages “together with new insights”), the University of Oxford (the First World War Poetry Digital Archive), the National Library of Wales (NLW) and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). He expressed pleasure that Wales was ahead of the game with a dedicated national website (Cymry’n Cofio / Wales Remembers) and a variety of projects, some reflecting a primarily local focus (e.g. Rhondda Remembers), others inclusive of the experiences of people in reserved occupations and conscientious objectors (e.g. NLW’s Cymru 1914: The Welsh Experience of the First World War, Figure 1). During this brief overview, Hopkin made the important point that the First World War was not just the Western Front, although I wasn’t particularly convinced by his contention that there were more British troops fighting at Gallipoli than on the Western Front (this may have been true for part of 1915, but is still misleading in the context of the entire war).

Hopkin commented that common themes across these initiatives was that they were focused on people’s experiences and life stories, e.g. the publicity around the IWM’s Lives of the First World War emphasised that there were eight million life stories that needed to be pieced together. However, Hopkin considered that many of the initiatives were limited in scope, not true digitisation but the creation of images with limited potential for manipulation. With these “datasets,” he argued it would not be possible to look at bigger issues, e.g. economic and social conditions, food consumption, etc. He also noted some technical issues with “datasets,” using examples from TNA’s British Army nurses service records database (no searching by date or geography) and Welsh Newspapers Online (screen sizes, problems with non-default search rankings). Hopkin also commented that were also problems with basic accessibility, given that much information was not available unless it was paid for (he specifically mentioned TNA’s First World War ‘Burnt Documents’ series and the British Newspaper Archive, access to both of which is provided by commercial providers). Towards the end of the presentation, Hopkin was careful to emphasise that a lot of progress had been made, but that some of the questions historians would like to ask were not being addressed by the datasets that are currently being put together. Specifically, he doubted whether it all would help us understand the war better, paying tribute to the TV debates in the UK led by Niall Ferguson and Max Hastings -while simultaneously having a go at Jeremy Paxman’s (IMO very good) BBC TV series. Hopkin finished his presentation where he started, reflecting that historians perhaps lacked the methodological tools to make the best use of the data that was being created. In conclusion, Professor Hopkin wasn’t sure whether very much of this activity added to the sum of human understanding.

The discussion afterwards covered a wide range of issues. Amongst other points, it recognised that publicly-funded institutions often had their hands tied by the need to prove utility, which is why end user interfaces were often focused on the general public rather than researchers. However, someone commented that commercial providers were often more than willing to provide researchers access to content by request.

It was an interesting seminar, but I felt that Hopkin’s lament for the current state of computational history may not be the whole picture. The decline in computational humanities coincided with the rise of the Web and the widespread adoption of more generic computational tools. Ian Anderson has elsewhere commented that scholars at the time had argued that generic software (spreadsheets, databases, statistical packages) could fulfil most of the requirements of historians [3]:

They countered that the real challenge lay in persuading the vast majority of historians of the benefit of even relatively simple information technology, not in developing specialist historical tools and methods that would only ever be of relevance to a minority of historians. The historical information science approach risked alienating mainstream historians even further and turning history and computing into a ghetto.

While it was good to be reminded about older software like Idealist (apparently a perfect tool for building links) and projects like Manfred Thaller’s kleio database system, Hopkin’s view contrasted with the very inclusive definition of the digital humanites adopted in Melissa Terras’s inaugural lecture at University College London delivered last week [4]:

But the most difficult, intellectual work of applying technology in the humanities still occurs before the chasm has been crossed, in the phase of innovation, and early adoption, where we are looking at the technologies that cross our path and saying “how can I use, or develop this tool for use, in my research?”, much like those in the 1950s or 1960s who were coming across university mainframes and asking how best to apply that in the literary and linguistic arena. It’s important to note, of course, that this wave of technology keeps on coming at us, and the place of where technology sits along the curve changes: 20 years ago, had you been making a website for your humanities project, you would have been an innovator, rather than a late majority, and the same holds for word processing 40 years ago. The technology keeps coming: we have to respond to this, innovate, adopt, and see what is useful or useable for, or used by, the majority of people in our discipline.

cholmeley)

Figure 2: Screenshot from Lives of the First World War showing the Military Cross
won by Temporary 2nd Lieut. R. J. Cholmeley at Messines in 1917:
https://livesofthefirstworldwar.org/lifestory/803903

I have some more sympathy for Professor Hopkin’s views on some of the projects associated with the First World War centenary. Last month, after much fanfare, the Imperial War Museum’s Lives of the First World War was finally launched online [5]. Lives is obviously an important initiative, characterised by the IWM as a “permanent digital memorial to the Lives of the First World War.” The site invites the public to add information on the individuals listed in the Lives database, initially seeded from TNA’s Medal Index Card Transcriptions, although other (free) record sets will be added over the lifetime of the project. The wider problem is that, however, Lives is a partnership between IWM and DC Thompson Family History (in fact the URL bar on the site clearly labels it as a DC Thompson website). Users that pay for “premium” access have access to a wide range of additional source records which can be used to add information to the individual entries. Although it is possible to add information from other sources (e.g. records acquired elsewhere, publications, personal memories, etc.), the resulting records somehow seem incomplete. The current data entry interface for ordinary users also seems cumbersome and the resulting profiles lacking in personality, especially if there are no user-supplied images. I managed to add some information for my grandfather and great uncle, both of whom were in the 4th Battalion of the Dorsetshire Regiment and survived the war, but the resulting entries still feel empty. I also tried adding details for a Captain Roger James Cholmeley, a classicist and librarian at the University of Queensland who had interesting academic and military careers, but the format didn’t really let any part of his life shine through. It wasn’t even possible to add that he had won his Military Cross at Messines, as this information was not included in the citation published in the London Gazette (Figure 2). The same is true if you look at the entries for prominent individuals like T. E. Lawrence or the Poets Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen. Lives seems purely interested in linking individuals with facts in documentary records and other sources, with the result that entries do seem rather lacking in personality. I suppose, however, that is still early days for Lives and that the interfaces and displays and interfaces will improve over time, especially as new record sources get integrated. That said, my experiences do seem to bear out some of Professor Hopkin’s concerns about the centenary resources.

Professor Hopkin’s seminar was also a timely reminder of the great work being undertaken by the National Library of Wales. For those interested, more information on the NLW’s approach to digital content can be found in a recent article by Lorna Hughes [6].

References:

1. Institute of Historical Research, Digital History Seminar: Deian Hopkin, Digitising the First World War: opportunities and challenges, 3 June 2014 (abstract): http://ihrdighist.blogs.sas.ac.uk/2014/05/13/digitising-the-first-world-war/

2. Professor Hopkin’s presentation slides are available from SlideShare: http://www.slideshare.net/historyspot/hopkin-digitising-the-first-world-war-dh-seminar-june-2014

3. Ian Anderson, “History and computing.” In: Making history: the changing face of the profession in Britain (London: Institute of Historical Research, 2008): http://www.history.ac.uk/makinghistory/resources/articles/history_and_computing.html

4. Melissa Terras, “Inaugural lecture: a decade in digital humanities.” Melissa Terras’ Blog, 27 May 2014: http://melissaterras.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/inaugural-lecture-decade-in-digital.html

5. Lives of the First World War: https://livesofthefirstworldwar.org/

6. Lorna Hughes, “Digital Collections as Research Infrastructure. “Educause Review Online, 2 June 2014: http://www.educause.edu/ero/article/digital-collections-research-infrastructure

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Responses

  1. I think it’s worth noting that there is quite a strong academic board advising on Lives (including Melissa Terras). Ultimately, I think the data that will be available from that (and Operation War Diary, which will in fact also feed into Lives) will probably help greatly in answering some of the types of questions discussed by Hopkin. It’s actually probably one reason for the very structured nature of Lives entries, that gives data that can actually usefully be analysed. There is a tension there, which is why on Halfmuffled I’ve gone for the approach of having a structured, footnoted, page for each man (which from now one will largely be replaced by his Lives entry), and then writing a blog post which presents the story in a narrative way (summarising some things such as not detailing every report of a touch that appeared in The Ringing World!)

  2. Thanks for the clarification on the academic board, David. I agree that there can be a tension between the structured information needed for quantitative analysis and presenting interesting stories in a narrative way. As implied in the post, I’m not giving up on Lives, although I’m not sure that I can really contribute that much at the moment with the resources that I have to hand.

    Most days that I’m in London, I walk past the memorial to British Librarians that died in the First World War. I would love to link the names inscribed there to the entries in Lives, but it’s probably too big a task for a spare-time project! In any case, I’m not able to create “communities” on Lives at the present time.


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