Digital First World War content: From deluge to drought

In this latest Blog post by Paul Ell, the phenomenon of “Digital Overload” is mapped against the appetite for information on WW1.

There’s a great deal of talk about digital ‘overload’  – that digital content is so plentiful it’s cope with. It’s a phenomenon also known as a ‘digital deluge’. Simply so much material is being created as either born-digital data or through projects to digitise existing analogue content.

The ‘Living Legacies 1914-18’ WW1 Engagement Centre (http://www.livinglegacies1914-18.ac.uk) has over the course of the Centenary developing a number of community research projects all of which include some form of digital content. The Centre has also organised workshops and outreach events that have digitised community-held material and from this created an online digital archive, so making this content available to all.

All of this is of course wonderful, and on first impressions the Centenary has delivered a deluge of too much digital ‘stuff’. However, and perhaps rather appropriately during the current heat wave, as temperatures have crept close to an all-time record temperature in Northern Ireland of 30.8 degrees, I have concerns now in the final year of the Centenary of WW1 about not a digital deluge but a digital drought.

The Centenary of World War One has not only attracted the attention of the public at an unprecedented level for a historical event, it has also resulted in a vast number of digital initiatives both at the national and local level. The Heritage Lottery Fund expects to fund around 2,000 projects under its small grant ‘Then and Now’ programme. There can be little doubt that this is the high point of our digital knowledge relating to the War with many of the 2,000 funded projects producing some digital outputs. Those outputs are remarkably diverse, from transcriptions of letters and diaries, photographs of artefacts relating to the War, statistical data on casualties, individual narratives of particular events, oral histories, tweets, Facebook entries and Instagram posts. All of these activities must represent, in person hours, decades or perhaps centuries of work!

My mention of drought in this context might seem surprising therefore. With all of this new ‘stuff’ why talk of a lack of digital content? The key reason is that digital material does not exist in the same way that a physical object does. A book, once printed, exists and continues to exist in the real world. It might become out of print, difficult to find, and the binding and paper might deteriorate, but it is unlikely to cease to exist. Unfortunately for digital material there is a real risk that painstakingly digitised and structured content might do just that, cease to exist. The reasons for this are many: the computer which holds the data might become obsolete; the computer files themselves might be in a format which the latest software can’t open; the address a website uses might not continue to be paid for so it will disappear; the coding used in a website might become outdate, and this only scratches the surface of what might happen.

The high level of risk to community-generated content funded by HLF is a particular concern. These are small projects of generally under £10,000 with little money to buy computer hardware and outside the more systematised IT resilient structure that would be found in universities and most heritage institutions. The content created by these projects is particularly interesting though as it demonstrates the work, on a hitherto unparalleled scale, of acts of community commemoration for a major historical event. Arguably also, spatially disparate projects with similar concerns, such as commemorating and researching local war memorials, would benefit by interlinked.

The Centre for Data Digitisation and Analysis - A 3D Tour of the Centre's Resources
The Centre for Data Digitisation and Analysis – A 3D Tour of the Centre’s Resources

Follow the link to undertake a 3D Tour:

A 3D Tour of the Centre’s Resources

These concerns have resulted in AHRC funding an archiving and dissemination project through the Centre for Data Digitisation and Analysis and the Living Legacies First World War Engagement Centre, both at Queen’s Belfast. As part of this initiative we are contacting, through HLF, all Then and Now projects to discover if they have created digital content during their work, and if so if they would like to work with us to archive that content in the long term, and provide a central point from which to disseminate the material. E-mails have already been sent to projects by HLF with a promising response rate. We will be making another call for content shortly. In the meantime if readers are aware of Then and Now projects which generated digital materials please remind them of this initiative or contact our Project Officer, Dr Heather Montgomery at hmontgomery03@qub.ac.uk.

This is an opportunity to avoid the need to replicate hard work on the War done now in the future and avoid the deluge becoming a drought.

Dr Paul Ell is Co-Investigator at Living Legacies, one of the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded WW1 Engagement Centres. More information about the Engagement Centres may be found via the AHRC website.

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