The Great War Archive: could crowd conscription help?

January 9th, 2012 by

microtask_great_warAt this time of year, it often seems like people in the media industry are still too full/hungover from Christmas and New Year’s over-indulgence to do any real work. Filling the newspapers are either stories remembering the year just ended, or nostalgic human-interest stories.

Seeing as we have already reflected on 2011, we decided it was a good time to talk about something that few, if anyone, will ever be able to remember again: the First World War (one of the last surviving veterans, Englishman Claude Choules, died recently, aged 110). So yes, this is our nostalgic post.

Of course, thanks to the wonders of the written word, thousands of first-hand accounts of the war will outlive those who wrote them. Yet, as we approach the centenary of the outbreak of fighting, many of these records themselves are at risk of being lost. Those that do survive are often either gathering dust in private homes around Europe, or too delicate to allow the general public to freely access them.

One Europe, working together
With this in mind (and to show that European collaboration is not limited to arguing over government debt), Europeana – Europe’s digital archive, library and museum – aims to make over 400,000 key documents and images from World War I freely available online (with help from libraries and partners across Europe). This will give people everywhere unprecedented access to first-hand information from both sides of the conflict.

Such a project is close to the heart of the people (and moles) here at Microtask. Many of the documents will be selected from archives from the partner libraries, but the public can also contribute to the project by submitting scanned copies of their letters, diaries, photos and other memorabilia from the war (only German-related material is being collected currently).

Looking through the material gathered from the public so far (here by the University of Oxford and here by the German National Library), makes you feel like you have stumbled across photos buried in your grandfather’s basement.

This feeling is partly because the material is so personal and authentic. But it is also partly because much of the text in the letters and diaries has not been transcribed into digital text, so can only be read in its original handwritten form. Although this adds to the feeling of nostalgia, it also means that such text is not searchable. This is fine when you are rummaging through a shoebox of letters, but it becomes a bit of an issue when you’re talking about 400,000 documents (presumably many of these will be fully digitized, but based on the archives available so far, I’m guessing a great deal will not).

By the people, for the people
The issue is, I assume, one of cost. Accurately digitizing massive collections of records takes a huge amount of time and money if you have to pay people to do it. As we all know only too well, in the Europe of 2012 neither of these commodities is in abundant supply.

What I would like to see is greater reliance on the public for this huge task. As Digitalkoot has shown, when it comes to preserving the past, there are thousands of people out there willing to help for free. All they need to get going is a call to action and a clever platform to facilitate their contributions (and maybe a little help from some self-sacrificial moles).

In the near future, as governments cut spending and crowdsourcing continues to develop, we expect to see much more crowd participation in these sorts of projects. In fact, we expect to be running some of them.

  • Muhammad TsaniAbdulH

    This is fine when you are rummaging through a shoebox of letters.

  • G. Calamita

    I wonder how ever so few countries are onvolved in that great project!?