The Welsh Experience of the First World War, or cymru1914.org, a digital archive of material relating to the First World War from the archives and special collections of Wales, has been nominated for a Digital Humanities award 2014, in the category “Best Use of DH for Public Engagement”. Voting closes on February 28th, 2015!
Hurrah! This is very exciting, and also very rewarding for the large number of people who put a lot of hard work into the delivery of the project (most of whom are acknowledged in a blog post I wrote when the project launched).
I was the PI on this Jisc funded project, and led its development at the National Library of Wales from January 2012-November 2013. I consider it one of my better DH achievements, as Cymru1914,org, as the resource exemplifies many of my personal beliefs about digital resources in the humanities.
First of all, it’s all free and easily accessible. The content isn’t behind a paywall, subscription service, or tucked away in an institutional repository. The material is free for use and re-use using an open license, in this case a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Sharealike license (BY-NC-SA). We were able to do this as the National Library of Wales policy is for copyright and intellectual rights to be cleared as a managed part of the digitization process. This is because of a belief that free access is the key to realizing the potential community, social, research and economic benefits of digitized resources: the value of making content freely accessible for use and re-use is far greater than any economic value to be released by licensing (which has been shown to be minimal, anyway, in a number of studies, including one by Simon Tanner of King’s College London, based on licensing Museum images).
Secondly, every aspect of the development of cymru1914.org has been collaborative: developed under the umbrella of the Welsh Higher Education Libraries Forum, cymru1914.org brings together content from NLW, Welsh University archives and special collections, and local records offices. It’s a much stronger resource for integrating (and in some cases, digitally re-unifying) content from so many physical archives, and stands as a cohesive, national collection. Putting the project was a collaborative effort of partners and many departments at NLW: Collections, IT, Systems and other units all worked together on delivering the project.
And finally, the project had public engagement at the very core of its development. We put together a very inclusive advisory group to advise on content selection, interface development, and use cases throughout form the start (even at the grant writing stage). Representatives from academia, the arts and creative industries, cultural heritage, teaching, government, the military and other commemorative organisations provided input throughout the development, and have also helped with its promotion and interpretation since it was launched. We were very fortunate to also have the support of Wales Remembers, the Welsh Government Programme Board for the Commemoration of the First World War, which has meant that it’s been a central focus of centenary events in Wales.
Because of these three themes: freely accessible content, collaboration, and community engagement, the digital content resource has been widely used (and re-used) since its launch, living up to William Noel’s assertion that for owners of cultural heritage, the task “is not to get your stuff up on your website. It is to get it up on other peoples, freely and fully”. The whole point of digitization is to get content out there for re-use for new, innovative, and unforeseen purposes by many different communities for research, teaching, and public engagement. Here are two examples:
- Data from Cymru1914.org formed part of the 14-18-NOW project to create public artworks in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England as part of the LIGHTS OUT event on 4 August 2014. In Wales, Bedwyr Williams created the sound and video installation Traw, integrating images of unknown recruits and conscripts from Wales that he found in Cymru1914.org into an integrated artwork that was projected onto the North Wales Memorial Arch, Bangor. I'm very grateful to Bedwyr for allowing me to include an image of the installation below.
The images in Traw are from the D.C. Harries collection of glass plate negatives held by the National Library of Wales. The Library digitized around 200 images from this collection, thought to be First World War recruits or conscripts from Llandeilo and Ammanford (Rhydaman), where D. C. Harries operated photographic studios. The images in Cymru1914 are a very small sample of over 2,000 First World War portraits in the D. C. Harries archive. Next year, NLW will digitise more and launch a crowdsourcing experiment, inviting digital community engagement to help identify people in the images.
- Cymru1914.org is also the basis of the Wales at War project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Armed Forces Covenant Fund, and the Welsh Government Department of Education and Skills. Wales at War helping schoolchildren in Wales to develop digital skills and literacy by using the digital archive via an app to help them develop biographies of the names on local War memorials in Wales.
We also ran community content workshops with the People’s Collection Wales, with a focus on what we called ‘targeted crowdsourcing’, asking people to bring materials (like chapel records) that would compliment official materials held by archives and records’ offices. This was a very successful approach, uncovering lots of new material that belonged to members of the communities we visited, including a fascinating lost propaganda archive with a link to A.A. Milne.
This project was possible because of funding from Jisc and the partner organisations, but it was successful because it built on an existing strong digital infrastructure in Wales. The National Library has been digitizing content since 1998, and has built up a tremendous amount of internal experience in all aspects of the entire digital lifecycle (selection, conservation, capture, management and preservation), building digital expertise and skills into staff development at the institution. Because of this, all digitization could be supported in house, satisfying conservation and collections care requirements.
The technical infrastructure for the project built on the robust FEDORA-based digital architecture at the National Library of Wales, which is open and extensible, and has supported the re-use and repurposing of the content. The technical architecture for the project enabled integrating content from all partner organisations into a trusted digital repository at NLW. This approach also enabled the integration of content from four local archive and record offices in Wales: None of these archives currently have access to a digital platform, so integrating their content to Cymru1914.org has opened the material to a much wider audience.
The extensible nature of the digital platform, and the integration of the project into existing workflows, also means that NLW will be able to add resources to this archive throughout the commemoration period, including additional newspapers; the Cardiganshire Great War Tribunal (Appeals) Records; Saunders Lewis Letters; the Welsh Horse Lancers Research Papers Archive; as well as books (including novels), periodicals, diaries and letters. We hope to also add materials from other organisations based on the availability of additional funding.
All in all, cymru1914.org is an institutional asset that will be sustained over the long term because of its importance to a wider range of communities. This was always the intention in developing the resource as a freely accessible, collaborative project, with community engagement as its primary motivation.