The letters of 1916

Letters of 1916

The Letters of 1916 is Ireland’s first public digital humanities project. It focuses on letters sent to, from and within Ireland in the six months leading up to the Easter Rising of 1916 and the six months that followed (1/11/15 – 31/10/16)


I feel the beauty of the Letters of 1916 project is how it adds breadth and depth to the traditionally linear impression one may get when examining historical events. The letters give a sense of profound context. From the daily routine of business or social dealings to the extraordinary events taking place both in Ireland and on the continent, the subject matter of these correspondence delivers the mind to the time and atmosphere in a way perhaps books or lectures rarely can.

Of course, not every letter will deliver an incredible moment of epiphany relating to the Rising or the First World War, and in fact that is a key part of the experience. Any event as iconic and symbolic as the Rising can feel ethereal or intangible through the distance of time and the many layers of human mediation. These events are so loaded with meaning and significance they can become incredibly distorted. The very everyday banality that many of the letters are filled with anchors the extraordinary events of the period back in some kind of tangible reality. A letter discussing local gossip may mention some casualty at the Somme and suddenly that most overwhelming of historic events is framed with parochial meaning.

This feeling of proximity is one of the most gratifying aspects of working with primary sources such as the letters and is a sensation that the public are rarely granted. It is the design and structure behind the project that allows this intimacy between audience and primary source to exist. In fact, the project relies on the compelling allure of a primary source to act as an incentive for the public’s participation. This public participation acts both as a key function and component for the project.

The project designers called on the public not only to upload their own letters from the period but also to take part in the transcribing and encoding process. According to the Digital Repository of Ireland: “As of October of 2015, the project has collected more than 2,400 letters with just over 2,200 available to the public for transcription. Letters have been deposited by over 20 cultural institutions in Ireland and abroad, as well as almost 50 private collections.”

To transcribe this volume of often handwritten text is an enormously ambitious task, and while projects such as this are never truly finished, the fact that such a large portion of the available letters have been transcribed is a testimony to both the curiosity of the public and the design of the workflow. The project uses Omeka with a Scripto add-on on its WordPress based transcription desk site to allow the public to easily upload their own letters and transcribe previously uploaded ones. The upload process includes forms to input necessary meta data for the letter images. The transcription desk includes a fairly intuitive toolbar to help with the text encoding tags that can seem so alien to those not accustomed.

As a novice encoder and transcriber myself, I found the interface both engaging and intuitive. The letters for transcription are categorised by subject and as such one can focus on material that encourages their own sense of curiosity. This is not the only incentivising element on the site. Statistics relating to user specific transcriptions and encoding are published to both inform and perhaps introduce an element of competition to the task.

The next stage of this project will be to disseminate or publish the editions of these letters. Richard Hadden covers both the complexities of terminology (‘electronic archive’ versus ‘thematic research collection’) and challenges of efficacy in his blog post on the Letters of 1916 project here. In it he notes the self evident value of the material in its transcribed and encoded state. However, this immeasurable convenience of access does not help inform the best composition for the collection of editions to take: “I have considered the […] allowance of access as a part of the ‘material usefulness’ of the edition for the reason that it does not necessarily prescribe any particular form for the edition, except that it exist and be viable form of dissemination for the material.”

These are now the challenges relating to this body of data: how best to disseminate and enhance the material gathered and processed. Categorisation, tagging, searchability and visualisation of the data are all essential next steps in teasing out greater meaning and understanding from the letters. The journey from writing desk to recipient, onto archive or attic and now into digital form and the realm of digital scholarship is an extraordinary one in itself. Beyond this the potential scholarly value of this data is inestimable.

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