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Letters of 1916 Project analysis: Public history (AFF606a)

This blog has dabbled with the idea of public history for a while, talking about crowd sourcing in the case of Mission Centenaire and the nature of working with the public. While this post examines similar ideas, it delves into a closer reading of the nature of a public history project. The Letters of 1916 (from here on in abbreviated to Letters) project is a crowd sourcing project insofar as it relies upon the public for uploads and transcriptions of the letters in a manner similar to that of other crowd sourced projects, ala Bentham. According to the website blurb “ The Letters of 1916 project is the first public humanities project in Ireland. Its goal is to create a crowd-sourced digital collection of letters written around the time of the Easter Rising.” (Online, 10/11/14)

The Twitter revolution must be noted; although it’s a silly sounding term it seems quite apt. Despite being as Carole McGranahan states “an empty space each user individually transforms into a public, dynamic space” (2013, online) Twitter has found its way into the academic sphere. The LSE has even published a twitter guide for academics! As such, this blog post is going to delve into how the Letters team communicates through Twitter.

Letters utilities Twitter to engage with its audience to a great degree, from tweeting a particular letter that was written on that date 98 years ago to full on discourse with ask the team segments. The basis of this blog post concerning the Letters of 1916 project will be the Twitter discourse held on the fourth of November available here.

On this occasion the basis of discussion was text analysis of the letters project. Intriguingly, the Letters team left the interpretation of this concept entirely up to the audience. As such the ensuing conversation grew dynamically and organically stretching into fresh perspectives and discourse over a multitude of sources. The idea of a project conducting something like this, an open chat with the audience and asking them to bring forth their own consensus and draw their own conclusions is remarkably fresh. Something as simple as retweeting the opinion of one individual to the projects thousands of followers creates a cohesive network. The Twitter platform functions as a nexus or hub for varying ideas and opinions to impact off one another, akin to a scholarly debate (albeit confined to 140 characters).

With the ongoing debate of academic versus public history, Letters firmly plants its feet in the field of the latter. As stated by Alastair Harper of the Guardian “The academic grove no longer warmly welcomes the rest of the world – so it has became the role of the amateur, the red-blooded lover of history as it happened – to fill it.” (2008, online) By encouraging the audience to engage, the act of transcribing and uploading the letters themselves (at over 1600, a colossal task) is trusted to the public realm and thus the entire process is invariably sped up. The concept that many hands make light work seems relevant.

The Letters team display a great knowledge of the Twitter platform, by maintaining a single hash tag for the conversation the Letters team is able to bundle and tie the strands of the ensuing conversation together. Furthermore, utilising the Storify tool enables the team to present a digital record or collection of conversations past. Thus the Letters team are able to package these conversations together as one volume, akin to a chapter in a print book. These factors make it abundantly clear that the Letters project represents both sides of the coin that is digital history; it simultaneously does digital history (creating born digital archives and compilations of the tweets themselves) and does history digitally (the actual letters project itself).

As mentioned above, moving history into the public realm has benefits for the audience but may inadvertently lead to opposition from academics. Harper deems public history to be “comfortable, unchallenging nostalgia-fodder.”(2008, online) In one sense he is correct. There is a challenge in differentiating between commemoration and interpretation of the truth. Regarding the Letters Project a number of issues may arise from public source; the letters uploaded may be fraudulent, the sources may not be visible and the quality of the material may prove insignificant in scope for the project. Yet, as the Letters site itself states “creating an online collection for the public, created by the public, which will add a new perspective to the events of the period, a confidential and intimate glimpse into early 20th Century life in Ireland, as well as how Irish politics was received and viewed internationally.” (Online, 10/11/14) Even in doing this, the Letters project is still hampered by its representation of only a vocal minority of the time. Due to the nature of the sources available, the Letters project provides a confidential and intimate glimpse into the lives of those who could write, leaving those who could not or did not leave letters on the sidelines. Granted, this is a rather flimsy complaint to point at a public history project that is providing a phenomenal glimpse into life at the time of the Easter rising.

The aforementioned discussion on textual analysis highlights this feat. Glancing over the tweets compiled together reveals a multitude of meanings that can be construed from the hour long communal distant reading of the corpus generated by the themes inherent in the letters. In other words, the public discussed and generated meaning through a twitter discourse of information maps. The Twitter discourse is open to both academics and public, thus there is often a go between wherein questions and ideas are answered and exchanged by both sides of the collaboration, reinforcing the hub or nexus like nature of the platform as discussed above.

To conclude briefly, the Letters Project maintains a simple and effective public history model through its Twitter presence. It avoids many of the trappings of other public history projects because, as stated in its mission statement, the Project is concerned with the public.

For more information on the Letters of 1916 project or to contribute to its fantastic work visit the site or follow them on twitter.

Bibliography:

Harper, Alistair. “The Popular History of History.” The Guardian (2008) Web. Available at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2008/aug/26/history.celebrity Accessed on 13 November 2014.

Letters of 1916 (2014) Web. Available at http://dh.tcd.ie/letters1916/ Accessed on 10 November 2014.

LSE. “LSE produces new Twitter guide for Academics” (2011) Web. Available at http://www.lse.ac.uk/newsAndMedia/news/archives/2011/10/twitter_guide.aspx Accessed on 13 November 2014.

McGranahan, Carole. “The Academic Benefits of Twitter” (2013) Web. Available at http://savageminds.org/2013/05/08/the-academic-benefits-of-twitter/ Accessed on 13 November 2014.

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