Through studying digital scholarly editions, I’ve had the pleasure to work digitising material for the Letters of 1916 project in both the National Archives and using the imaging laboratory present here in Maynooth University. While engaged in the process, I felt it necessary to address the need to digitise in the decade of centenary, who the audience is and why it’s important to safeguard our cultural heritage.
A quote taken from the RTÉ archives sums up these three points quite well: “…this collection of RTÉ archive material is a microcosm of that Irish psyche. RTÉ (in the shape of 2RN) dates from the year prior to the Silver Tassie [Irish anti-war play written by Seán O’Casey] controversy. Its archive reflects Irish preoccupations. Its omissions point towards our blind spots. On the debit side is the fact that, as a repository of oral history the RTÉ catalogue includes barely thirty first-hand Irish witnesses of the First World War. On the merit side is the fact that it includes all of thirty first-hand witnesses of the Great War in a time of calculated and culpable amnesia.” (2014, online) Concerning the centenary, Taoiseach Enda Kenny and British Prime Minister David Cameron declared that 2012 “marked the beginning of a decade of centenary commemorations of events that helped shape our political destinies. This series of commemorations offers us an opportunity to explore and reflect on key episodes of our past. We will do so in a spirit of historical accuracy, mutual respect, inclusiveness and reconciliation.” (2014, online)
Unsurprisingly, the decade of centenaries carries a great deal of importance to both nations. Regarding the task of digitising, Katherine McSharry, the head of service with the National Library of Ireland, stated “the huge interest in the forthcoming 100-year anniversary of the outbreak of World War One reminds us how important it is to ensure physical memorabilia of key historical events, brought to life with people’s stories and memories, are recorded for posterity.” (2014, online) The rising prominence of genealogy sites such as Ancestry reflect the surging public interest in discovering family ties to the Great War. Such sites require a tremendous amount of digitised data; birth certs, death certs, medical cards, index cards, medal citations etc.
Appendix 1.3 of the Decade of Centenaries Webpage declares that: “Many libraries and archives outside Ireland also hold material that is relevant, and it is vital to connect with these and to create digital links to these holdings. This should be done by creating a commemoration portal, which can be accessed and searched.” (2014, online) Digitising allows for a wider audience saturation. Concerning Irish documents such as the Letters of 1916, hundreds thousands of Irish expats situated in the United States and Australia can access and view historical information that impacts upon them, something that would not be possible without the availability of digitised copies online. In a greater European perspective, such digital collections can be gathered together under the umbrella portal of Europeana. Such a portal functions as a nexus for the European public and allows for a wider dissemination of knowledge through a digital landscape unimpeded by geographical boundaries. The decade of centenary and commemoration is a shared European experience, not simply an Irish one.
Europeana is authorised by the Data Exchange Agreement to release the metadata of collections hosted on it into the public domain using the creative commons. Utilising one universal standard of metadata operated by Europeana is a sensible solution seeing as “about 48% of the respondents do not have a solution yet for long term preservation based on international standards for digital preservation… National libraries are clear ‘front runners’, the performing arts institutes have still a long way to go.” (2014, online)
Concerning the collections of these institutes, the ENUMERATE digitisation survey revealed that “Text based and Visual 2D resources are in the collections of 84% of the institutions. Archival records (64%) and time based resources (sound, film, etc.) are included in 56% of the collections.” (2014, online) The 2010 Comité des Sage report states that “National Libraries in the EU contain more than 26.98 billion pages of archival records, of which approximately 17.27 billion are eligible/appropriate for Digitisation.” Combine these statistics and it becomes apparent that “Mass-Digitisation is an industrial process, and hence is very susceptible to efficiency gains at scale. Broadly, the larger a Digitisation project becomes, the lower the unit cost of Digitisation due to the dispersal of overhead and up front capital costs over a larger body of material.” (2010, online)
Thus if digitisation projects become cheaper the larger that they grow in scale as the Comité des Sage report states, it seems to be sensible decision to join the Europeanna scheme. The Digital Agenda for Europe recommends member states to “Reinforce their strategies and adapt their legislation to ensure long-term preservation of digital material, by -for example- ensuring the material deposited is not protected by technical measures that impede librarians from preserving it.” (2014, online)
Now two years into the decade of centenaries, writing as an Irish citizen, I can appreciate the efforts made by RTÉ to digitise their collection and place it online. Likewise, the National Library of Ireland maintains a fantastic flickr commons that display a wealth of images ranging over two hundred years of history. Steps like this must be taken to safeguard our heritage, as we’ve learned from our destructive past (the Irish Civil War, the Blitz of London) it is so easy to lose information forever. The decade of centenaries is rekindling interest in our past, now is the time to make that information available to all who would wish to see it.
Department of Art, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. “Decade of Centenaries.” (2014) Web,
(Accessed on 6/12/14)
European Commission. “Digital Agenda for Europe. A Europe 2020 initiative.” (2014) Web,
(Accessed on 7/12/14)
Poole, Nick. “The cost of digitising Europe’s cultural heritage. A report for the Comité des Sages of the European Commission.” Collections Trust. (2010) Web,
(Accessed on 7/12/14)
RTÉ Archives. “Ireland and the Great War.” (2014) Web,
(Accessed on 6/12/14)
Stroeker, Natasha, Vogels, René. “Survey Report on Digitisation in European Cultural Heritage Institutions 2014.” ENUMERATE Thematic Network (2014) Web,
(Accessed on 9/12/14)