A Commentary on the Letters of 1916 Project (AFF-606B)

Within the Digital Humanities, cultural preservation undoubtedly is one of the  focal points of the field. When a piece of history is digitised or recorded and presented to a larger community, it takes on a new role. It becomes a part of a public consciousness in how it is preserved and presented. Through digitisation, and particularly through crowd-sourced public history projects, we can create a platform for people to appreciate aspects of the past from the comfort of their own surroundings; indeed, we are creating a community that is appreciative of the personal, the hidden, the hitherto unknown. This blog post aims to present a broad digest on the Letters of 1916 project, Ireland’s first crowd-sourced public history project, and through it and examples of the site’s content will try to gain an insight into its methodologies and the wider benefits of crowd-sourced history projects.

Why Crowd-sourcing?

The Letters of 1916 project crowd-sources its material and also encouraging its ‘crowd’ to transcribe the material in each letter as they wish. This means that it appeals to the public to participate by offering up their own letters for digitisation, specifically those that date from the months surrounding and throughout the year of 1916.  What does this essentially mean when we try to differentiate this type of project from more traditional projects that often already have a corpus of primary sources? Laura Carletti gives us the ‘adopted’  definition of crowd-sourcing as

‘“a group of individuals of varying knowledge, heterogeneity, and number,” who voluntarily undertake a task proposed by an organisation’

The project’s scope is vast, it allows for contribution from anybody of any age to add their personal historical documents to the site. It also fully encourages them to transcribe the material, furthering the sense of public engagement. It very much expands the definition of a public history project. Indeed, the website asserts that their aim is ” … to create a crowd-sourced digital collection of letters written around the time of the Easter Rising.” These letters serve not only by documenting the Easter Rising, but also give us a crucial context of the era, placing a colourful lens on events that can sometimes appear from history books as monochrome. The Letters of 1916 project in essence fuses the historical with the personal in a way that frees it fom the constraints of a purely academically-based database. This contextualisation of history is crucial in getting us as a general public to engage with our past, but is also useful for  research as it creates a database of transcriptions that can be used as a reference point for academics.

Cataloging 

One problem that may arise from this format, however, could be the lack of consistency within the letters themselves. For example; there is every possibility that some letters could be written under a pseudonym, and if so it is likely a writer may use more than one. Cataloging issues such as these could lead to a confusion in the database, the need for very precise metadata becoming all the more important.

Another problem that arises can be the inconsistencies of a transcriber. It can be very difficult to decipher certain handwriting styles or represent particular forms of stylisation or drawings on a letter or document, which I found out first hand when attempting to transcribe. Questions may arise on the appropriate recording of the individual idiosyncrasies of an author. If they are present in more than one letter, should every other letter follow the format of the first by that writer? If we recall the issue with pseudonyms and combine the two, it only stands to reason that the transcription and proofing stage can be most laborious for the team. However, every letter is proof read and edited accordingly by a dedicated team member before publication on the site. Luckily, the transcription and encoding process is made easier by the implementation of a button system that takes out some of the labour involved with XML tagging. This  essentially means that the transcription box on each letter entry has easy-to-use tagging buttons that allow the user to easily transcribe a letter without needing an in-depth knowledge of XML.

The Letters Project is not an exhaustive collection, there are thousands of letters in the database and there are more added regularly by its userbase. This framework is reliant on the input of the public, it is a symbiosis between the team and the public that achieves the goals of the project. The acquisition of letters and transcribers must be carried out therefore, by making the project as conscious as possible in the public sphere through outreach activities and social media.

Social Media as a Tool

The rise of social media is an immeasurable boon for the Letters of 1916 project (which will hitherto be referenced as the ‘Letters Project’). Social media has become pervasive in nearly every aspect of modern culture, and Twitter in particular has undoubtedly been the strongest social media outlet for the Letters Project in terms of outreach. Twitter by nature allows for the spread of information in a compact form and the Letters Project makes great use of this platform, hosting regular Q&A sessions with the public and highlighting letters of particular interest. This bite-size format lends itself well to the Letters Project; a tweet containing a particular letter pertaining to a certain day in retrospect can be an accessible piece of historical information without boring a casual user.

The interactive nature of these sessions certainly helps the project heighten its ‘public’ aspect, allowing for an active dialogue between the project and its followers. This interactivity creates a sense of community between the project and its followers, giving the project a refreshing newness. The fact that these tweets can be geo-tagged and this data can be then stored is also useful as it allows the Letters team to see the extent of their reach.

Conclusions

The Letters of 1916 Project seeks to bring together thousands of personalities, stories, and memories of the past and bind them together to preserve a key event in the history of the nation. Its open-arms approach to the public adds a defined sense of community that isn’t hampered by the strains of purely academic pursuit, and yet it does not shun that community either. Their use of social media-based outreach initiatives is novel, and the ease at which a user can interact with the site ensures the importance of Ireland’s first public humanities project both in terms of Digital Humanities and cultural preservation.

Bibliography

Carletti, Laura, et al., Digital Humanities and Crowdsourcing: An Exploration, Web, http://mw2013.museumsandtheweb.com/paper/digital-humanities-and-crowdsourcing-an-exploration-4/, accessed on 23/10/15.

Heppler, Jason, Wolfenstein, Gabriel, Crowdsourcing Digital Public History, Web, http://tah.oah.org/content/crowdsourcing-digital-public-history/, accessed 22/10/15.

Letters of 1916 (2014), Web, http://dh.tcd.ie/letters1916/, accessed September 2015.

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rbreen

MA Digital Humanities student in An Foras Feasa, Maynooth University. BA Music from Maynooth University.

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