‘The Letters through a lens’ – Filming with Letters of 1916 Transcribers

Today was a day to think about what it is that a letter has captured when it is signed, sealed and sent. The ‘Letters of 1916 Project’ has digitised and allowed access to hundreds of letters that have lain in boxes and binders for decades, but more than this, it has humanised history for us and in doing so the project has opened an insight into a world long gone.

Born and bred in Dundalk, Fidelma Carroll has transcribed many letters that are now displayed in the Project’s searchable database. Her motivation came from a general desire to contribute something to the overall good of the country and perhaps gain an understanding of some of the key participants in the seminal events of 1916, the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme.fidelma-2

Fidelma kindly agreed to let me film a short interview with her about the Letters project, and in the company of her border collie Gabby, we talked a little about the letters. As she talked and transcribed we discovered we both shared a sense of why the Project has had such an effect on those who contribute – it is because through the letters we read about human beings, real people who happen to have left a legacy written on a page.

Sometimes, we imagine people who were always ‘historic’ that is to say people who only exist in the moments we read about in historical tracts – Gavrio Princip, General William Haig, Padraig Pearse – once we close the book, we loose sight of them. In the ‘Letters of 1916 Project’ we read the words of men and women, including Pearse, who reveal something more about themselves in the simple, non ‘historical’ words they have written. It is here in these little moments in the lives of people who are now filed away as ‘history’, that we find a point of contact, a means fidelma-1of humanising and connecting with those long gone.

in the short little piece of filming from today we have captured no great detail, no earth shattering insight that will change how we view the past, but in many ways that is not what the moving image is about. Although we talk about frames and composition, ‘rules of thirds’ and points of interest, the fact is that the visual is all about the ‘feel’. In this kind of filming, I believe you firstly try to capture the sense of something and leave the detail to other documents. And so today, hopefully, we captured a sense of the connections that the ‘Letters of 1916 Project’ have made, connections that cross generations, move through time and place and connect a woman in her kitchen in Dundalk, with a soldier suffering at the ‘Battle of the Somme’.

The Letters of 1916 project is Digital Humanities writ large, opening new connections, allowing access and building resources in people that were never there. Looking at the letters through a lens is a most rewarding sight.fidelma-3

What you see is what you beget.

This blog is just a short post on the subject of my own review of the Dariah Teach videos ‘My Digital Humanities’- a series of videos introducing key ides underlying Digital Humanities and raising some of the issues around the field.

In my review I struggled to separate the message from the medium, an area where Digital Humanities  are striving to create new methodologies to do just that. As someone who spends their time wrapped up in the visual world I find it impossible to separate what we see from the way we see it, almost like seeing a signpost and being so struck by its appearance that I don’t see what the sign says.

There have been many experiments where the visual has either confused or obscured the verbal, the textual or in another sense the meaning. John Ridley Stroop’s 1935 thesis ‘ Studies of interference in serial verbal reactions‘ contains one of the more famous examples of the effect on perception when the visual and textual are in conflict, or at the very least out of sync with each other.stroop-effect-test-from-math-unt-edu stroop-effect-test-from-math-unt-edu So as we move towards a world where the presentation of data can be delivered in ever more varied ways, across ever more varied devices and with ever more varied contextual supports, how do we frame this new world in a way that is not only sympathetic to the data but also to the human being absorbing it.

To those who have spent decades involved in this discussion it must appear that these are questions that can never be answered fully, as the context, i.e what is the digital is constantly changing. Which begs the other question, is there a reason to ask the question, or should we just go with the flow and let the digital data flow take us where it may?