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Crowdsourcing World War I: “The Lives of the First World War”

Published: August 20, 2014

Caroline Boswell


The Imperial War Museum was founded in 1917— during the darkest days of World War I. Its creators envisioned crowded,glass-covered exhibits filled with the memorialized objects of a haunted generation — “even if they be of trifling character.” The founders crafted plans for a “Hall of Memories” that would commemorate every individual’s contribution. Their request for memorabilia flooded the IWM with mementos — the bedrock of the current collection — but no physical space could hold all the memories and artifacts of total war, and their vision had to be abandoned.

Just as the Museum’s founders desired to build a structure that honored those who fought, the directors of “The Lives of the First World War” aim to create a permanent digital memorial that archives the experiences of everyone in Britain and the British Commonwealth who participated in the war effort.  According to Luke Smith, the IWM’s Digital Lead, the site’s reliance on user-generated data continues the laborious process the Museum began in 1918. The “Lives of the First World War” allows the IWM to realize its founding vision a century later.


Participating in “Lives of the First World War” is relatively easy for anyone familiar with digital archives. You simply sign up and identify those whom you wish to “Remember.” The site directs you on a hunt for evidence of your individual in its numerous digital records. A word of caution, readers: many of the records on the site cannot be accessed without subscribing, which costs either £6 a month or £50 a year. This practical decision limits what otherwise has the promise to be a truly remarkable attempt to crowd-source history. The fee, however, also allows you to create or join a “Community” designed to “Remember” a group of soldiers and/or civilians.  Possible organizations of “Communities” appear limitless: active users have created “Communities” of regiments, former schoolmates and hometowns, such as Smith’s own “Community,” “Ballydehob at War.”LOFFW_External_Reference.png

While the site does limit non-subscribers’ access to records, it encourages all users to provide “external evidence” of an
individual’s “Life Story.” Several “Lives” are already dotted with pictures, diaries and images of war memorials that users contributed from personal, local or Internet resources. Smith is quick to emphasize how much the project relies on user-generated “evidence” to document the lives of those who rarely appear in official records.  Female workers in munitions factories and soldiers from the Indian subcontinent seldom surface in accessible sources; thus, it is up to their families, communities and historians to ensure that their experiences are not forgotten.

While the primary mission of the project is to create a permanent digital memorial, the IWM also designed the site to serve as a resource for academic scholars. The project has an academic advisory group of roughly thirty scholars from the UK and Ireland, which includes archivists and digital humanists as well as leading historians. Professor Richard Grayson — whose pioneering study of the impact of war on West Belfast covers the experience of roughly 12,000 individuals — chairs the group. As Grayson noted in a blog post, the IWM’s digital program offers “an opportunity for academic historians to learn from the vast amount of expertise to be found among those working on First World War projects inspired by local or family interests.”

Keenly aware of the potential pitfalls of user-generated information, Smith and his team have “slacker-proofed” the site. With every entry — whether “Fact” or “Story” — the site prompts a user to note the origin of her information. All “Facts” must be tied to “evidence,” and users who wish to enter personal memories or anecdotes must do so through the “Stories” function. Though use of the terms “Fact” and “Story” may make historians cringe, the project directors believe the division helps users grasp basic standards of historical evidence. “We are trying to aim for something like academic standards of reference,” explains Smith, “without it feeling too academic.”

While the current infrastructure may be slightly burdensome, it holds great potential for history instructors. Introductory-level students could use the site to become familiar with the issues and practicalities of researching, recording and using historical evidence, while upper-division students could set their critical eyes on the site to examine its strengths and weaknesses. Students in the UK, Ireland, Canada, and, soon, Australia, can easily research individuals in external records and make important contributions to “Life Stories” without paying any fees. Over the next several years the site will incorporate additional records from across Britain and its former empire, and Smith sees the potential to include records from Britain’s allies — particularly the U.S. — but this would be several years down the road.

OperationWarDiary.pngPeople from all over the globe can freely participate in the IWM’s other crowd-sourced digital archive — “Operation War Diary” — which it launched in partnership with the National Archives and Zooniverse.  Collectively they have digitized 1.5 million pages of unit war diaries, and they are asking “Citizen Historians” to assist by tagging pages and their contents. The long process of tagging these diaries makes them ripe for use in courses. Deglamorizing historical research for students has its own benefits and student participation in the project also allows them to contribute to scholarship outside of the confines of the classroom. By its very nature, crowd-sourced digital history blurs the distinctions between “Citizen Historian,” student and academic, and it empowers students to approach the discipline as active participants versus passive learners.

The enthusiasm Smith expresses for these projects is contagious, and his vision of “The Lives of the First World War” is admirable. By emphasizing the inherent connections between public, digital and social history, these user-generated archives suggest a bright future for a field of British history that many have presumed to be on a sharp decline for decades. It will be interesting to see which scholars find the growing number of crowd-sourced projects valuable, and who will smile, nod and slip back into the dusty caverns (or sign into the exclusive online databases) of archives whose vastness and biases pose problems for the academic trying to capture the toil and triumph of everyday experience. For, even with the digitization of more and more archives (often at a steep price), who is there to enter the searchable metadata that makes them truly usable?

We would like to hear from you:  what is your opinion of crowd-sourced digitization projects? Would you use them in your own research and/or teaching?  



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