Documenting the Great War: behind the scenes at a ’14-’18 community collection day

written by Wiebe on April 2, 2014 in Behind the scenes and Europeana 1914-1918 with no comments

On Europeana1914-1918 you can find thousands of stories and digitied photos, diaries and objects from the time of the Great War. These stories are gathered during the so-called community collection days, which are organised throughout Europe. During these days, citizens are invited to have their stories written down and objects digitised by professional archivists. This blog gives you a behind-the-scenes look at one such roadshow.

Memories of the Great War are still to be found in many households. Thousands of families have photos, diaries or objects related to the war lying in the attic, and some people even can tell intriguing stories related to the memorabilia. But as time passes on, the collective memory of one of the most impactful wars in humankind will inevitably fade. Therefore Europeana decided to start the Europeana1914-1918 project, which aims to bring together both institutional material and stories and WW1-related material coming from ordinary citizens.

The scope of this project is huge: in order to bring together stories from people all over Europe, even if they don’t have internet access, Europeana and its partners organise collection days Days in libraries, museums and other public places, where archivists and photographers digitise both objects and stories. The material is then made available publicly via Europeana1914-1918.eu. As of March 2014, this website gives access to more than 100,000 objects and nearly 9,000 stories from the public, covering many aspects of the war, from propaganda to trench life, aerial and naval warfare, and postcards and letters to and from the home front.

Collection day in Huis Doorn, the Netherlands

On March 28-29, collection days were held in Huis Doorn, where German Emperor Wilhelm II lived in exile from 1920 until his death in 1941. Since it’s a fantastic venue with great historical value, many people came to Huis Doorn with (sometimes suitcases full of) memorabilia, ranging from photo albums, helmets, trench art and other objects. It certainly helped that the Dutch media covered the collection days. The project was even featured on the national news, adding to the buzz around the project.

Huis Doorn

Registration

At the entrance, people are requested to register first. They fill in their names and addresses, and – very important – accept the terms of use, which state that the material is not copyright protected and that the owner of the material authorises other people to re-use the material, under a creative commons share-alike license. Each submission form is accompanied by a ticket number, which is used throughout the process to make sure that stories and objects are tied together.

Interview

After the registration procedure, the next step is to describe the items at one of the interview desks and have the related story written down. During this process, relevant information is added to the story, such as the language for postcards, inscriptions etc, what the story is about, which persons were involved, when and where the story took place, and what keywords apply to the story. This so-called metadata is not only very important for cataloguing purposes, but also to make the stories meaningful once it is published on the website.

Interview desk

Digitisation

In order to digitise the objects, trained staff operates professional flatbed scanners and cameras. Collection day visitors are asked to check-in at the digitisation desk. The desk staff check the match the objects with their numbers on a list  to make sure that all the relevant objects will be digitised. In some cases, stories and items are uploaded right away, but since not all venues offer an internet connection, sometimes material from the collection days is uploaded later.

Digitisation desk

Exhibition, media and re-enactment

A Europeana Collection Day is not only a great way of capturing memories of the Great War, it is also a very social event, during which people from all over the country get the opportunity to meet with other people and WW1-experts. In addition, many journalists come to the collection days as well,  to record an item for TV or radio or to write a newspaper article.

Television interview

During the collection day in Huis Doorn, there was a small exhibition:

Small WW1 exhibition

It took one back in time to see actors dressed in military uniforms from a hundred years ago.

Re-enactment

Final step: making the material available via Europeana1914-1918

Once all the stories are collected and objects have been digitised and described, the material becomes available via Europeana1914-1918, where the stories and objects can be viewed by anyone in the world.

Most of the material is also available for download for re-use in books, articles, documentaries, research papers and on other WWI Centenary websites.

Europeana1914-1918 screenshot

(photos: CC-BY-SA Wiebe de Jager, 2014)