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2 minutes to read Posted on Tuesday September 10, 2019

Updated on Monday November 6, 2023

portrait of Agiatis Benardou

Agiatis Benardou

Senior Research Associate , Digital Curation Unit Athena Research and Innovation Centre

The role of community-generated content in the digital legacy of the First World War

The revolution in digital technology and the accessibility to new material via digital storytelling are changing the way researchers are able to look at the period of the First World War. Projects like Europeana 1914-1918, which combines institutional and publicly contributed material, are disrupting the research life cycle and promoting new insights into historical research. Dr. Agiatis Benardou, Senior Researcher at Digital Curation Unit / ATHENA R.C. – a Europeana DSI-4 partner – fills us in.

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Correspondance: Recto, photographie d'un groupe de poilus. Henri Tafforeau apparaît sur la photographie.

A World War One digital ecosystem

The commemoration of the centenary of the First World War has produced an abundance of digital outputs for the period from 1914-1918. This has generated a wealth of new digital resources for WWI research, including projects carried out by universities, libraries, museums, archives, and community groups – adding to a long-standing yet dynamic ecosystem of endeavours attempting to collect, expose, curate, educate and communicate the First World War in the digital domain. 

Europeana 1914-1918, for example, with its Collection Days model, grew out of the Oxford Great War Archive and has itself spearheaded a number of events such as transcribathons, aimed at the collection of community-generated content, and culminating in a Centenary Tour

Using community-generated digital content for research 

Can community-generated digital content be reused meaningfully so as to produce new interpretations in the digital domain? I have been exploring this question. As a representative of ATHENA R.C, I have been part of the Europeana Research initiative since it started and currently contribute to its outreach activities. I am also working on an AHRC-funded project, Living Legacies 1914-1918, as part of a research team at the University of Glasgow. Professor Lorna Hughes, University of Glasgow, is co-Investigator on this project and also Chair of the Europeana Research Advisory Board. Together we are looking into a few questions emerging from the close study of this ecosystem and its digital outputs. Our extended research builds on existing studies and will gradually develop into a series of publications and conference presentations.

This summer, Professor Hughes and I gave a presentation at the Digital Humanities 2019 Conference in Utrecht under the title ‘The Ties That Bind': The Creation, Use, And Sustainability Of Community Generated Histories. This paper addressed the theme of community-generated digital content. More so than on any previous occasion, the centenary of the First World War extended a compelling invitation to the general public to contribute their memorabilia and, in a sense, to recreate their family stories in a digital dimension. Our aim in the paper was to explore the value and sustainability of digital content created in such a way. We started from research questions such as: Is this content significantly reused for digital storytelling? Will it be possible to preserve it adequately? Of course, we were also interested in the value and reusability of this kind of digital content in research, mainly in the field of History and Historiography. 

Are First World War digital collections reusable and sustainable?

While initiatives on the First World War in the digital domain represent a significant investment in digital collections, there has been little or no formal analysis of the impact of these digital outputs, how they are used, and how they can be developed and sustained over the long term. One emerging concern focusses on the long-term curation challenges and sustainability of community-generated digital content. 

Dr. Agiatis Benardou at Athens University in June 2018, giving a seminar on the challenges of community-generated content in the digital domain.
Maria Ilvanidou
June 2018
Dr. Agiatis Benardou at Athens University in June 2018, giving a seminar on the challenges of community-generated content in the digital domain.

At the heart of these digital histories are some fundamental fragilities that highlight the need for a critical and collaborative framework for the creation and use of digital cultural heritage for research. The connection of this particular digital content to the scholarly life cycle, with special focus on the relationship between digital sustainability and the use of specific tools and methods for its analysis and interpretation, may be the key to ensuring its future use.

Europeana 1914-1918, the Oxford Community Collection Model and the Great War Archive, the AHRC Living Legacies 1914-1918 initiative, and the Jisc-funded digital collection Cymru 1914. The Welsh Experience of the First World War, serve as a few of our evidence-based examples of use, reuse and exposure of First World War-related digital content, tools and methods. They facilitate and promote new insights into historical research, through enriched engagement with primary sources via digitisation and datafication, advanced approaches to data analysis and visualisation, digital storytelling and immersive approaches. The research shared here is still ongoing and will be published by early 2020. 

For a closer look at the research to date, check out the Digital Humanities 2019 Conference presentation.

Editor’s note:
The Parthenos Project has recently used Europeana 1914-1918 as a case study for its training suite on Citizen Science. For more on that, visit their page on Citizen Science and Research Infrastructures.