Technology and science are often assumed to be at odds with the study of history – the former are all about progression and forward-thinking, whereas history quite literally dwells in the past – but a new digital initiative at the National Archives has brought the three fields together to work in a perfect harmony of historical archiving.
In commemoration of the First World War Centenary this year, The National Archives have made 1.5 million pages of wartime unit diaries available to the general public online. While this in itself is remarkable (think of all that history right in your FACE!), The National Archives have also put out a call, Kitchener-style, to ordinary people such as yourselves to become Citizen Historians for Operation War Diary. How cool-sounding is that? Extremely. It is extremely cool-sounding.
Operation War Diary is a public initiative designed to get a boat-load of manpower involved in tagging the various elements and types of information in these millions of pages for easier and more efficient search in the online archives, and to do it as soon as possible. There’s a real chance here for the Citizen Historians to find some undiscovered gems, as well as to get an early look at some fascinating military records ahead of the centenary. Think it sounds boring? Tell that to the 148,402 page visitors who classified 104,167 pages and tagged 116,638 names in the projects first week. This is the stuff of legend, friends, and legends ain’t boring.
The role technology plays in this scheme is fairly obvious, but we mentioned science as well, didn’t we? Operation War Diary is run as a Zooniverse project, and Zooniverse has been the home to citizen science projects since 2007. On Zooniverse you can classify NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope’s archive and analyse real-life cancer data to help researchers develop a cure. So same platform, different field.
Zooniverse branching out into the humanities is yet another example of developers finding new and creative ways to use existing software. Of course, tweaks will always have to be made to tailor to use, but that’s why we have testers. We at Epicentre have already donned our tin hats and fashioned trenches out of old recycling in anticipation of making history as Citizen Historians; luckily, we have the same level of… dedication… when it comes to testing.