Revisionism as Outreach: The Letters of 1916 Project

paper, specified "long paper"
  1. 1. Susan Schreibman

    Trinity College Dublin

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The Letters of 1916 Project is the first crowd-sourced digital humanities project in Ireland. The project pivots around one of the most important events in twentieth-century Irish history -- the 1916 Easter Rising -- in which a small group of Irish Volunteers rebelled against the British Army on 24 April, Easter Monday 1916. The Rising was quickly quashed by the British, but the executions of its leaders several weeks later made martyrs of them, and set in motion a series of events that resulted in Irish independence from the United Kingdom in 1922.

The Letters of 1916 project focuses on this tumultuous period. Its goal is to create a crowd-sourced digital collection of letters written for a six-month period before and after the Easter Rising (1 November 1915 – 31 October 1916).

The project includes letters held at institutions (in Ireland and abroad), alongside those in private collections. The collection criteria is extremely broad: it includes any letter written to or from someone in Ireland, or that contains Irish subject matter.

The ultimate goal is to create a new online resource that will add a novel and heretofore underutilised viewpoint to the events of the period, a confidential and intimate perspective that will form the basis for a revision of our understanding of life in Ireland in the early 20th Century.

Letters 1916 integrates four distinct theoretical and methodological approaches:

The creation of a thematic research collection
A crowd-sourced public humanities project
Text analysis
Social media for dissemination and outreach
This paper will explore phase I of the project: the sourcing, gathering, and transcribing/encoding of collection. It will also document how the project is being used in the classroom at the Masters level.

Phase II will transform the transcribed/encoded letters, along with their accompanying images, into a thematic research collection where users will be able to do full text searching, text analysis, view correspondences, view letters temporally and spatially, and engage with thematic exhibitions. The collection is being viewed as a major new resource and as such, will ultimately be deposited at a cultural heritage institution for long-term preservation.

In her 2009 article Rose Holley made the distinction between social engagement projects, which she defined as ‘giving the public the ability to communicate with us and each other’ via such activities as tagging, commenting, rating, and reviewing, and crowdsourcing which uses social engagement techniques to help a group of people achieve a shared, usually significant, and large goal by working collaboratively together as a group. Crowdsourcing also usually entails a greater level of effort, time and intellectual input from an individual than just socially engaging

The project stops short, however, of a collective editing project. Phase 1 of the project was launched in September 2013 to a great deal of press.[1] The database was pre-populated with some 300 letters from cultural heritage institutions. To date, the project has 1500 letters in its workflow (about 800 publicly available).

The project, thus far, uses two distinct crowdsourcing methodologies according to the typology developed by Carletti, et al: a) correction and transcription; and b) complementing collection. Building on the immense success of the Europeana World War 1 Road shows, we invited the public to bring their letters in for scanning at the launch. This model is being replicated, thus far in Ireland and the UK. Moreover, the software allows the pubic to upload their letters from home, create basic metadata, and provide the project with descriptive information.

At the time of this writing, there are approximately 30 privately-held collections (or letters from small institutions we would have never have thought to reach out to) for letters from this period. The size of individual deposits range from one letter to 90– a correspondence between the donor’s grandmother and grandfather who happened to be courting during 1916.

The public is also invited to transcribe previously uploaded letters. The response has been so overwhelming that the project team is frequently can barely keep up with demand. The engagement, encouragement, and reaching out to volunteers is a major aspect of the project to be discussed. At present the site does not utilise some of the more traditional features of crowdsourced projects (such as badges and icons) to engage its volunteers. However, other methods have been implemented, such as a volunteer forum, featuring contributors both on the project site and in the more traditional forms of media.

The project has benefited immensely from previous crowdsourced projects, from its methodological approaches, to its workflow and software. The project utilises WordPress for its front end, and for its content management system a version of Omeka that was modified by University of Iowa libraries (DIY History) to support crowdsourcing projects. It utilises George Mason’s Scripto tool for transcribing, and the Transcribing Bentham’s TEI/XML toolbar for light encoding. In a domain space that has constantly called for the creation of tools, the ability to fairly rapidly and without a great deal of bespoke programming to string together these diverse tools into one unified web presence, may signal a golden age of tool development for our field.

The Transcribing Bentham toolbar has been an interesting feature which many transcribers have utilised with little instruction. The Transcribing Bentham project designed the toolbar to hide ‘much of the complexity of TEI markup from the transcriber’ (Moyle, 353). An analysis of the markup used in this environment reveals an especially intuitive use of tagging, something the TEI is rarely praised for. Despite the caveat that the toolbar only allows the encoding of 15 out of the TEI’s hundreds of tags, the ease in which individuals with absolutely no experience in textual editing, AML, or text encoding have been utilizing it may point to new ways to create a more intuitive encoding interface. A downside to the reduced set of tags available is that users, in trying to make sense of the tags available to them, use certain tags, such as <lb> (line break), so ubiquitously that it almost amounts to tag abuse.

This project is pitting, in many respects, methods typical of thematic research collections-- including the creation of a carefully curated dataset with fully transcribed and proofed documents, and hand-crafted markup and metadata created in accordance with the Text Encoding Initiative Guidelines-- against the less painstaking creation of a full text dataset amenable to text analysis and visualisation as a method of discovery and analysis. Ultimately, in Phase II of the project, we intend to offer readers both views – the traditional reading environment of the thematic research collection along with the analytics available via text analysis and visualisations. But the decisions we make at this stage which will be detailed in this talk will impact what is possible in later phases.

The social media dimension of finding and engaging our audience demonstrates just how significantly the environment in which digital humanists operate has changed over the past decade. An analysis of the first month’s tweets reveal an ever expanding network of cultural institutions, individuals, organisations, and traditional media who have passed the message of the project along. A twitter-feed is a feature of the project’s home page and discussions amongst the project team reveal a shifting notion of how to position the project in a web of similar initiatives in Ireland coming broadly under the rubric of The Decade of Commemoration.[2] The project has already been positioned not as a silo, but as an aggregator embracing multiple communities of holders of these precious objects. We share back with individuals and institutions photographs we take, and will eventually share the fully transcribed/encoded texts files. But as we near the centenary of the Easter Rising, we are aware of our responsibility to, one the one hand, maintain the integrity of the project while, on the other, opening our resource more fully to sister initiatives, while respecting copyright and intellectual property promises to our donators.

Carletti, Laura, Gabriella Giannachi, Dominic Price, Derek McAuley, (2012), ‘Digital Humanities and Crowdsourcing’.MW2012: Museums and the Web 2013. Online

Causer, Tim, Justin Tonra, Valerie Walace (2012). ‘Transcription Maximized; Expense Minimized? Crowdsourcing and Editing The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham’. Literary and Linguistic Computing. 27/2 2012. 119-137.

Dunn, Stuart and Mark Hedges. ‘Crowd-Sourcing Scoping Study: Engaging the Crowd with Humanities Research’. Centre for e-Research, Department of Digital Humanities, King’s College London. Online.

Holley, Rose (2010). ‘Crowdsourcing: How and Why Should Libraries Do It’. D-Lib Magazine. March-April 2010. 16:3/4. Online

Moyle, Martin, Justin Tonra, Valerie Wallace (2011). ‘Manuscript Transcription by Crowdsourcing; Transcribing Bentham’. Liber Quarterly 20:3/4. March 2011.

Palmer, Carol (2004). ‘Thematic Research Collections’.Companion to Digital Humanities’. Blackwell. Online.

Robinson, Peter. (2010). ‘Editing Without Walls’. Literature Compass. Special issue on Scholarly Editing in the Twenty-first Century. 57-61.

Please see for full press coverage

This shorthand refers to a decade of significant historical events in Ireland 1913-1923 in Ireland, beginning with the Dublin Lockout in 1913 and ending with Irish independence, followed by a Civil War a decade later.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2014
"Digital Cultural Empowerment"

Hosted at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Université de Lausanne

Lausanne, Switzerland

July 7, 2014 - July 12, 2014

377 works by 898 authors indexed

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Attendance: 750 delegates according to Nyhan 2016

Series: ADHO (9)

Organizers: ADHO