“The Ties That Bind': The Creation, Use, And Sustainability Of Community Generated Histories

paper, specified "short paper"
  1. 1. Lorna Hughes

    University of Glasgow

  2. 2. Agiatis Benardou

    Athena Research & Innovation Center in Information Communication & Knowledge Technologies, University of Glasgow

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“The ties that bind’: The creation, use, and sustainability of community generated histories

The use of digital content, tools and methods allows new insights into historical research, through enriched engagement with primary sources via digitisation and datafication, and the use of data analysis, visualisation, and immersive approaches. In response to these digital opportunities, the commemoration of the Centenary of the First World War has seen a digital 'big bang': more than any other historical period, the research community has access to a large number of publicly accessible digital resources: outputs of projects created by universities, libraries, museums, archives, and community groups. In addition, numerous organisations and initiatives have created opportunities for individuals and communities to create and/or share digital Community Generated Content (CGC), making accessible ‘public’ historical content from personal collections, or providing expertise and knowledge to collection or catalogue descriptions. While many of these initiatives simply present personal collections and content alongside ‘official’ archives, collections, and narratives, they can also present an opportunity to explore the potential of community histories and content to challenge notions of professionalism and the authority of the ‘expert’ voice.

This paper will address ways that digital CGC has been used in digital First World War initiatives across Europe, focusing on three core aspects of this approach.

“Everybody is your neighbour, everybody is your friend”

The first is the significance of community generated history to the commemoration of the First World War. Due to political, educational and public interest in the ‘decade of commemoration’ of significant centenaries in twentieth century history, there has been an enormous interest in community digitisation projects that allow members of the public to digitise their family collections that relate to the First World War. The first project to do this was the Oxford Great War Online project (2008). This methodology was adopted by Europeana 14-18, which has generated ca. 200k items related to the First World War at workshops around Europe. Smaller, national/local projects have also carried out workshops to generate content within communities (including Cymru1914.org, the People’s Collection Wales, and the AHRC-funded
Living Legacies Centre for the Centenary of the First World War in the UK). In this presentation, we will examine motivations for developing community generated content, and how analysis of these activities shows the value of participating in digitally-based activities to develop CGC can increase engagement with primary sources and provide a strong example of the power of digital heritage to facilitate experiential value, opportunities and benefits.

However, the interaction of creators and producers to produce meaningful ‘experiences’ in the digital heritage sector is poorly theorised, particularly where the community is both the creator and the producer. We argue that those involved in creating CGC in the digital heritage sector can experience value in four different areas: firstly, the value of producing distinctive content (ranging from providing incremental additions to knowledge, to providing hidden new resources, to giving new attention to under-privileged voices); secondly, the value of a feeling of useful participation (which can include supporting or challenging the ‘authoritative voice’, and which gamification research has provided insights to); thirdly, the value of the transformation such involvement can engender in the participants (including their new understanding of history, their community, the content they provide, or their own value and perception), and finally, the value of CGC in helping coalesce a (sub)community through the work itself. It is within this matrix of value that existing discussions of empowerment, identity production, and challenges to the ‘expert’ voice (amongst others) sit, and these issues often span multiple parts of our matrix.

A fuller understanding of such values and a fleshed-out model of each aspect is needed for us to understand the ‘gaps’ a participant may have between their expectations and their experience when becoming involved in CGC, and to establish a concrete analysis of the value of CGC for historical research.

“The time has come to let the past be history”

The second strand is the use and reuse of this material for research. The most recent Call for Europeana Research Grants
invited early-career researchers to explore the Europeana 1914-1918 Collection to address digital humanities research questions in projects that were transnational in scope. But the development of the Europeana 14-18 Collection, and most other GCG initiatives, did not intend research as the end goal. Rather these resources were developed with the objective to mobilise communities; to stir and engage. But they leave in their wake a vast corpus of heterogeneous data that can be used beyond the initial design of these initiatives, and when non-professionals create data that can be used by communities and professional researchers alike, the transformative nature of this material is inevitably magnified.

This issue raises several questions. Principal amongst these is: do the methodologies of creation, and the value-based motivation of those developing projects and people who submit material to these CGC projects, support re-use? What, therefore, is the research potential for this content? Are they just localised Wikipedias or blogs, designed for superficial non-professional reference (and, if so, does the intentionality of their creation enable them to have greater re-use as digital outputs once metadata, copyright and other aspects of the critical framework for digital heritage are linked and deployed)? Once this data is (re)used for research, then how is the past reconstructed and reinterpreted in the digital domain by historians (which connects to the issue of digital history often being focused on tool generation and use rather than on re-theorising history itself) – in short, does CGC subvert or just supplement existing paradigms of digital information use in history? How can we take the existing model of landmark commemorations (such as the centenary of the First World War), with their significant peaks of public engagement, and systematise our findings?
In the paper we will point to some contextual answers to these questions. Our initial conclusion is that the meshing of CGC and research has not delivered on its transformational promise, primarily due to structural factors in the engagement of researchers with this material, and so this lack of research ‘value’ must be understood as having a negative impact on participants, as outlined in the matrix of value described in section 1, above.

“Some say forget the past, and some say don't look back

But for every breath you take, you'll leave a track”

The final strand is an examination of the parallels between community generated digital content and the establishment of community archives and ‘History from below’, the basis of a significant body of archival research. The real parallel is the fragility of the digital content, as much CGC ends up as effectively ‘orphan’ content – the poor likelihood of digital sustainability parallels exactly the fragility of similar analogue content, and raises similar challenges of post-custodial care.

This directly mirrors the fragility of community archives generally. The Digital Preservation Coalition have rated community archives and CGC as ‘critically endangered
’ (



While the sustainability of such content is itself an issue, as with our research concerns above it is essential to recognise that the fragile sustainability of CGC negatively affects its value to participants. In fact, the interplay of participant value and future sustainability should be recognised, alongside infrastructural issues of preservation
: the value of the content may be incidental to the experience of creating it. To quote a respondent in the Europeana 16-18 study, their largest takeaway from the experience of CGC was that ‘my neighbours and I have the same history’. However, while acknowledging this, we must also challenge the digital heritage community to communicate their expectations and responsibility for sustainability of CGC to participants in their projects.

The authors will explore the three stands and the value of bringing them together in synthesis, drawing on their research into digital approaches to the First World War Centenary generated through the Europeana Research initiative, and two UK Arts and Humanities Research Council projects,
Living Legacies and
Reflections on the Centenary of the First World War. By digging into the centenary of the First World War and the digital ‘big bang’ of content it has engendered, it is possible to create a detailed case study to address the value and digital legacy of community generated content that is, methodologically, of significance to broader issues around using and sustaining digital histories.

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