Digital Desideratum

‘Digital humanities’ is a bit of a buzzword these days – at least among humanists in the academy. And well it should be. The constellation of information technologies linked by the ‘interwebs’ constitutes nothing short of a revolution for research in the traditional humanities – not to mention the dissemination of that research. We ignore it at our peril and not just because it can enhance our personal research agendas. Humanistic studies have been the surest path to mastery of traditional literacy since Plato hung his shingle in the Groves of Academus. If humanists embrace digital humanities we can ensure our disciplines a new stream of relevance in this new world where digital literacies have become so important.

But that’s a rant for another time. For now, I want to lay out my biggest digital desideratum: an on-line research hub dedicated to the First World War. Museums, Archives, National Libraries, Universities, regimental associations, and private researchers around the world have digitized a remarkable variety of material of use to students, genealogists, interested amateurs and professional researchers. Oxford’s Great War Poetry site is justly well known. The Australian War Memorial has the complete series of War Diaries for Australian units active during the Great War. The Imperial War Museum has made a remarkable collection of photographs available on-line. Closer to home the Canadian National Library and Archives have a growing collection of online materials relating to the Great War. Then there’s McMaster’ University’s collection of Aerial Photographs. Toronto’s Great War Attic project is an interesting community based approach to digital Great War research. And that hardly scratches the surface of English language resources. Including French or German resources for example, or those curated by private organizations and individuals would turn this little post into an epic.

From a serious researcher’s point of view the quality of these sites varies, with some being tailored to genealogists and others suffering from confusing page layouts or clunky search functions. But those issues are relatively minor when set beside the matter of finding the sites themselves. Google and the other leading search engines aren’t a great deal of help. Or rather, they aren’t a terribly efficient way of finding these resources given all the commercial and other dross that accompanies the honest ore researchers seek.

A few sites make game attempts. BYU’s Library has a page of links relating to its own collection of Great War documents. 1914-1918 On-line likewise has a page of links to Websites. There are others. They all struggle with a trio of problems: comprehensiveness, organization, and curation. This can only be an issue of resources.   Individuals and small non-governmental organizations/non-profits can’t possibly muster the time or IT resources required to build and maintain a comprehensive and well-curated research portal rather than just a list of links. Our best hope is for a major institution (I’m looking at you national war museums and research centres) to undertake the task.  They have the expertise and the mandate to do so.

It would be an expensive proposition, but it would drive a lot of web-traffic to the host-institution, increasing its international profile among peer institutions, reseachers (both professional and casual), and students.

About cahagerman

Dad, husband, writer, historian, recovering academic, and the Consulting Professor.
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