I’m thrilled to finally be able to tell you about two of the most exciting records-related projects that The National Archives has ever been involved in, both of which launch today! And I’m not just saying that because I’ve been working on them both for such a long time…
We started digitising the First World War unit war diaries (record series WO 95) almost three years ago. The diaries rank among the most popular records in our entire collection, and scanning them has been the biggest digitisation project we’ve ever undertaken ourselves. We’re publishing the first batch of diaries online today as part of First World War 100 – you can search and download over 300,000 diary pages of the first three cavalry divisions and the first seven infantry divisions to arrive on the Western Front. By the end of this year we’ll have published the rest of the diaries that we’ve digitised, around 1.5 million pages in total, opening up an already popular record series to historians worldwide.
As if digitising the diaries wasn’t exciting enough, we’re also launching a truly innovative crowdsourcing project using the war diaries. Operation War Diary aims to open up the information that’s currently locked away in the war diaries by asking volunteers to tag any data they find, whether it’s a person, place, or activity. We know some basic information about the diaries – the units they relate to, and the date ranges – but beyond this we don’t know how many people are named in the diaries, or how much they can tell us about how the war was actually fought on the front line. This is where you come in! We need an hour of your time – more if you can spare it – to read and tag a few diary pages for us.
You don’t need to know anything about the diaries to take part, although if you’re good at reading handwriting that might be an advantage. We’ve put together a ten-minute tutorial that walks you through the tagging process – this explains step by step the task that we’re asking volunteers to do for us, from telling us what type of page they’re working on through to tagging place names and weather observations. At the end of it all we’ll be left with an amazing dataset that we can incorporate back into Discovery, making it freely available for all of our users – this means that family historians will be able to search the diaries by name and place, and that academic researchers will be able to crunch the numbers and drill into the detail of what happened on the Western Front on a day-by-day basis.
One of the most exciting aspects of this project is that we’ve teamed up with Imperial War Museums, who are leading on the First World War centenary across the cultural sector, and with Zooniverse, world leaders in crowdsourcing. Using their extensive expertise and the same technology that has been used to map the universe (most recently demonstrated in last week’s BBC Stargazing Live), we’ll be publishing more diaries throughout this year. We really need lots of volunteer Citizen Historians to get tagging and help us make Operation War Diary a success – can we count on you? Sign up today!