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The public has a right to memory

From broadcasting to libraries and museums, digitization is revolutionising the way we enjoy and share heritage. 

Parliamentary archives. Image: Matt Brown / Flickr

In a previous article for OurBeeb, Tony Ageh made a compelling case for the Digital Public Space, which he described as: 

 "A secure and universally accessible public sphere through which every person, regardless of age or income, ability or disability, can gain access to an ever growing library of permanently available media and data held on behalf of the public by our enduring institutions” 

These ‘enduring institutions’ include museums, libraries and archives, as well as public service broadcasters. They would collaborate to deliver our shared digital cultural heritage in a seamless way for research, teaching and public engagement, with no barriers to access to the wealth of ‘priceless treasures that have recorded, reflected and shaped our shared national heritage’. 

Tony makes a powerful case for the ways that the Digital Public Space could make our digital heritage available to the widest possible audience. It will open up and connect the publicly held media assets of the UK for use and re-use in an education and research context: BBC content could potentially be complimented by material from partner organisations like the British Film Institute, British Library and the Wellcome Collection, as well as the National Libraries of Wales and Scotland and many individual publishers, galleries and museums. 

But before we embark on the great adventure of building the Digital Public Space, it’s worth pausing to think about what impact this will have: how will it make a difference to the public experience of heritage and media content, and how will it transform the ways that we use, engage with, and appreciate the value of our shared heritage? How does having access to sources in digital format enrich our experience and understanding? 

Fortunately, we have a lot of evidence for the impact the Digital Public Space will have, based on the use of existing digital content. The past 20 years have seen an enormous expansion of freely available digital collections by heritage and educational organisations, thanks to huge public and private investment. 

Funders include the European Commission (who supported Welsh Newspapers Online), often working in collaboration with national and local organisations. For an example of a combined funding approach, see The Spectators Periodical Press Project, developed by the University of Graz, with support from the EU, the Austrian Science Foundation (FWF) and participating Universities. Organisations like the British Museum have funded projects to create digital access to their catalogues, and many University special collections, and museums, have also used internal funding sources to create digital collections, such as University College, London. 

Local and municipal Governments have also contributed. See for example the Rjiksmuseum in Amsterdam, which also allows users to adapt or create new works based on the digitised content and share this material via the Rijksstudio system. Other collections have been developed thanks to private foundations, including the Mellon Foundation, funders of the digital Parker Library, at the University of Cambridge. Research councils have also played an important role: the Arts and Humanities Research Council funded scholarly resources like Old Bailey Online, which has tremendous popular appeal while Jisc has funded online resources like The Welsh Experience of the First World War. The HLF has also funded resources like the Tate Archive and Access project.

This treasury of digital riches represents an enormous investment in monetary terms, so the use of this material is frequently measured as a significant Key Performance Indicator (KPI), used by heritage organisations in order to track not just engagement, but the return on investment. However, while user numbers are monitored, detailed analysis of the qualitative measurements associated with digital content is rare. This is, nonetheless, a fascinating area. What do people do with all this digital stuff? How does it transform our understanding of the past, language, culture, politics, and society around us? How does it contribute to creativity and the cultural industries? How can it be used in commercial initiatives? 

Cymru1914

My work has focused on the impact of digital resources, and how they make a difference to teaching, research, and scholarship. Some of these benefits are very obvious. For many organisations, the primary reason to make their collections digitally accessible is access: better, more equitable access to content that would be otherwise fragile, or remote, like the medieval manuscripts of the National Library of Wales, or the map collections at the National Library of Scotland. It helps the preservation of analogue originals: digitization takes original materials out of circulation, and can also be an intervention in the archival management of an original object that means the item is catalogued (sometimes for the first time!) or conserved. Digitization is also an opportunity to build cohesive collections, virtually reunifying media that may have been held by multiple organisations.

These reasons are usually the driving force behind decisions to make cultural content available online. However, digitization often has unforeseen benefits when collections are used and re-used as the basis for the creation of new knowledge, artistic work, and creative content. To illustrate this, I’d like to discuss a project that I helped develop at the National Library of Wales, The Welsh Experience of the First World War, Cymru1914.org.

This freely accessible digital collection was launched in November 2013. It is a collection of archives and special collections of Wales that relate to the impact of the First World War in Wales: tribunal records, archives of the Welsh Army Corps established by Lloyd George, and the manuscripts of the Welsh War poets, including Hedd Wynn and David Jones. Many of the 220,000 items in the collection relate to the unseen histories of the War. Much of the material was held in archives that were difficult to access. No longer hidden, they are now utilised by a large, worldwide audience, able to use the content to make comparisons with related materials in other countries. It has been a valuable resource for the Welsh diaspora, who can find material to compliment their family history research.  

Cymru1914.org was developed thanks to a £500,000 grant from Jisc, the UK funder of digital infrastructure and resources, and by Welsh Government funding. The project was led by the National Library of Wales in collaboration with Swansea University, Cardiff University, Bangor University, Aberystwyth University, the University of Wales Trinity St Davids, the local archives of ConwyFlintshireGlamorgan, and GwentBBC Cymru Wales Archive, and community content developed with The People’s Collection, Wales.

All IPR rights were cleared as part of the content development process, ensuring that re-use and re-purposing of the material is not inhibited by rights considerations. Where material is on deposit and/or the current rights holders are known, permission is requested: where declined, materials are not used. When the current rights holder is unknown, reasonable efforts are made to identify and/or contact the rights holder. Digitised resources are then licensed for re-use and re-purposing under an open license (BY-NC-SA): Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Sharealike.This has been enormously useful, and has helped users work with the content. In fact one of the facets by which users can search the resource is rights clearance: this has proved invaluable to teachers and others who need to extract and re-use material in their own lesson plans or fieldwork.

The digital archive has been a focus of much of the commemoration of the centenary of the First World War in Wales. Four leading international artists were commissioned by 14-18-NOW to create public artworks in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England as part of LIGHTS OUT on 4 August. In Wales, Bedwyr Williams created the sound and video installation Traw, which contained images of unknown recruits and conscripts from Wales documented in cymru1914.org. Traw was presented at the site of the North Wales Memorial Arch, Bangor, which took centre stage in front of images projected onto the facing wall of Bangor University’s Pontio Arts and Innovation Centre.

The images in Traw were taken from the D.C. Harries collection of glass plate negatives held by the National Library of Wales. The Library has digitized around 200 images from this collection, thought to be First World War recruits or conscripts from Llandeilo and Ammanford (Rhydaman), where D. C. Harries operated photographic studios. 

Traw installation, 4 August, 2014

Cymru1914.org is also helping schoolchildren in Wales to develop digital skills and literacy in the Wales at War project, funded by the HLF. The project is supporting schools and communities in Wales to develop biographies of the names on local First World War memorials, using content from Cymru1914.org as the basis of their research, and geo-referencing and documenting the war memorials, in collaboration with project partners the Royal Commission for Ancient and Historic Monuments of Wales. The project has also been supported by the Welsh Government department of Education and Skills as a focus for developing curricular materials on the First World War. 

Wales at War homepage

Cymru1914.org is also a powerful resource for education. The newspapers that are part of the collection have been visualized using a tool based on Google’s n-Gram to allow researchers to map patterns in the data over time. The following diagram shows the impact of Belgian refugees in Wales. 

These are just a few examples of how digital content can be used and shared in ways that really start to unlock the value of our digital heritage. Other projects have taken these ideas even further, showing even more imaginative ways to use and represent digital content. Bombsight: Mapping the London Blitz (based at the University of Portsmouth and funded by Jisc) shows how impressive visualisation and mapping of data can create new knowledge. Similarly, the Old Bailey Online content has been the basis of the London Lives project, discovering the histories of those on the margins of the past. The Folger digital texts API allows the modeling of Shakespeare’s texts in innovative ways. Projects originally created for a scholarly audience have also become resources valued by much larger communities, like Excavations in Ancient Corinth

Democratising ‘big data’ 

But the greatest impact is currently to be seen through aggregation: the Europeana Newspapers project has shown that bringing together similar material from across Europe can create a resource that is far more than the sum of its parts: being able to search for major European news stories, like the sinking of the ‘Titanic’ in newspapers from many European countries is something that would have been impossible without access to digital materials. As we move into the realm of ‘big data’, this sort of aggregation of content in a knowledge infrastructure like the Digital Public Space has tremendous potential. Cultural heritage collections can be ‘data mined’ for research and development on social, economic and cultural development issues. This sort of conceptualisation and modelling of such digital resources, and knowledge representation, is a primary area of research in the digital humanities, and the basis for a great deal of collaborative work and future research and development into the exploitation of cultural heritage content, and the cultures of production and the creative economy. 

At the same time, content that is not freely accessible digitally is falling out of the public eye, as a digital ‘canon’, which has been created in a responsive yet somewhat piecemeal fashion, emerges. We have seen a huge increase in the availability of our heritage in digital form, but many of these collections are predominantly text, printed material, or images. The archives of the BBC are one of the best examples of sound and moving image collections, so bringing their digital archives in the public sphere will be a wonderful addition to the existing digital canon. Culture has gone digital, and there is evidence that 50% of Europeans use the web for cultural purposes. This is a huge shift in information seeking behavior and information literacy that we need to understand more.

So what lessons for the Digital Public Space can be drawn from this overview of the impact of digital content? The first is that content should be accessible to users. Similarly, content should conform to community-accepted standards for consistent delivery, description and preservation to support discovery and interoperability. Good practice in creating digital content will also make it more likely to be sustained over the longer term. 

Copyright and rights need to be managed, but so do ethical issues relating to privacy and data protection, which can be especially challenging for contemporary materials. The real benefit of the Digital Public Space will be in aggregation and integration of content from disparate collections, so steps should be taken from the outset to ensure that there are as few barriers as possible to the widest integration and dissemination of our digital heritage. Similarly, collaborations should be developed with researchers and teachers, as well as policy organisations and the wider public, to explore the best ways to facilitate transformative and innovative digital scholarship and learning for all.

What does this mean for the development of the Digital Public Space? If we acknowledge that the use of digital content enables the creation of new knowledge, and enhances collaborative research, then we need to build a platform that fosters freely accessible digital content. The public has a right to memory, and the value of the Digital Public Space will be in realizing this.

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About the author

Lorna Hughes (@lornamhughesis Professor of Digital Humanities at School of Advanced Study, University of London.


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