Letters 1916 – 1923

“Letters 1916 – 1923” is the first participatory digital humanities project in Ireland. This website contains letters from formal institutions and private collections.  People can either share letters of their own or help transcribe previously deposited letters.  The website states that its aim is to be a “window into what life was like in Ireland a century ago, told in the voices of those who lived through it.”  

The website, created in September of 2013 as “Letters 1916”, expanded its collection period to the end of the (Irish) Civil War through a generous grant from the Irish Research Council.  It was also funded by Maynooth University and Science Foundation Ireland. Ireland’s fight for independence during this time period would have made a physical collection of this type impossible.  While there are a few famous Irish figures who have their own archives, the tagline “ordinary lives, extraordinary times” shows that the Irish people are looking for a more nuanced, robust understanding of this pivotal point in their history.    

The first intended audience is historians and researchers.  Since the letters on this website come from institutions around the world, it allows researchers a one-stop-shop for finding information.  The database is organized by keyword, source, author, gender, and language. There is also an insightful search function — for instance, I jokingly typed in the word “tea” and there were 277 results.  These functions would make it easy for researchers to find what they’re looking for. Already there have been academic articles written using this website as a resource–for instance, one called “WWI Letters and Recollections: Looking at WWI through the letters and memories of those who served, and those who had to stay at home”.

Another intended audience is Irish citizens interested in genealogy or family history.  Ireland is a small and insular country, which makes investigating one’s family history a manageable endeavor.  Also, genealogy tracking has been popular lately. One could easily type in a relative’s name or location and find any related letters.  The crowd-sourcing aspect of this website gives armchair historians an opportunity to turn their family heirlooms into something meaningful.  According to the website, there have been over 2000 transcribers since its inception. Additionally, according to news stories and blog posts about this website, it seems that people are interested in learning about forgotten parts of Irish history using these first-hand accounts.

A third intended audience seems to be teachers and students, as there is a whole section of the website that has project and lesson plan ideas.  Primary sources are a great way to teach history, and having an easy-to-use “playground-esque” archive for students to poke around in makes it all the more desirable.  

The people who work on this project are primarily graduate students at Maynooth University in Ireland.  The Project Director and Editor-in Chief is a Digital Humanities Professor there. It seems like she has enlisted her colleagues and students in this project — from both the digital humanities and history departments. The “About” section of the website has all the technologies information listed clearly and in much detail; it even goes so far as to give a link where people can contact them if they’re curious about how the website is built.

Future projects could learn a lot from this example.  Using a familiar interface like WordPress is definitely the way to go if a portion of your audience is the elderly and children.  It is important to have a username and password function so submissions and transcriptions aren’t anonymous. And having high-resolution images of the letters is a must not only for transcription purposes, but also for the aesthetic aspect.