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Response to Review no. 714

We welcome the opportunity to respond to what is overall a very positive review of our project. We are heartened to note that the material will be of use and interest to readers of Reviews in History, and that the reviewer herself found the site ‘one of the most comprehensive (if not the most comprehensive) archival sites on the web.’ Moreover, as noted this is a development of the original Wilfred Owen archive (aka ‘The Virtual Seminars to Teach Literature’ project, built in 1996–8). This new project is far more ambitious and a lot of effort went into redesigning the site to better aid user access so it is extremely pleasing to read that the reviewer found it ‘one of the best attempts to navigate the museum/archive/website divide that I have seen.’

It is surprising that the reviewer did not mention the considerable amount of work that has gone into developing supporting teaching and learning material (aimed at Key Stages to University level), including online tutorials, course packs, podcasts, tours of museums, instructional videos, and curated paths. Moreover as part of the project we also further developed the original Path Creation Scheme to allow users to create their own annotated trails through the collection. This material, has not only drawn a lot of enthusiastic responses from teachers, but has also attracted further funding from JISC (the project sponsors) to allow us develop more material, and investigate other ‘Web 2.0’ tools such as timelines, mind-maps, and so on. It is also worth considering the efforts we have made to integrate with such tools as Google Maps and that the metadata is to be harvested for use in WorldCat.

The main criticism, understandable perhaps when one bears in mind the subject area of this online journal, is that literature is seemingly elevated above the historical content, or as the reviewer puts it the history is ‘tarnished with the mythology of the war poets’. It is perhaps worth reminding readers that this project was run jointly by the Computing Services and English Faculty at the University of Oxford, and was funded by JISC to make available primary and secondary source material related to the British poets of the First World War (to build on the original collection of Owen’s material). This it does by adding material related to Graves, Brittain, Thomas, Rosenberg, and Leighton (with Jones, Blunden, Gurney, and Sassoon to come). However, as with the original Owen project, we always aimed to place the literature in its context – i.e. by including historical material (the photographs, audio, and video). This indeed was the guiding principle of the original web site in 1994 on Rosenberg. The focus then is, unashamedly, on the literature – it is a project that originated in a literature department. A glance at the online tutorials (‘Introduction to First World War Poetry’, ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’, ‘Manuscript Studies’, etc.) demonstrates this further.

However, since the launch of the Owen site (in 1998) it is clear that what we had produced was also of immense interest to other disciplines, notably history. This is why we expanded the collections drawn from the Imperial War Museum.

The Great War Archive (GWA), which attracts so much praise, and has attracted so much interest internationally, needs further explaining. This really was intended to be a small part of the overall project and was there to demonstrate the potential the web, combined with amateur digitisation, offered for mass collection of research material. Indeed, it was merely a paragraph in the original bid proposal. However, as we approached creating this it took a form of its own. Once we opened up for submissions, and began to run the open days, it began to snowball. This part of the project therefore demonstrated that such an approach could yield very impressive and cost effective results, and as mentioned we ‘collected’ 6,500 items, mostly unseen, including photographs, official papers, diaries, memoirs, and even some audio recordings. However, it should be noted that even this is still smaller than the complete Poetry archive. It is true that the GWA is presented as part of the main site, but this reflects the original aims of the project.

However, although we are adding more information on other poets, it is clear that we have merely scraped the surface with the GWA. What was becoming quite apparent on submission days and via contacts made by email and letters, was that there is a wealth of material held by the public that documents Britain’s experience of the War that is in serious danger of being lost. We are already pursuing funding opportunities to rerun and expand the GWA and make it a separate project in its own right. Until such time, we do not have the resources to collect any more material, and thus we turned to FlickR as a stop-gap measure. It is true that such tools will attract a pot pouri of images, but we have been pleasantly surprised at the number of quality submissions and at the level of discussion around these. The project itself has no resources to edit the submissions and we recognise that this can lead to some issues. However, again we feel we have demonstrated what can be achieved by using such tools, and with the GWA, what other projects can do to draw on the public’s willingness to contribute to research initiatives. Perhaps, indeed, the future direction digitisation projects will take?