Letters of 1916-1923

About Ireland’s first “participatory digital humanities” project, Letters of 1916-1923 explores early 20th century Ireland through letters. Susan Schreibman of Maynooth University created the project to collect letters from the eight months before and after the 1916 Easter Rising. A grant from the Irish Research Council allowed Schreibman’s team to expand the project’s collection period to the end of the Irish Civil War. The project includes letters from private collections and institutions around the world, with the team acting as curator for this digital exhibit. There are over 5,000 letters covering subjects including politics, WWI, medicine, culture, and the arts. Users can contribute to the project in several ways. Team members will digitize letters on-site after being contacted by letter owners or owners can upload images of the letters on the website. Owners and the general public can register to become a transcriber.

Audience Letters is open to the public so the site is easy to navigate. An introduction to Letters is on the homepage, with visible tabs available for users to explore the collection, contribute letters and transcribe them. ‘Explore the collection’ allows users to filter results by keyword, sources, authors, gender, language, and date written. Clicking on a letter shows an image of the letter, letter information, a transcription (if available) and a brief bio of the sender.

Users can also interact with letters through worksheets and lessons plans found under ‘Resources.’ Primarily used for teaching secondary school and adult students, three lesson plans created by the team are available for download covering Ireland during WWI and the Easter Rising. The team collaborated with the Irish Military Archives to create the ‘1916 in Transition’ packet, which focuses on the aftermath and effects of the Easter Rising. There is also a digital treasure hunt available for users of all ages.  

Technologies The team listed all software used for Letters and provides a brief description of why they used each one on their ‘Technical’ page. WordPress, Omeka, Scripto, MySQL, and Apache are just some of the software packages used on Letters. This information is extremely helpful for anyone thinking about creating a similar project. I have some experience with WordPress and Omeka, but little MySQL and Apache (server related packages used). I know that for a project to be as successful and user friendly as Letters, I would need team members who have the technical experience I lack. I also appreciate the team offering technical guidance/support to their users regarding these software packages. 

Future projects can learn much from Letters 1916-1923. I found especially useful the way Letters gathered support for the project from both public and institutional archives. Institutional archives are historically seen as exclusive or elitist in terms of access, so it was great to see institutions eager to contribute to the project. One could argue that it is because they are digital copies of the letters and in the public domain, but for smaller archives that do not have the resources available to create a digital exhibit, Letters is a useful way to introduce their materials to a worldwide audience. I had an increase in research requests after contributing to Letters, which turned into support for my archive. I also spoke with a few private owners and they commented how kind the team were when digitizing letters and the respect they showed to the memory of the letter sender/receiver and the letter itself.

I think it is also important to continually evaluate your project once it has launched and to listen to feedback from your audience. The team was eager to visit my archive because we provided Irish American sources, something that was lacking in their initial launch and was noticed by users. They were also looking for letters written by women since a majority of their initial contributions were to and from men. Just because a project launches does not mean that the work is done.