As the University of Glasgow’s Great War Project comes to an end, Project Assistant Katie McDonald reflects how such projects can engage with communities and distribute the information held in archives through different means.
When I joined the University of Glasgow’s Archives and Special Collections team in 2016 as a Graduate Trainee, the ‘Great War Project’ was already well underway. Since 2013, the University has produced various events to commemorate the First World War, including lecture series, conferences, exhibitions, and remembrance services. While the University’s archive collections have contributed to and informed research in these areas, the Archives’ main contribution has centred around an online Roll of Honour – a searchable database of the 4556 members of the University’s community who were involved in the First World War.
As a trainee, I was involved in researching and writing biographies for those individuals who died during the conflict. At the centre of these biographies are the records held within the University’s Chapel Collection (ref: CH) – which includes a sub-series of photographs, press clippings, letters and written information created during and in the immediate aftermath of the war. These records have been used to create online biographies, which have been populated by archive staff, University students, relatives of the fallen, a host of fantastic volunteers, and members of the public. This has created an active, virtual space for remembrance and providing closure, while remaining an accurate resource for research due to the relationship between the online information and the original documents.
While completing my Masters in 2017, I was employed by the University as a Project Assistant on the Great War Project. This gave me the opportunity to work directly with the families and communities of the fallen, allowing me to share with them the information contained within our collections, and – in return – hear their family stories and see the personal ephemera of those being remembered. This often provided the family with a new perspective on their relative’s time at the University, and allowed me a far more personal insight into the individual I was researching.
This project has also allowed for the stories of those not included in the original Roll of Honour to be told. In the aftermath of the war, the activity of some members of the University community was suppressed – such as Franz Friedrich Schlor, who served in the German army, and John Maclean whose objection to the war saw him jailed three times under the Defence of the Realm Act. These stories are important both in understanding the full extent to which the University was impacted by the First World War, and to ensure that – where the voices of marginalised groups are silent within the archive – they can be heard through considered public programming.
The centenary of the First World War created plentiful opportunities to increase public awareness of heritage collections. The public mood provided a captive audience for engaging new users with archives, libraries, and museums, and new technologies such as Twitter and Instagram allowed for innovative and low-cost strategies for disseminating archive material to new audiences. As many projects related to the First World War come to an end, it is vital that these digital resources are captured and preserved, so that our response to the centenary – as institutions, as nations, and globally – will be visible to future researchers.
Katie McDonald, Project Assistant, University of Glasgow Archives & Special Collections