The Imperial War Museum announced a new project yesterday entitled Lives of the First World War which will encourage the public to register with a new website and in time upload details about soldiers who fought in the First World War; importantly it is aimed at all who served, and not just those who died. The new project is in collaboration with genealogy company Brightsolid who, for example, digitised the 1911 Census for The National Archives. The premise behind the project is to create a massive online and interactive database of the generation who fought in the Great War and allow users to upload photographs and other content to share with a wider audience.
The project is very similar to the BBC’s Remembrance Wall, a project I was historical consultant for in 2008. However, while this is still online it was not really designed to be a lasting online database and this new Lives project promises that it will be permanent resource, and that is to be greatly welcomed.
It does, however, beg a few questions. One of the great weaknesses of the Remembrance Wall is that there was not the personnel available to check the details being uploaded. Just glancing at a few entries it is easy to find factual inaccuracies, which of course does question the validity of the whole resource. Lives has partners including Chris Baker’s website and the Great War Forum. If the response is anything like what we had in 2008, and personally I think that it will be much, much greater, then they will certainly have their work cut out in verifying all the material being uploaded.
The main aspect that concerns me, however, is the involvement of a commercial partner like Brightsolid. They did superb work with the 1911 Census but they are out to make money and their participation also begs the question of whether in time to maintain the important resource this is likely to become then it may be necessary to charge. People could find that material they have uploaded in good faith will at some point only be accessible if they pay to see it and a commercial organisation is making money from resources they have donated. I can see this leading to a few heated debates and may put people off from committing to the project, which would be a shame. Really a major venture like this should have been between two public institutions like the IWM and the BBC. Having said that the involvement of a commercial company could ensure its longevity but the implications of its involvement should be made clear from the very start.
The Lives Of The First World War project is a promising venture and I would encourage readers to visit the site and register for updates.