World War I, Mosman 1914-1918 and metadata September 27, 2012

Doing our bit, Mosman 1914-1918

In August Cassie, Richard and I attended a Build-a-thon workshop at Mosman Library.  To commemorate the centenary of World War I, Mosman Library is creating a rich online collection of materials about the war experiences of Mosman residents. The Build-a-thon was led by Dr Tim Sherratt, a digital historian, web developer and cultural data hacker and he and the passionate team at the Library are doing some brilliant thinking to consider how wonderful personal papers, official archival records, photographs and other information about the impact of the war on Mosman and its residents can be really opened up and made accessible online.   

The Build-a-thon was a day long opportunity to contribute ideas about the possibilities, learn from each other’s experiences, see Tim’s ideas and his presentations on the latest digital tools and technologies and really engage with the fantastically detailed and poignant war records that have already been gathered about Mosman and its people. A great range of residents, family historians, World War I subject experts, librarians and many others all attended the event.

Cassie, Richard and I went along, together with other archival colleagues Chris and Barbara to consider the official records of war and how these can be opened up to new and different forms of access.

Throughout the day we had the opportunity to break up into groups depending on our interests and to really engage with the issues. Our group, which was joined by a host of really knowledgeable subject experts, decided to look at soldiers’ military service dossiers. These brilliant records are held by the National Archives of Australia (NAA).  NAA has digitised the records and made them all available online. There is generally one dossier for every solider who enlisted with the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). The dossiers can range from a couple of pages long to dozens and dozens of pages. The dossiers are the official record of a soldier’s war time experience.

It probably sounds a little dry but we were quite excited by our plan – as a bunch of contemporary recordkeepers, we wanted to test the idea of using a metadata representation of events as a pathway to open up the content of the dossiers.  We wanted to try and identify whether there were a standard series of events represented in the dossiers and  whether these could be leveraged as a way of accessing data and creating relationships between different sets of information. We defined events quite broadly, considering things like particular battles as events, and also considering standard military processes or episodes that occurred in the lives of soldiers as events, such as enlistment, training, movement, medical events, leave etc.

We were lucky that members of our group George and Tim had a really detailed knowledge of the service dossiers and that the Library project team and its volunteers had done extensive work in pulling together the names of many of the Mosman residents who had served in the war. Using the National Archives website we were therefore able to scroll through a number of the dossiers of Mosman servicemen and start to test our hypotheses.

At the end of the day our conclusion was that there is really great potential for illuminating a soldier’s experiences through the war by using events as an access point, and that the event model can, we think, provide a powerful way to connect and search for different war experiences. For example, it would take a good amount of volunteer effort, but for Mosman’s service people and using a defined list of military events, you could scroll through their dossiers and create a list of their enlistment times and locations, a list of where and when they trained, a list of where and when they were injured in battle etc. Layering this data over a Google map you could then see exactly where the service people from Mosman travelled, how many were located on a specific battle field at a particular point in time and, poignantly, how many actually made it home.

Alternatively, you could focus in on a specific military process event and determine how many of Mosman’s volunteers were ultimately demobilised, or how many were taken ill with disease or how many were awarded a commendation. Alternatively again you could focus in on a battle and chart the subsequent events that occurred to each person in this event, be they injury, commendation or a slow movement onwards to the next grim confrontation. You could connect families and chart the different experiences of siblings through the war or create a summary representation of all of Mosman’s residents’ experiences through the war. So there is great potential here.

We really had a great day at the Build-a-thon and I would really encourage people to take a look at the fantastic work that the Library’s team is accomplishing and the real community engagement they are building.

While it was really wonderful to engage with archival records again, it was also really fascinating to consider the implications of these ideas on contemporary recordkeeping. Primarily I think they demonstrate the tremendous power of metadata and the multiple different business benefits you can achieve if you design a considered, strategic metadata framework that gives you the potential to reuse and connect your business information in many and multiple ways.

Functional or event based metadata is often an area of metadata description that is poorly defined and minimally utilised. But this type of metadata holds true business value. This is because records are fundamentally about business. They are the products of business transactions. If we can better define business events and business transactions in our metadata schema we will provide a better representation of what the business information that is produced is about. We will also create ways to connect this data back to other events, other transactions, compare them to similar events, map them to events over time – there are so many potential benefits to provide connections, both historically and now in the contemporary business landscape.

It was also interesting to engage with the dossiers as records, and to look at a record that was created in a military office environment nearly 100 years ago and consider how this impacts on its ongoing meaning and accessibility. If you go online at the National Archives and read some of the dossiers you will find that the clerks creating the records then were generally no different to office staff today. Incredibly busy, immersed in their day to day operations and business environments and with a language and way of operating that is unique to their time and place. While much in the service records is understandable to a lay-person, particularly the formal correspondence between the military and a service person’s family, the ‘business’ areas of the dossiers are filled with acronyms, indecipherable signatures, codes and other information that, 5 or 10 years later, let alone 100 years later, people will struggle to understand. Thankfully, because of the significance of the war and the ongoing use of these records over the last 100 years, there are ample resources available that can explain what all these different acronyms and codes mean. But how much of today’s information will have similar translations available in the future? Within a fairly short window, will we be able to tell what a database field was actually about? Will we understand the acronyms in a file title? Will a fairly random email title still have any meaning?

In the contemporary business environment these issues are really important to consider, and not just for future archival reference but for ongoing business reference. If you are trying to search for your business data, is having a document labelled as ‘OMA v1 TTP’ going to be of any assistance to you? Looking to the past and learning the lessons it teaches us today is important in so many ways, including recordkeeping! Thinking about accessibility, thinking about the data you are creating and how you or a colleague are actually going to find it in two years time will pay dividends both now and for many years into the future.

So thank you Tim and the library crew for a very inspiring day and for working so passionately on this project which will bring tremendous value to the Mosman community and many, many others.

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