“Eventually one gets numb …”
Jože Cvelbar (1895–1916) in a letter to his professor, 1915*
I love ‘contemporary archaeology’ and whenever I hike in the Julian Alps above the Soča river I look for the remnants of the Great War. In 1915–17 this vast remote territory was one of the front lines in Europe. The abundance of the scattered material has filled up many private and public collections of the war memorabilia and yet one can still find pieces of weapons, boot soils, barbed wire or nails. I guess I am fascinated with these findings because they are so out-of-place. The traces of the modern war industry in the midst of the still and everlasting nature. Too romantic? Well, there are other ways of encountering such proofs of man’s stupidity.
Pipistrel is one of the most vital Slovene companies producing ultralight aeroplanes and winning several several NASA competitions. In order to keep the world leadership it only needs to keep running faster than anyone else and stay ahead of its time. But guess what slowed it down these days – the remnants of the World War I! The company is currently building a new manufacturing plant near the Gorizia airport in Italy, on the ground where almost 100 years ago men threw an incredible amount of explosives at each other. Some 40 unexploded shells have been dug out during the de-mining process so far, at Pipistrel’s cost.
But the time has come to move from anonymous hardware to personal software. The cultural heritage portal Europeana has been preparing for the WWI’s centenary with an appeal: Citizens of Europe, bring us your memories! Indeed, Marko Štepec, the curator at the National Museum of Contemporary History once told me that it has been only recently that people could consider handing over their grand- or even grand grandfathers’ documents and personal objects from the Great War. It is somehow frustrating that the half-time of personal attachment is so long and that these painful or dear memories started pouring in on the researchers’ tables with such a delay. Frustrating, because we have several successive wars piling up and waiting to be reconciled, also through science…
Europeana hit the road just in time! It has evolved its practice for digitising European cultural heritage from a top-down institutional model into an active agent that addresses people not institutions. Under the slogan “Your family history of World War One” it has launched (with the help of local co-organisers) an epic series of crowd-sourcing events where we are invited to bring our memorabilia, not to hand them over but simply to get them scanned and filed in our common European digital library. The principle is not new, the project is actually based on the initiative of the University of Oxford, and the numerous collaborators of Kamra, Slovene regional libraries portal, have been for years meticulously addressing the locals, collecting bits and pieces, and publishing them online in the form of documented stories. The librarians and museum curators involved in Kamra decided to join the Europeana’s endeavours and launched a side project focused on the WWI stories. That’s where I found the letter from Jože Cvelbar, a young poet who never returned from the war.
The organisation of the public Europeana 1914–1918 events in Slovenia, however, is in the hands of the National and University Library, its main supplier of the digitised content from Slovenia (with a modest contribution from Culture.si). The first event, Farewell to Arms. Welcome the Memories., took place in March in France Bevk Goriška Library in Nova Gorica. 40 people brought around 300 objects and told some 90 stories. The experts from Oxford were thrilled. The next two chances to meet the experts and get our material scanned are on 19 April at the Military Museum of the Slovene Armed Forces in Maribor and on 23 May at the Celje Central Library. With our help the World War I is thus paradoxically becoming somehow more humane but not less absurd, I’m afraid.
The digitisation of European cultural heritage remains in focus of the funders and institutions alike. Accessibility and reuse of the digitised objects are strongly encouraged also by the highest authorities. The European Commission, for instance, indicates targets for the minimum content contribution to Europeana that need to be met by each member state. A few months ago the European Council’s Working Group calculated that “data is the new gold” and that it can ensure the “possible direct and indirect gains of 140 billion Euros across the EU27″*. It seems that with scanning my family’s memories of the WWI and making them available through Europeana, our common contemporary treasury, I might even contribute to the growth of GDP and thus assist in preventing the next armed conflict?!
* Commission Open Data Package & Proposal for the revision of the PSI Directive, January 2012