War Diaries and The National Archives in Transition by Debra Ramsay

From World War I, and in every conflict since, units in the British Army have kept a daily record of events in theatre during wartime and through peacetime operations.  These unit war diaries, or Operational Records as they are now known, run through the trenches of the Somme, the Normandy landings in 1944, wars in Korea and the Falklands, bases in Basra and Forward Operating Posts in Helmand.  From hand-written entries to typed reports, e-mails and helmet cams, they describe everything from the first gas attacks, the first use of flamethrowers and tanks, to the difficulties of dealing with Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).  They connect different ways of representing war, and illustrate different ways of waging it.  War diaries contribute to the history of the British Army’s involvement in conflict, and its organisational memory of warfare.

For the British Army, as for other organisations, organisational memory is crucial to establishing continuity and enabling effective operations.  The practice of organisational memory incorporates a broad spectrum of activities, such as recording, archiving and ordering, and a range of technologies through which information flows.  The trajectory of the operational reports from battlefields around the world to publicly accessible records not only connects past to future, but also interlinks organisations – the British Army and The National Archives (TNA) – with the public domain.  No part of this trajectory has been left untouched by digital transformations of the processes through which the reports are produced, circulated, stored, curated and eventually, in the case of those records that are not closed for security or other purposes, made publicly accessible.  In the previous blog featured on this website, Professor Andrew Hoskins interrogates the impact of the digital on the collection and collation of records from the wars of the previous two decade by Army Historical Branch.  My work complements this research through examining how digital transformations are shaping the later part of this trajectory – i.e. the ways in which the  unit war diaries already held by TNA and in the public domain are used and understood.   What, for example, do they reveal about the role that TNA performs in repurposing and reinventing the material it holds for governmental organisations and the public?

The profound changes heralded by the introduction of digital records to archives have been the focus of much discussion across both academia and the profession itself.[1]  Issues associated with technological redundancy, and the challenges presented by the scope and scale of digital records to their selection, acquisition and preservation feature prominently in the debates.  As one TNA staff member puts it, ‘the substance one deals with is shifting’, and archives are undergoing associated shifts in practices.  However, digital technologies are not only transforming the nature of the ‘substance’ of the records that archives deal with, but also the ways in which older paper records are contextualized and represented.  The unit war diaries for World War I held by TNA at Kew provide a perfect example of the pressures and opportunities exerted by digital transformation on archival practices.  Originally intended to function as an accurate record of events for official histories and to collect information to enable the army to wage war effectively, the World War I unit war diaries have uses that far extend these original purposes for TNA.

In a project that staff identify as ‘ground-breaking’, four years ahead of the centenary of World War I TNA undertook its largest ‘in-house’ digitization project – the digitization of WO 95, a series that covers the War Office Records from World War I and that consists of around 5,500 boxes, with a rough estimate of 3 to 4 million pages.[2]  Due to the complexities of WO 95 (every diary is different, and every box contains documents of all kinds, from reports of inter-unit football matches to casualty lists, all of which complicate attempts to both arrange and to digitally capture the material), the project was scaled down to concentrate at first on the diaries from the Western Front, as these are among the most heavily used of the series.  In doing so, TNA acknowledged curatorial concerns for preservation, but also responded to a commercial need to enhance the institution’s profile through responding to the widespread publicity generated by the centenary of the war in 2014.  The WO 95 digitization project garnered attention around the world, including in the US and, most satisfyingly to some of the staff involved, in Germany, resulting in TNA gaining world-wide visibility in what one staff member describes as ‘one of the biggest PR successes we’ve ever had.’  In the digitization of the World War I diaries, the organisational memory of the Army is thus reconfigured and repurposed in ways its originators could never have imagined.  What’s more, the project illustrates that no archival record, whether paper or in digital form, should be considered static in the digital environment, and that archives such as TNA are in the process of adopting new strategies to reinterpret and reshape their holdings.

In digital form, the unit war diaries open up new opportunities for utilisation by TNA and by users.  Even the small percentage of the diaries that have been digitized contain more information than one researcher, or even a team, could comfortably navigate.  Following on from projects that crowd-source ‘citizen scientists’ and their computers to analyse, tag and map diverse and complex data sets (such as the ‘Old Weather Project’, in which TNA was involved), TNA opened the digitized World War I unit war diaries to ‘citizen historians’ in ‘Operation War Diary’.  ‘Citizen historians’ are non-professionals participating in activities previously seen as the purview of professionals.  The ways in which digital technologies are enabling citizen historians to supplement and/or challenge the professional sphere as a whole will shape my next project, but in Operation War Diary, volunteers ‘tag’ information, such as individual names, place names, dates and times, based on what users in general, and family historians (who make up a significant portion of TNA’s users and for whom names are of specific importance) in particular, might search for.

However, the transition to digital records involves a series of key challenges for TNA, its visitors and users of its website.  The proposal to digitize the diaries required careful negotiation within the organisation, and management of internal and external user expectations of how useful, or not, the project might prove to be.    To recoup the costs of digitization, there is a small fee for downloading the records off-site (they are free to download at TNA), which raised issues with how to present the records in Operation War Diary.  If the entire diary was made available via Operation War Diary, there would be no way to prevent users from accessing the material at no charge, and therefore no way of recouping the considerable costs of digitization.  Operation War Diary therefore does not contain whole diaries, but random pages.  As one TNA staff member explains, the hope was not only to avoid the loss of income for the digitization project, but also to encourage users to investigate further and consult the records themselves via TNA.  However, randomizing pages has caused issues with tagging, as sometimes information that could help interpret content requires viewing the pages of a diary in sequence, which is not possible in Operation War Diary.  Individual names, for example, may be mentioned on the first page and subsequently abbreviated, making them difficult to identify in the absence of the full reference.

Furthermore, while the data captured in Operation War Diary has the potential to be a ‘phenomenal research tool’ as one TNA staff member describes it, TNA are now faced with the difficulty of how to integrate this data into their catalogue, and more significantly, with the challenge of managing the data on a long-term basis and maintaining the interest of existing citizen historians, as well as attracting new volunteers after the hype of the centenary had died down.

While the digitization of the unit war diaries continues and activities related to World War I are planned until 2019, there is some concern within TNA that there is too much focus on war, and that other anniversaries, such as the upcoming Shakespeare centenary, should also receive funds and attention.  In addition, there is concern that if and when born-digital records, such as the operational reports from Iraq and Afghanistan, become available at TNA over the next decade, interest in digitization projects might wane, and the kind of research demanded by paper records (which can involve painstaking hours of manually sifting through boxes and files) might become increasingly arcane.  In other words, as Hoskins argues in his previous blog, a key consequence of the inexorable advance of born-digital records and digitization programmes is the devaluation of paper records that remain as paper.  While there is a great deal of focus in TNA, as in the remainder of the sector, on responding to the challenges presented by the increased scale of born-digital records, and on issues of technological redundancy, there is less focus on how born-digital records might transform user interaction with the records, and therefore with TNA as an institution.  As more and more born-digital records make their way into TNA over the next decade, it remains to be seen whether attention will shift to how this information is contextualized and represented for the user.

TNA’s use of the World War I unit war diaries reveals some of the manoeuvres involved in deciding what aspects of the historical record, and of organisational memory, are selected and reconfigured by archives.  They reveal an institution in transition, balancing the needs of users with their own responsibilities of curating and care while engaging with commercial imperatives and navigating the possibilities and the problems created by digital technologies and cultures.  Above all, they reveal TNA as an active site of social and cultural power, where the memory and history of war are not simply stored, but are, in the words of Joan Schwartz and Terry Cook (2002), ‘reshaped, reinterpreted and reinvented’, sometimes in completely unexpected ways.


[1] See, for example, Terry Cook, ‘Electronic Records, Paper Minds: The Revolution in Information Management and Archives in the Post-Custodial and Post-Modernist Era,’ Archives and Social Studies: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Research, 1:0 (March 2007), 399-443 (First published in Archives and Manuscripts 22 (November 1994): 300-328) and also Margaret Hedstrom, ‘Archives, Memory, and Interfaces with the Past’, Archival Science, 2 (2002), 21-43, both of which provide a good overview of the central concerns and debates.

[2] While the project is ‘in-house’ in that it concerns TNA’s records and was done on the premises, external contractors were brought in to do the actual digitization.