The Welsh Experience of World War One 1914-1918

A Participatory Design Workshop held at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth on 6th February 2013. Report by the Humanities Research Institute, University of Sheffield.

The aim of the project is to make available a coherent, consolidated digital collection revealing the often hidden history of World War I as it impacted all aspects of Welsh life, language and culture through the mass digitisation of primary sources relating to World War I from the Libraries, Special Collections and Archives of Wales. There will be 20,000 digitised pages of diaries, letters, postcards, photographs, personal archives, army records and oral history recordings.

The workshop was collaborated on by staff at the National Library of Wales and a team from the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Sheffield who are working on a project entitled Participating in Search Design: a study of George Thomason’s English Newsbooks. The goal of the workshop was to pilot a participatory design approach to the development of the library’s World War I digital resource by engaging with potential end users. The range of different media present in the archive means that compiling the digital resource has posed significant questions and challenges to the design of the interface.

There were 7 participants who were split into a group of 4 and one of 3:

Group 1

  • PhD student at University of Aberystwyth researching Kyffin Williams.
  • PhD student at University of Aberystwyth researching the Welsh wills and probates collection at the National Library of Wales.
  • Manuscript librarian.

Group 2

  • PhD student at University of Aberystwyth researching Welsh folk song.
  • PhD student at the University of Aberystwyth researching the digitisation of the Hengwrt Chaucer manuscript
  • Librarian at the University of Lampeter.
  • Writer of a popular study of WWI in Welsh.

Session 1: Pathways and Themes

In this first session each group discussed how they would understand, narrate and conceptualise World War I. This involved discussing how the resource might be approached from different points of interest relating to the Welsh experience of World War I. It also involved considering how the components of the archive might fit together. The initial results from the discussion about ways into the material and potential lines of enquiry included the following:

1. Location

The topic of home town came up repeatedly, particularly from the perspective of those not entirely familiar with what might be held in a World War I archive. They thought an interesting way of accessing it would be to research where they live, perhaps because it would provide points of context for them to hone in on and they could probably discover things about what it was like to live there during the Great War and uncover how things have changed since.

2. Communication

Another significant topic that emerged from the groups’ discussions was about how the war experience was communicated by different individuals and groups. This question led to a consideration of how the communication of the war experience could change how stories might be found from sources in the archive. Such sources could be letters from soldiers to loved ones, diaries documenting experiences of wartime and newspapers reporting on international events with a local slant, among others.

3. Themes

The groups came up with various themes that they might be interested in researching further or using as ways into the resource to build up a picture of a certain aspect of wartime life, or at least to see what was to be found in the archive Possible themes were entertainment, food supply, conscientious objection, and developments in technology and medicine.

4. Perspectives and Frameworks

The idea of perspectives came out very strongly. The archive contains a whole range of perspectives from individual to societal, represented by the personal stories contained in letters and diaries to the official records of administrative bodies from the home front and front line, with newspaper reporting falling somewhere in between. They felt it would be important to be able to visualise these frameworks somehow and layer them by investigating the details of the artefacts. Could they perhaps be clustered in some way to facilitate this?

Session 2: The Resource So Far

During this short session a member of the Systems team at the Library explained where they are with the resource and some of the problems they have encountered thus far, posing some questions for the participants to think about in their designs, such as how to deal with the array of content types, faceting, filtering and categorising.

Session 3: Interrogation

Participants were asked to come up with a topic or theme that they might want to search for in the resource. How might they want to conduct such a search and what would they expect to find? How might they make the relevant links and uncover hidden stories?

Group 1

The group did not have a fixed idea of a topic or theme, they did, however, come up with some interesting ways of interrogating the resource. At this stage of development, questions are as important as solutions. The types of issues they discussed included the complications of searching using various parameters, automatic indexing, and how to present the archive as a whole. The important question of audience was also raised.

Figure 1.


Figure 2.


Group 2

This group came up with the topic of ‘tribunals’ and had different observations to Group 1. They were more concerned with specific features and how these would be presented. They discussed incorporating a shopping basket to allow you to save searches and favourites and perhaps the ability to copy/paste and download results. They talked about the language of browsing and the potential for word clouds, adding an element of serendipity to searching which they felt could be valuable. The quality of metadata was very important to them and links to related data or collections held elsewhere retrievable through the resource. They were not very concerned about the amount of clicks needed to refine a research question; it would not put them off using the resource.

Figure 3.


Session 4: Engaging with Source Materials

Participants were able to explore a selection of original World War I sources including diaries, photo books, autograph books, newspapers and archive boxes kindly provided by the Library. They were asked to come up with a specific topic or general theme based on what they had looked at that they might be able to work with in the design sessions. The importance of bringing in the raw data became evident to those observing, as it made for richer discussion and interaction in the process and seemed to enable the participants to reconnect with the source materials and be inspired by the questions they had about them before moving on to discuss how they might want to explore the same resources in an online setting.

Session 5: Design

Participants were asked to use the topic or theme they had distilled from handling the source materials in the discussion of how to design 2 aspects of the resource interface. The first was to explore the relationship between search and browse and how those might function from a home screen onwards and the second was visualisation. They were given a series of word prompt cards to elicit issues to discuss around the 2 aspects. These words included: contextualising, navigating, layering, filtering and categorising.

1. Search vs. Browse: Group 1:

The participants did not have a fixed idea of a topic or theme and found this task quite challenging. Although it perhaps is not fully reflected in the design they committed to paper, they discussed in depth how a ‘browse’ function might be structured in terms of themes etc. and thought about the option of a separate navigation pane and ‘about the project’ section all as part of a home page setup. They also considered how results might be filtered and search results organised (i.e. chronologically or by relevance) and made clear that the user should be given the option to configure this to suit their own needs.

Figure 4.


2. Search vs. Browse: Group 2

This group took the theme of animal welfare and concentrated on how the browse function might work in terms of creating access points for the non-expert user. They came up with a split into battlefront and homefront followed by differing lists of themes for each and the ability to refine by resource material or ‘type’. They also discussed possible filtering parameters and looked at how search results might appear i.e. with thumbnails and a description, as well as what functionality would be provided when viewing a search result which they carried through and developed for the second aspect of ‘visualisation’.

Figure 5.


3. Visualisation: Group 1

The group discussed how to present search result lists in terms of thumbnails, contextual information and the option to further refine their search through filters. They produced a version of how the screen might be usefully split and how each section could work, accompanied by a list of possible functionality. They also had a “wacky” idea for visualising search results by way of a slideshow.

Figure 6.


4. Visualisation: Group 2

This group came up with another possible way of dealing with search results. By clicking or hovering over a result in the list you might then see an example of the item with accompanying contextual information and metadata. They also incorporated a filter bar into this screen but added the ability to dismiss results or select results for comparison which they have shown managed in a split screen format. They also talked about tag clouds and the ability to place keyword tags within objects and request tags not already in existence.

Figure 7.


Session 6: Summary of Key Points

The aim of this whole group discussion was to draw together the key themes raised during the day and the issues (-) and points to address (â–ª) relating to these. The group came up with 3 items.

1. How are items Connected? Internarratives.

  • Quality of metadata.
  • Not being able to search handwritten materials.
  • Tagging, quality of tagging.
  • Privacy – issues of making links publically visible particularly for academics.
  • Features relevant and in proportion.
  • Linking items together and leaving traces for future users.
  • Contextualisation and transparency.

2. Who is the audience? Who are the users?

  • Resource possibly not suitable for academics.
  • Of interest to family historians / schools / casual users.
  • Differentiating between search and browse functions.
  • Catering to different levels of user, where to pitch and how.
  • Keeping level of simplicity in mind, user friendly but not style over substance, avoid gimmicks.
  • Visualisation guided by user, configurable.

3. How  is the archive/collection structured and put together? User communities.

  • Allowing users to create own narratives – not privileging certain people or places.
  • Whose knowledge? How might it be addressed?
  • Categorisation and ways of navigating.
  • Not crowd sourcing but creating a personal space within the resource.
  • Making content discoverable e.g. for keyword searching.
  • Representation of knowledge guided by user.

The pilot Design Group provided some useful insights for both project teams. For the Humanities Research Institute some important lessons were learnt to take forward to future Design Groups working with the Thomason newsbook material. Some of the main observations were:

  • It is essential to scope and explain clearly the aims of a session to manage expectations and emphasise that complete innovation is not a necessary outcome of the process so that participants are not intimidated by the task.
  • It is easier first to critique existing resources before attempting to put pen to paper without any preparatory work. A blank sheet of paper can represent endless creative possibilities but is more likely to cause panic.
  • Design group sessions should be short and focused, concentrating on perhaps only one aspect of the interface at a time, as the process is quite intense.
  • The group dynamic is important. A range of participant expertise in terms of the source material and familiarity with digital resources allows for a greater variety of ideas to be brought to the table. They will both ground each other and be able to think outside the box.

Finally, many thanks to all those who participated and to the National Library of Wales for hosting the event.