Europeana 1914-1918: the untold stories and offical histories

Phil Bradley reviews Europeana's new resource released to coincide with the centenary of the outbreak of WW1.

Europeana 1914-1918

This is a fascinating resource, covering films and historical material about the First World War. It mixes resources from a variety of sources such as librarians and archives with memories from people throughout Europe. It contains 400,000 rare documents, digitised by 10 state libraries, 660 hours of unique film, 90,000 personal papers and memorabilia over 7,000 people.

The content is certainly very rich, and teachers, historians and journalists in particular will find the maps, diaries, letters, drawings and so on to be a rich vein from which to tap. It's also a focal point for people to be about to get their own personal collections photographed and put online at any of a number of family history roadshows taking place around Europe. In addition there is a new educational website provided by the British Library at which allows researchers to examine key themes, explore teachers notes and so on.

There is a single, simple search box available, and I ran a search on my home town - I knew that a Zeppelin had been shot down within five minutes of where I live. Sure enough, there were two references – one was a photograph, and the other was a short film. Since there were only two results I really couldn't refine, but I was given the option to limit to stories from the public or library/museums collections. More filter options are available under those options however. For example, by choosing to limit to the latter option I could further narrow down my results by year, type, provider, data provider, country and rights. Limiting by public stories gave me the opportunity to limit by language, item type, keywords, theatre of war, and so on.

There is a browse option, covering types of data (letters, diaries, photographs and so on), subjects, and fronts. I found this a disappointingly limited collection, and difficult to narrow down. I could limit the 1,579 results that I got for 'women' by the aforementioned filters, but that was all I was able to do. It wasn't possible to keyword search any further.

This was the beginning of my dissatisfaction with the resource. There wasn't a search help option that I could find, so I was left to my own devices to see what worked and what didn't. A search for 'dog' gave me 360 results, a search for dog tags returned 526 results (so we an OR search by default, rather than the more usual AND), but phrase searching on "dog tags" brought me down to 90 results, but these also included the word 'tag' so it wasn't a particularly explicit search. If I then tried to narrow to just see photographs, a search for "dogtags" photographs returned 78,280 results which didn't surprise me but "dog tags" AND photographs gave me just 7 results. I could further narrow using NOT. So, by a process of elimination, Boolean operators are supported - why could they not have said so at the outset, saving me some time? I am also puzzled at the OR default, which is going to confuse a lot of searchers.

I'm also puzzled at other limitations - while I can search for propaganda posters there wasn't a way to limit to colour or black and white. A search for "john smith" returned 0 results. Really? Not a single John Smith in the entire database sounds very odd to me. However, when I looked at the American sources I got 844 results, Australian sources gave me 22, and New Zealand 27 results. This is not helpful to users at all.

Europeana 1914-1918 is available here.

Phil Bradley is an information specialist and well known Internet consultant. He runs courses on various aspects of the Internet, is a webpage writer and designer, is the author of several books about the Internet and speaks on various Internet related subjects at conferences.

Image courtesy of Moyan Brenn