Return to Sender on Tour (encore)

by Garfield Benjamin

March and April have been busy here at Return to Sender with two opportunities to showcase the prototype in its early form.

Part 2: the first demo!

In April, Elizabeth came to Southampton to present Return to Sender as part of the Culture Media Place seminar series at Solent University. Speaking to a mix of researchers across heritage, culture and creative industries, Elizabeth gave an outline of the project, its rationale and context (for more on this, see our previous blog post). She also talked about some of the digital archive and search term issues we had faced, and how these had led to the specific search query to enable the map. This was followed by a first demo of our interactive map, letting people play with the interface and sparking interesting discussions on ways the tool could be used for research (as well as some useful suggestions on potential expansion of the map). Using this first version of the map, we were able to show some initial features of the Europeana 1914-1918 postcards. Fig.1 below shows the full map of postcards, some 3000+ entries across Europe and the world.

Fig. 1: first version of the full Return to Sender map

These postcards are drawn from a range of archives and digital aggregators forming Europeana’s partner institutions. But a large portion of the entries (roughly half in fact) were submitted digitally directly by users to the Europeana 1914-1918 collection. These entries are shown in Fig.2. The sheer number of this type of entry somewhat dominates the map, and tracing so many lines to one location (Europeana HQ in the Netherlands) obscures a lot of the transnational movement data we are interested in. For the final version of the map, you will be able to hide direct-to-Europeana entries to focus on movements to local and national archives.

Fig. 2: the “Europeana 1914-1918” collection

One of the great achievements of Europeana is to bring together artefacts from across Europe, making a huge number of resources available to anyone regardless of physical location. One of the things our map contributes is the way it highlights how different countries have different levels and types of engagement. For example, in Fig.3 we see searches of our map based on country : from left to right – France, Italy and Hungary. France shows a large number of users engaging directly with Europeana (more on this in another post or academic paper), while Hungary’s artefacts are channelled through national archives. Italy is an interesting case, in that there are comparatively few entries from Italy itself, but it is host to a number of digital aggregators that bring together artefacts from local archives in other countries.

Fig. 3: France, Italy, Hungary

Two of these aggregators based in Italy – AthenaPlus and Photoconsortium – are shown below in Fig.4. These maps show the elaborate paths that postcards are still taking as they enter digitally-mediated archives. The journeys have two stages, a physical move from the postcard’s original location to a specific physical archive (usually near to where the postcard was sent, or where the collector lived), and a digital move from that archive to the aggregator (and of course they then move digitally to the Europeana database and on to you the user, wherever you are located). The stages are plotted as part of the full path of each entry on the map (to better show the different types of movement, they will be colour-coded and animated in the final version).

Fig. 4: digital aggregators AthenaPlus and PhotoConsortium

Fig.5 shows more starkly the split in physical and digital archives. In the Lithuanian town of Kaunas, we can see postcards originating in close proximity, perhaps even literally down the street from one another. And yet their paths to our digital map are quite different. Some follow a more traditional and expected route to the local district archive, which sends them on to a digital aggregator and further on to Europeana, from which our map can find them. But others seem to fly off to one side, submitted by users directly to Europeana and showing that these postcards are still very much alive, still travelling around the world and giving us new insights into the movement of cultural objects through time.

Fig. 5: Kaunas, Lithuania

But sometimes shifting objects into digital archives, governed by metadata, introduces difficulties in getting to the actual information we are looking for. In Fig.6 we see the location of the ‘Western Front’ on the Europeana archive. A huge number of entries are apparently located here – assigned to a small patch of forest somewhere near Limoges. This is obviously not where many of these postcards originated, and other views of the map show a dense line of artefacts along the French/Belgium border where much of the fighting actually took place. Digital archives are a fantastic resource, but we must always be aware of biases and errors introduced by the construction of the data and how it is interpreted.

Fig. 6: “the Western Front”

To close this teaser, Fig.7 shows a rough timeline of postcard entries from 1914 to 1918. We are currently putting the final touches to the map, so check back soon and follow us on Twitter for more sneak peeks as we count down to release!

Fig. 7: 1914-1918 timeline

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