Aug 31, 2011
“All quiet on the western front” indeed – Erich Maria Remarque wasn’t the only one, in his novel of the same name about World War I, to turn his focus to the west. For a long time, researchers, too, tended to concentrate on the endless trenches of the Western Front. But there are plans to change that by the time the hundredth anniversary of the start of the Great War arrives, in 2014: Professor Oliver Janz, a historian at the Friedrich Meinecke Institute, and Professor Nicolas Apostolopoulos, head of the Center for Digital Systems (CeDiS), will be working on an international online encyclopedia over the next three years.
Professors Janz and Apostolopoulos, what was the main factor prompting you to engage in this online project?
Janz: There is a pressing need to depict the First World War from a more comprehensive viewpoint than has previously been the case in encyclopedias and textbooks. Academia has traditionally focused on the Western Front. The idea of the industrial battles of attrition between Germany, France, and the U.K. dominates our image of the war. But it was a global war, with far-reaching consequences for other areas as well, including Eastern Europe and even other continents, such as Africa and Asia. We aim to raise public awareness of those facts to mark the hundredth anniversary of the start of the war. After 2014, there will be other international days of remembrance that are closely associated with World War I, from the Armenian genocide to the Battle of Verdun and from the Russian Revolution to the Treaty of Versailles.
How will that be depicted online?
Apostolopoulos: Our technical basis is comparable to a wiki, since about 600 academics from all over the world are supposed to be able to work together on the project simultaneously, all contributing in their specific subject areas. We will be different from other, “conventional” online encyclopedias in that our content will not be based on the structures used for a printed book. Instead, we are working on a networked basis right from the start. That means that we can build in specific, deliberate links to content published by libraries, museums, and archives. We also give the user a variety of ways to access the topic: chronologically, geographically, or via specific thematic aspects. The advantage of the online project is that we can add to it and include additional sources, such as films or audio recordings, anytime. The experience that has been amassed at Freie Universität in working with video archives, such as Forced Labor 1939–1945 or the Visual History Archive, will be very helpful to us in this area.
Janz: Freie Universität has been focusing on “e-humanities” for some time now. This is an ideal medium for our global cooperative project. But the user also benefits when searching for a particular topic, in that there may be contexts available for that topic that the user did not search for explicitly.
Overall, research institutions from 14 different countries are involved in the “1914–1918 Online” project. How did these partnerships come about?
Janz: First, we have partners at Freie Universität who work with us on an interdisciplinary basis, such as our colleagues in China Studies and those at the Institute for Latin American Studies. The contact between the three founding publishers – Professor Ute Daniel of TU Braunschweig, Professor Alan Kramer of Trinity College Dublin, and me – led to the international network of experts on the First World War at leading universities and research institutions that we are now coordinating. There are also specific bodies set up at the German Historical Institutes in Moscow, Paris, and Warsaw. In addition, we were able to bring in the Bavarian State Library, a strong partner that will work on archiving and on ensuring that the pages are usable for a long time to come.
How is the project being financed?
Janz: To start the preparations, we received seed money from the Initiative Fund of Freie Universität, which is funded by resources from the Excellence Initiative. We also raised about a million euros from the German Research Foundation (DFG), which we have further supplemented with about 500,000 euros in funding from external partners themselves.
Apostolopoulos: Now the challenge to us is to make sure that the main editorial desk is able to take the separate pieces contributed by individual academics and use them to create an overall image – a mosaic of the period.
Interviewer: Gisela Gross