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First-Hand Accounts of War

War letters (1935-1950) from NIOD digitised
Since the liberation in 1945, NIOD has collected many, often personal, documents from the Second World War. A valuable and often underappreciated part of the NIOD collection consists of letters from the period just before, during and after the German occupation of the Netherlands (circa 1935-1950). The project ‘Oorlog uit Eerste Hand (‘First-Hand Accounts of War’) is concerned with the digitisation of this collection of war letters. The project is funded by the Mondrian Fund within the framework of the ‘75 Years of Freedom’ grant scheme and by the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust, and Genocide Studies.

War letters

The war letters collection of the NIOD contains letters from persecuted Jews, political prisoners, resistance fighters, displaced persons, refugees, volunteers at the Eastern Front, and men involved in the Arbeitseinsatz (forced labour programme). Although their circumstances and experiences were very different, they all wrote letters to their loved ones, their parents, sometimes to friends, acquaintances, or relatives elsewhere who were on the move. And vice versa, the people back home wrote letters to their loved ones far away. The letters tell poignant stories of the contact between people in time of war and occupation. They portray life in an uncertain period of violence, occupation, war, oppression, persecution, resistance, collaboration, and scarcity – life in which freedom and democracy were often mere abstractions.

Project

The ‘First-Hand Accounts of War’ project aims to digitise and conserve the NIOD war letters collection and make them accessible – not only in the NIOD reading room, but also, legal rules and regulations permitting, online on the websites of NIOD and Netwerk Oorlogsbronnen (‘War Resources Network’). Digitising the collection starts by scanning, transcribing, and annotating the letters. However, ‘First-Hand Accounts of War’ wants to take things a step further by creating a structured dataset that can be used in research, for example for the application of quantitative text analysis. This ensures that the collection is preserved for posterity and makes it available in a way that opens up new research opportunities.

Historical Value 

A digitally accessible collection of letters offers new opportunities for exploring emotions, experiences, expectations, uncertainty, stress, and resilience. Moreover, it helps in, for example, understanding the ways in which the occupation apparatus functioned. The potential of digitised historical war letters as a dataset on a more technical or methodological level adds to this value. Digital analysis techniques have resulted in new fields of study such as Digital Humanities and Digital History. The integration of techniques for computational data and text analysis (‘text mining’), for example, allows for the systematic and longitudinal study of large quantities of historical texts. The creation and subsequent availability of a digital, machine-readable, structured dataset of historical ego documents can provide an important impetus for methodological and substantive innovation in the field of history – and thus for research into the Second World War and the German occupation of the Netherlands.

Transkribus

Thanks to the developments in artificial intelligence, the automatic transcription of digitised handwritten historical records is now within reach. The European READ project led to the development of Transkribus. After a period of being trained by people, computers can use Transkribus to transcribe, meta-date, and structure handwritten, digitised archival material. We refer to this process as Handwritten Text Recognition (HTR). HTR allows the conversion of handwritten texts into machine-readable texts. This is a basic requirement for full-text searches, for example, but it also enables text mining. To do so, a computer model must first be trained using a small part of the letters collection, which has been transcribed manually. These transcripts are made by a group of volunteers. Next, an HTR model is developed for handwritten Dutch texts from the first half of the twentieth century. This computer model will eventually be made available for future use by scholars and heritage institutions. 

‘First-Hand Accounts of War’ was launched on 1 July 2020. The digitisation is expected to be completed by the summer of 2023. The project team consists of Annelies van Nispen (information analyst), Carlijn Keijzer (policy advisor Collections and Services), Milan van Lange (researcher) and Sergio Leatomu (conservation).

 

Financed by: Mondriaan Fonds, VWS

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