Lives of the First World War – First Impressions

Over the past few days I have been trying out the beta of the Lives of the First World War database. This ambitious idea, being led by the IWM, is one of the flagship projects of the centenary. It will allow users to build up a picture of those who served during the war from official sources and user-submitted information and pictures, contributing to a permanent digital memorial.

Registering for the site is easy and simply requires a few details and clicking on a confirmation email to activate the account. The home screen (or ‘dashboard’) is clean and uncluttered with three simple guides to getting started, adding a life story, and finding a named individual. Once signed in, individuals that the user has ‘remembered’ are listed for ease of access.

Individuals can be searched by name, unit, or service number. Search results can then be filtered further by first name and surname, regiment, and rank. Once the correct individual has been found, their associated records can be updated. There are a number of options for information that can be updated, including information from official sources such as census and service records, as well as linking external information such as London Gazette entries. User-submitted information can also be added, including portraits or pictures of mementoes or links to websites. The focus is on ensuring the information provided is correct, and at each stage users are required to validate that the information they are connecting is relevant to that individual.

The current database of individuals within Lives of the First World War has been taken from The National Archives’ collection of medal index card (MIC) records, which has the inherent problem that it does not cover all the individuals who served in the war. However future additions will include the option of adding records for those who are currently not on the database, such as sailors, soldiers who did not serve overseas, commonwealth soldiers, and women who were working on the home front or as nurses. Another addition will allow individuals to be grouped by ‘community’, for example a club or war memorial, and presumably these will be searchable too.

Using the site has thrown up a few snags, but the beta provides users the opportunity to flag up any problems for investigation and response and certainly the ones I have reported have been responded to very quickly. There is also a forum to provide feedback and further ideas for improvement which other beta users can ‘vote’ for consideration to be acted on.

The true test of the database will be when it goes live and records are being accessed and updated by multiple users. Processes are in place to try and minimise incorrect information and conflicts, but we will have to wait and see how this works in practice.

The amount of time and resources being invested into the project is impressive and gives an indication of the commitment and drive of the IWM and those involved to make this succeed. Lives of the First World War has a lot of potential and will no doubt attract a huge amount of interest when it goes live and throughout the centenary period, and I for one am looking forward to seeing how it develops and contributing to the stories of those who served.

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