Vortragsfassung des Referats in Speyer, 23.11. 2012 (Jochen Vermote, Ieper/Ypres, Belgien)
The history of Ypres.
The town of Ieper (German: Ypern) was one of the most important cities north of the Alps during the Middle Ages. Due to the production and trade of cloth, Ieper became enormously rich. The cloth-hall was the biggest civil gothic building north of the Alps. It is estimated that in the late Middle Ages Ieper had around 35.000 inhabitants. Its prosperity went down after 1383, the year in which the city was destroyed by the English and the inhabitants of Gent. Ieper remained an important city of the county of Flanders. Together with Gent and Brugge it was one of the three members of the Provincial Estates which had to approve the taxes claimed by the count. During the Ancien Régime and the 19th century, Ieper gradually lost its administrative and strategic importance and in the newly formed kingdom of Belgium it became a small remote provincial town far away from the capital and close to the French border.
But in the beginning of the 20th century Ieper would become the main stage for world history. The city occupied a strategic position during World War I because it stood in the path of Germany’s planned sweep across Belgium and into France from the north (the Schlieffen Plan). German and British troops clashed around Ieper in October 1914. By May 1915 the population was completely evacuated to France and by 1918 the area of Ieper was destroyed for more than 95 %. Although the British wanted to keep the “holy soil” of Ieper in ruins as a memory for their enormous losses, in the end the town was rebuilt. The reconstruction was mainly done in (neo-)gothic style, with the main buildings being almost a copy of their pre-war predecessors. So, despite the destruction Ieper has even today a sort of historic appearance. Nowadays Ieper comprises 35.000 inhabitants. 34 cities in Belgium are bigger than Ieper.
What does this mean for the archives? A big wealthy city during the Late Middle Ages resulted in an enormous historical archive. Since the beginning of the 19th century a scientific archivist worked for the city to control this. Unfortunately, all the archival treasures eventually vanished in 1914. The archivist at that time, De Sagher seemingly didn’t show any initiative in rescuing the archives when the belfry tower where the archive was stored, was hit by German artillery fire in November 1914. Within one or two days the whole historical archive and the records which were in the equally destroyed cloth-hall vanished.
Towards the Neerstad
For almost three quarters of a century, Ieper didn’t have any proper city archives. What was left, was kept in the library. The librarian acted as archivist at the same time. It was only in 1989 that politicians decided to (re-)establish a city archives. Over the years the archives grew, new staff was hired and the public found its way to this new (re)established institution. During the heydays in the early ‘00s the city archives received over 3.000 visits per year. Today, a number of which we can only dream. Today we receive about as much visitors as in the first 5 years after the re-establishment in 1989.
Originally, the archives were located in an old education center, which soon became too small since the two small storerooms were completely occupied. Even the reading room was too small for the influx of visitors. In 2009 a new archives and library was built in a public-private sharing agreement, the Neerstad site. The ground floor comprises around 3.000 square meters and is shared by the library and the archives. The total back office storage capacity is around 6,5 running kilometers. There is a also an exhibition room available. The new reading room can accommodate 24 visitors at the same time.
Reading room is on the decline
Who are the visitors in the reading room? Today (only) 35% of the visitor’s in our reading room are local citizens, 31 percent comes from the province. A great number of our visitors are French (due to the proximity of the border and the fact that many refugees from Ypres who fled to France during the First World War stayed there). So, despite the fact that we are a part of a local government, the municipality, we receive only a small number of our initial target group. Moreover, due to the fact that the old archives building was well hidden in the city not many citizens knew the archives or had a understanding of our operation or functioning. Also the majority of our clients are male and belong to a rather older section of the population. Women and youngsters were a rarity. So in a way, we were failing in reaching out to our stakeholders.
Nonetheless, the PRISMA study in Flanders showed that there is a potential for archives. This study conducted by the Flemish interface centre for cultural heritage called FARO gave an overview of the size, structure and potential of cultural heritage in Flanders. 5.000 citizens were chosen randomly to fill a survey about their experience with cultural heritage and the manner in which they deal with history. A part of this survey polled for the bearing ground for archival care amongst the Flemish citizens. So, what do they think of archives? The results are encouraging. 73.8 percent of the enquired citizens agrees with the proposition that it is of the utmost importance that archival institution exists. Hallelujah. 79 percent agrees that the archives have an important role as memory of the society and 55.3 percent agrees that the archival institutions have to improve their efforts to make the collections accessible to the public. It is no surprise that 61.3 percent believes this should be done digitally.
This study also showed, completely in line with our own experience, a lack of knowing and understanding the function of archives. There is a certain concern or demand for the safekeeping of the local history but the service is not found. People expect a digital portal to consult archives.
Now, statistics don’t lie but liars use statistics. Whatever the true value or accuracy of the numbers of the survey, it offers us archivists a great challenge and loads us with a great task. Namely, to reach out to the public. And this must be done in an another manner than the last decade(s), this is obvious.
Back to Ypres
It was the move to the new and professional archival building in the Neerstad that gave a new impulse to our ways to reach out to the public. The PRISMA-study only confirmed what we suspected and what we could find out in our visitor’s numbers. From a robust 3.000 visits in our heydays to a decent 1500 nowadays, despite our efforts and new accommodation, it is obvious that the reading room will no longer be the main place or instrument to interact with the citizens. So we started our search for a new public and other means to promote the archives. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but we tried it anyway.
We tried to diversify starting with an old trick from archives, namely lectures. The outlines of the PRISMA-study were confirmed. Lectures with over 150 persons present were no exception. When you take in account that Ypres is a small city with no more than 20.000 inhabitants, 35.000 with the surrounding villages; you can call this a great success. Moreover, the majority of the attendees were people who had never been in our reading room and probably never will.
In 2009 we started with a newsletter for the archives. Strangely enough we were one of the first services from the city, apart from the youth service and cultural center to do so. We started with a free and open source mailing list program, a template and a small list of contacts. Today our directory holds more than 400 contacts who receive our newsletter. Many other city services followed our example, e.g. the library, sports services and the communication service.
These new methods or instruments gave us a glimpse of what was possible if we only tried to innovate. At the same time the rise of social media could not be ignored, at first in our own personal life. But it soon became clear that there were more possibilities professionally. The City Archives of Ostend was the first archive to experiment with facebook. In January 2010 they started a page to promote the archives. We need to point out that the city archives are quite small when you look at the numbers of co-workers, namely 2 (although the city is 3 times the size of Ypres) but they have always been an innovator. They were one of the first to create an own archival information system, an image bank, and so on.
So, we followed their example. In January 2011 we registered our own page on facebook.
We use facebook for different purposes. First of all, it is an ideal instrument to present a view on the collection. Our most precious documents, the biggest and the smallest, the oldest, the most interesting, and so on can be shared. We make frequent use of digitized pictures, which is appreciated by the fans. It gives them a view or a peek in the history of their own city. In some cases it can even work better than an image bank. Most of the facebook users check their account on a daily basis. Posting a picture on our page once in a while makes it a more sustainable way in reaching out to the public rather than an image bank with thousands or hundreds of thousands pictures. The vast majority of the public will visit an image bank once. And that’s it. Via facebook they tend to view a picture or a document every week.
In order to stick out amongst other posts we try to make them as interesting or as funny as possible. We try to make a link to topical issues or events. For example a picture of a people having a drink outside a café in the 19th century when a heat wave strikes Belgium (that is indeed newsworthy) or a picture of the ancient football team when our local football club has won. These are the topics that interest people and are more likely to be shared or to receive reactions.
It is also useful to spread the pictures made during an event, such as the opening of an exhibition. Thanks to the tagging functionality it is quite easy to spread the pictures beyond the fans of the page to (so called friends of a fan).
Other, mostly local Flemish archival institutions followed Ieper and Oostende. Still, you can count the archives who have a page on facebook on both hands, namely nine. There are still a great number of the bigger archives who have no page on facebook, such as Ghent, Bruges, … despite the fact that they make a great effort in the cultural function of the archives.
One of the explanations is that the policy of local authorities concerning the use of social media is quite strict. Use of social media in the office is not always allowed and in most cases social media sites are blocked. Strange, when you take into account that politicians love to make use of social media to reach out to their voters, but the administration doesn’t always follow this example. Note that the most influential twitter account in Belgium is that of the soon to be mayor of Kortrijk. Even our former prime minister of Belgium and also soon to be mayor of Ieper Yves Leterme is a notorious fan of twitter.
This map only gives an overview of local archives, and immediately you can see a great difference between the Dutch spoken part of Belgium and the French spoken part. I searched but found no local Walloon archives on facebook (or other social media). The situation of local Walloon archives is quite different than on the other side of the language boundary. Not many historical archives were erected in Wallonia because the local government connected much more with the State Archives and deposited their archives there.
Not one provincial archive is present on facebook or social media. The same for regional archives. The provinces dates back to 1836 and even further. Due to the federal archives law, the provincial archives deposited their historical archives to the State Archives. They focus more on the administrative functioning rather than the cultural. The same can be said for regional archives (Flanders, Wallon, Brussels, …), because they only date back to 1970.
Recently the State Archives started a facebook page. You must understand that the State Archives consists of around 20 provincial or regional antennas, but the operation of the State Archives is very centralized. The antennas in Bruges, Gent, Kortrijk, and so on have no independence what so ever. So there is only one account for the sum of all different institutions. (a big difference with the Netherlands).
The political and thematical archives are more present on facebook and other social media. Not surprisingly because they are archives with a true cultural function and receive an allowance from the Flemish government.
Does every archive need a facebook page? Not necessarily. And yes, not everyone is a member of the facebook community. But our own experience has taught us that it is a possible good tool to promote the archives, next to exhibitions, publications, lectures, workshops, and so on. Mixed with other initiatives and instruments (such as the reading room) it can be effective.
The archives with a twitter account are few and far apart. Only Antwerp and some political archives can be found. Ieper has tried but honesty compels me to say that we are no longer active. Reason for this is that only few citizens were reached. Most of the followers are colleagues or other archives, such as Speyer. So, since the return was small and our initial goal wasn’t reached we have ceased our activities on Twitter. For now.
Other instruments like wiki, flickr, and so on are only scarcely used by Flemish archives. Overall we can conclude that a lot of work can still be done. There is no common approach to social media amongst archives. This role should have been taken up by institutions like FARO, Flemish interface centre for cultural heritage or the fraternity for archivists called the VVBAD. But only small steps have been taken. A great difference with the libraries in Flanders. Different support organizations for the Flemish libraries have made different guides to apply social media in local libraries. And indeed, almost every library is experimenting with social media.
In addition to our efforts on social media we try, where possible, to implement social media sharing plug-ins, for example on our website www.historischekranten.be which contains over 150.000 pages of digitized papers from the 19th and early 20th century. In that way the content can easily be spread. There is even a widget available. That is a small application that can easily be incorporated in a web environment, such as websites, blogs, and so on. There is also a widget available for the image bank Westhoek verbeeldt.
Crowdsourcing: examples from Belgium
As web 2.0 is all about interaction and collaboration with each other as creators of user-generated content, I would like to turn my attention to this project. Westhoek Verbeeldt is an indirect example of interactive use of different sorts of media and software. The project is aimed at putting images which are in private hands online. It was started by the regional heritage cell CO7 of which Ypres forms the core. Today it has expanded to 6 other municipalities of the Westhoek region, which contains almost half of the province West-Flanders. Each municipality has a local coordinator. The city archives functions as the local coordinator for Ypres.
The photo material is being tracked by a large group of volunteers. For Ypres we can count on 40 volunteers from the center of the city and the surrounding villages that are a part of the municipality Ypres. They search within their own quarter or village for unique pictures, maps, posters, and so on. Because they know their fellow inhabitants very good it is quite easy for them to locate this unique material. The private persons also are more likely to loan their pictures to somebody they know rather than to an official institute like the City Archive. The volunteers visit mostly elder people who have preserved interesting material and accompanied by a cup of coffee these persons tell the story behind the picture, whom they still recognize on the picture, when it is taken, and so on.
Enriched with the oral history and the original picture the volunteer heads home or to the archive to digitize the found material. They digitize the picture according to the given directives. The original picture is given back to the owner. No material is kept or transferred to the archives. The volunteer uploads the digitized image together with the description in the image bank. After approval by the editors it can be viewed on the website www.westhoekverbeeldt.be. All volunteers work with the back side of the image bank where roles are determined for contributors, editors, local coordinators and the regional coordinators of the heritage cell.
All pictures can be shared via other social media and visitors can post messages on the website. For example, all persons on a group picture receive a number which correspond in de metadata with their names. Not all names are always known. So, we frequently receive new additions so that all persons are identified. A result which is impossible without help from the community. All messages are being handled by the volunteers, who adapt the metadata.
Note that this project is only for private collections. Over 30.000 images are now accessible through the website, over 6.000 of Ypres.
Thanks to this network we have found a large picture collection of a local photographer with over 10.000 pictures from the period 1928-1948 which we thought had been destroyed. This finding has resulted in a deposit to the City Archives of Ypres.
This network is supported with different social media. All activities and exhibitions are being published onto a blog. To share document such as guidelines, reports, and so on we use Google Documents. A facebook page is created for the region. To strengthen the ties with the volunteers we offer them a yearly barbecue, occasionally a drink, workshops, publications, and so on. To respond to the problems the volunteers encounter three to four times a year we organize a meeting where we try to offer a solution and a state of affairs.
This project is an example of what you can achieve by collaboration, networking and even crowd sourcing. In this example the volunteers don’t only describe the picture; they also collect and digitize the documents. We actually outsource all functions of an archive. The volunteers even produce small exhibitions with the digitized material they display in the quarter or village the pictures originate from. From accession over cataloguing to promoting. A true heritage network is created. This example shows that web 2.0 it is not all about techniques (or facebook, twitter) but it is the way you use it.
The City Archives of Leuven are the first archive to have executed a major crowd sourcing project: Itinera Nova. The aim of the project is to digitize and make accessible 950.000 pages of the registers of the board of alderman from the period 1362-1795. Approximately 1200 books have to be digitized. First, the choice was made to outsource the scanning process. Bad experiences and a inferior quality of the digital copies lead to the alternative option of in house scanning. A hefty investment was made in scanning material and volunteers were searched and found to operate this equipment. After digitization the scans are imported in the online transcription system where the real historical work begins. Everyone can follow a course in ancient handwriting after which they are capable of making a scientific transcription. The persons who are interested can access the digitized pages at home via the website www.itineranova.be. At the moment over 6000 transcriptions were made and can be searched online.
A same approach is made by the State Archives. In 1999 a group of volunteers inside the provincial antenna of the State Archives in Bruges began to index the marriage certificates between 1796 and 1900. The results were published on their own, independent website. This project became very successful. Today, over 400.000 certificates are indexed. They have expanded their range from marriage to birth and death certificates, even from the Ancien Régime. This provincial project showed the State Archives the value of volunteer work. They began to support this project by initializing the Demogen Visu project. The birth, marriage and death certificates from Belgium are being digitized and are ready for indexation. Every person who is interested can download a small indexation tool with which it is possible to download a set of digitized certificates and with which the indexation can be done. It is not web based or accessible through the web browser. The big difference with other projects is the support. There are no courses and the communication is only via mail. The project’s aim to index all certificates without support or guidance is probably too ambitious.
The use of social media in our activities has been quite rewarding. This year we received the quality label for cultural archives from the Flemish government. Only 11 archives have already received this prestigious label, only 3 of them are local archives.
Since 2010 the VSPW, a library school, organizes the Bib Web Awards. One of the lectors has started this award to reward libraries that make a good use of social media. A lot of new categories were created since the first edition, one being ‘The Specials’ for archives and documentation centers. Antwerp, Mechelen, Kortrijk, and so on were selected. The City Archives of Ypres was selected in another category, ‘Iedereen Bevriend’ or everybody befriended. Selected amongst other libraries such as the library of Ypres this category rewards the institution which makes the best use of social media.
Even our core-business profits from our efforts. We receive much more archives, photos, old local magazines and books. More and more people offer to work as a volunteer, to file death letters or even digitize certain documents.
But we have not reached the finish line. Since a few years we have successfully implemented an archival information system with which we can easily connect to other databases. The province of West-Flanders has even incorporated our data in their network. Next year a new website will be launched where you will see a selection of the objects from the different connected institutions. Our goal is to connect all different databases, like the newspapers, the image bank Westhoek Verbeeldt and our collection databases and make them accessible through one portal for the region. All social media must be incorporated in this portal and tagging functionalities, crowd sourcing possibilities must be provided.
Those who visited the City Archive of Ypres ten years ago would not recognize it today. It used to be a hidden gem in the centre of the city, mostly open to genealogists. Local citizens had no idea what we did.
Thanks to an open communication, use of social media, networking and a bit of creativity we reach a much broader audience. The fact that the Stadtarchiv Speyer has found us due to our use of social media and has invited us here today indicates that we are doing well.