One of the things I love about the Public History program so far are the connections I’m making between our in-class discussions and my experience as an historian. This week in Digital Public History we discussed digital preservation and crowdsourcing, two methods that when combined well can result in real value creation for future historians and researchers.
Earlier this week I had the pleasure of returning to my academic roots at Wilfrid Laurier University, just down the road in Waterloo. The Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies (LCMSDS) was hosting a public lecture by Professor Terry Copp, one of Canada’s leading military historians. Terry – an old mentor of mine from my undergraduate days – gave another of his brilliant talks, this one providing context to the events portrayed in Christopher Nolan’s summer blockbuster film, Dunkirk.
I hadn’t visited LCMSDS for years, and it was great to reconnect with old friends, make some new ones, and reminisce about my time at the centre. In summer 2012, before heading to Fredericton to commence my Master of Arts in military history, the centre gave me a job! Terry employed me as one of a number of undergraduate students who assisted with the Second World War Air Photo Collection digitization project.
The collection is mainly composed of aerial photos of Northwest Europe (Normandy, France; Belgium; and The Netherlands) taken by photo-reconnaissance Spitfires in 1944-1945. These photos were then sent back to the Air Photo Interpretation Section for analysis and were used to help cartographers create maps for First Canadian Army. After the war, the collection found its purpose as an educational aide at the air photo interpretation school in Rivers, Manitoba. Then, when the school closed in 1971, the photos were sent to the Canadian War Museum. The museum did not have adequate storage space for the 300 boxes of approximately 130,000 photos. In 1985, Professor Copp secured permission to move the photos to LCMSDS.
Fast-forward nearly thirty years later. While the collection was in good shape, there was no telling when it might start to deteriorate. In 2011, the centre began a project to digitize the entire collection with the backing of a number of private funders and some student elbow grease. By June 2012, around the time I started scanning, 30 percent of the collection was digitized. Our goal was to hit 60 percent by September. In the end, the project took until August 2013 to complete. Today, the result is a searchable online database with plenty of applications.
For instance, in 2010, Mike Bechthold used the photos to help illuminate the fate of Worthington Force. During the Battle of Normandy, Worthington Force was a combined infantry-armour task force from 4th Canadian Armoured Division. The force got lost while driving to its objectives on 9 August 1944. The photos allowed Mike to piece together what happened to the Canadians as they were isolated and destroyed by superior German forces.
I used the aerial photos to help understand what happened to the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada weeks before on 25 July 1944. The photos confirmed some of my previous research and led to new questions about how much information the Black Watch officers had when making decisions on that fateful day.
The centre is also working on a crowdsourcing follow-up project whereby interested parties can help them to identify photo boxes by their geographic location. Furthermore, there is an ongoing effort to couple the centre’s photo collection with maps to create a geographic information system (GIS) to understand better the terrain faced by First Canadian Army during the campaign to liberate Northwest Europe. As Terry Copp demonstrated in Fields of Fire (2003), even small gradient changes in terrain can have a big impact on the battlefield.
I’m looking forward to future returns to Waterloo and LCMSDS as their Military History Speaker Series continues this fall.