Crowdsourcing as “Live” Collection – Project Warlux – War Experiences in Luxembourg

Author: Nina Janz, lecturer and postdoctoral researcher at the Luxembourg Centre for Digital and Contemporary History / University of Luxembourg.

Open suitcase with old paper documents

Ego-Doc Collection University of Luxembourg, Collection Hirt (Photo by Noelle Schoen, C2DH)

In February 2021, a team at the Centre for Contemporary and Digital History at the University of Luxembourg launched a call for contributions as part of the project, “WARLUX – War Experiences in Luxembourg,” funded by the Luxembourgish Research Fund (Fond National de la Recherche). The team researches the personal side of the Luxembourgish war generation’s history. To uncover the individual experiences of these men, women and families, the team asked the public to share their family stories, letters, diaries, photographs, and other personal documents. The researchers aimed to enrich existing records of individual experiences, which had not yet been collected or published. While the crowdsourcing campaign was intended as complementary research material, we created a unique digital archive of personal memories and individual voices in the form of first-hand documents, a novelty in the cultural landscape in the Grand-Duchy of Luxembourg.

Crowdsourcing – or collecting in a participatory way – has become immensely popular. The collected data, images, documents etc., become part of research projects and analysis schemes at a variety of institutions, including universities. This means that researchers actively participate in “collecting” their sources and building up documentation, which is quite unusual. Creating a collection is a unique and valuable experience for both the researcher and the participant. Starting to document a historical and sensitive topic, like the Second World War, is especially challenging, but it is equally enriching. I want to introduce the term “live” collection here to emphasize the participatory process and the transmission of documents at the time of research. During the collection process, we received donations (passed on to museums or archives) and loans of documents that were carefully structured and cut or haphazardly assembled, like the suitcase we received, pictured above. 

The interactive aspect

The interaction with the families was key. Based on our personal relationship and the time we had for visits, we could gain trust, ask for special documents and receive additional information. The interaction itself was not an oral history-based methodology, but it is considered as collecting information “vibes” and sentimentals about the study’s objects. While emptying an elderly parents’ house, either because of their death or because they were moving to an elderly person’s home, many people found war letters or diaries from the war. Many families shared a common experience: the previous silence of the father or mother, and then, for the first time, through the letters and our call for contributions, the children came to terms with their parents’ war experiences and developed new insights into their parents’ lives during the war. Some children already knew that their parents were forcibly recruited by the Nazis but the details were missing: where they went, how they survived and what they experienced. The letters were, therefore, their first possibility to learn more about their own family’s history. Additionally, talking to researchers lent significance to the role of their parents, providing a final recognition of their fate and experiences during the war. 

This generation is the last who had direct contact with this war generation. They could provide crucial information, idiosyncrasies that are not recorded on file or audio tape – emotions, quirky family stories, love, hate and all in between. Data behind facts, information behind facts to understand family constellations.

Conclusion

What have we learned and achieved? Firstly, the interaction with the families and the information they have shared with us is seen as additional data, i.e. as data on the data. Secondly, the way the documents are kept says a lot about the historiography in the family. And thirdly, we have raised awareness in the country about private collections through the crowdsourcing campaign. Even though we are no longer accepting documents, we advise the public to preserve them and recommend donating the material to an archive. 

The collection process, originally intended to complement existing documentation, evolved into an experiment that reflected the role of this generation’s stories and the value families placed on them. During the collection process, the team learned more about different family memories and the value of this wartime period for the individuals and their families, as well as the place of such narratives in Luxembourg’s social memory. 

In the end, the call for contributions was more successful than expected. This lively collection of different narratives and individual stories was a unique opportunity to develop historical documentation for further research into the biographies of the war generation. For Luxembourg society, this unique activity offers an insight into the country’s family memory. It provides source material for educational and research purposes, which was developed together with the families concerned. The families were involved in the collection and research process in creating a participatory and lively collection of sources on one of the darkest chapters of Luxembourg’s history.


Nina Janz, PhD has been working as a lecturer and postdoctoral researcher at the Luxembourg Centre for Digital and Contemporary History / University of Luxembourg since 2018. She is co-PI in the project “WARLUX” on the experiences of soldiers and their communities in Luxembourg during WWII. She studied archival science and history in Marburg, Hagen and Haifa. She completed her PhD at the University of Hamburg in 2019, with residency fellowships in St. Petersburg, Voronezh and Washington, D.C. Nina’s research and teaching area is military history, WWII history and digital history. 

Project Blog https://digiwarhist.hypotheses.org 

Follow Nina on twitter: https://twitter.com/nina_janz

 


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