Not long ago I was having a discussion with a library colleague, and I mentioned to her that I love history. “History, hmmm…” she said. “You will have to explain that one to me. I just don’t understand what you see in history.” Ever since, I have been trying to come up with a satisfactory explanation for my interest in history.
Over recent months, I have been working on a different type of HPU Research Guide. Rather than following the usual pattern of creating a tightly focused guide on a single topic, I have built an interdisciplinary research guide for World War I. One of the tools I have relied on heavily is the Europeana 1914-1918 website. Co-funded by the European Union, this is a fantastic research tool that will be invaluable to researchers as we approach the significant historical anniversaries of “the war to end all wars.” The site effortlessly pulls in a very wide range of materials from all over Europe, as well as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States.
Europeana has been collecting items and stories that have been submitted by family members or amateur hobbyists. By selecting “Library/Museum Collections only,” you are linked out to a wide variety of World War I digitized resources from collections such as the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA); the Australian Trove database; and the Imperial War Museum (UK), one of the major worldwide collections of arms and militaria. Search options here include: year, type, provider, data provider, country, and rights information. Using the “Browse” option, you can select materials by TYPE (diaries, photographs, WWI films, official documents, etc.), SUBJECT (propaganda, women, trench life, etc.), or FRONT (Italian, Home, Eastern, and Western).
Europeana is full of the personal stories of men, women, and children. I have done lots of different searches using this database, but none more personal than searching for materials on Palestine and the work of British telegraphers during WWI. My grandfather served in the British Infantry during the ’14-’18 war as a telegrapher, a profession he had followed prior to volunteering in the fall of 1914. He always said that he survived the war because he went to Palestine, and not the Western Front.
Using the Europeana website, I found a photograph of a heliograph (a type of telegraphic transmitter that flashed Morse code messages, reflecting sunlight using a mirror). I found pictures of camels being used to transport equipment in the desert. He hated those beasts because they were often highly uncooperative. Finally, I found a painting of three soldiers created by James McBey in 1917 (at left). The three men have set up a heliograph on the top of a sand dune to transmit messages.
This was the dangerous part– the minute you started transmitting, the flashing mirror would attract the attention of enemy snipers. He survived many such attacks and returned to his home in England after the war, where he became a successful dairy farmer. Now I have an explanation for my colleague as to why I love history: For a story to connect with me, it has to have an element that relates to me personally on some level. I love history because it connects me to the past.
Evening Reference Librarian
Photo credit: James McBey (1917). “On Tel-el-Jemmi: A view from the top, where signalmen are heliographing. In the distance are the mountains of Judaea. On the desert horizon lies the Gaza-Beersheba road.” Imperial War Museum, London.