First World War Belgian Refugees and Infrastructures for Linking Digital Histories: WW1_BRILDH

The WW1_BRILDH project is funded for 9-months by the AHRC. It addresses the research question of how we can develop strategic approaches to linking, exposing, and using digital collections relating to First World War Belgian Refugees, and how this approach can help us develop a better understanding of the impact, value, and sustainability of digital histories. This addresses a fundamental concern in digital humanities: can we develop new approaches to using the digital records of the past?

The project collaborators include historians, cultural heritage staff, digital history and digital humanities experts, working together in a process of active research. The project will provide a concrete model of digital humanities innovation using existing digital historical content developed for the First World War Centenary.

Funder - AHRC

Date – April 1st, 2018

Funding – 60,000

The team

The team is led by Principal Investigator Professor Lorna Hughes (Professor in Digital Humanities, Information Studies Subject Area, School of Humanities, University of Glasgow), alongside Dr Paul Ell at Queen’s University,  Belfast, who is the co-Investigator. Dr Luca Guariento (College of Arts, University of Glasgow) works on the project as a Research Associate.

Aims and objectives

The project addresses important strategies for working with the digital historical record; issues of linking structured and unstructured data; developing collaborative approaches to working with data; and exploring integration of fragmented and disparate digital collections.

The project takes a digital humanities approach to these questions, working with subject experts to identify a series of research questions, configured around migration of Belgian refugees in the British Isles from 1914-18, that can be addressed by better linking of existing digital collections developed as part of the First World War Centenary, especially where refugees lived and worked, and their engagement with official and unofficial organisations and society around them. This is a topic that will be a “window” into a vast number of digital sources -  developed by community and academic led projects, and memory organisations around the country - and one that enables a greater critical enquiry into the use, linking, and reanalysis of this data.

The project will identify key digital sources for the study, and use digital methods and tools to expose, link, and connect this data. Attempting to integrate data of this sort retrospectively (especially community generated data) and across institutional platforms is innovative, as digital historical collections are heavily ‘siloized’, making it challenging to connect data created by different projects and institutions. Better use – and re-use – of a set of key digital sources will contribute to a tangible digital legacy of the Commemoration of the Centenary of the First World War.


Activities associated with the Centenary of the First World War have resulted in a vast array of digital outputs. The Centenary is one of the first historical events in the United Kingdom to be marked so clearly in the digital world. This electronic content offers significant opportunities in the use and reuse of material to better understand the War, its Centenary, and the way in which the Centenary has been marked. It also poses challenges concerning the sustainability of the material which represents an enormous commitment in terms of funding and the time of communities and academics.

History is increasingly constructed from digital sources. Yet despite the investment in their creation, the value of digital historical sources is limited: they are frequently hard to access and integrate due to incompatible representations and unsophisticated integration techniques divorced from subject experts. The challenge to creating digitally-enabled research is not merely more digitisation, but developing better ways to harmonise and use existing digital content for research.

Project Partners and Network

The project has developed a Network of experts in digital history, digital humanities, and cultural heritage informatics, and well as practitioners from the heritage sector, acting as advisors and collaborators in exploring digital approaches. The Network includes: Dr. Jacqueline Jenkinson, University of Stirling, Dr. Benjamin White, Glasgow University History Department, Owain Roberts, National Library of Wales, Paul McCann, National Library of Wales, Kieran Murphy, University of Stirling, Sarah Gambell, University of Glasgow, Irene O’Brien, Glasgow Archives, and Alison Fell, Leeds University.


The project will develop a report, ‘Using the past: strategic approaches linking digital histories of Belgian Refugees in the First World War’ which will include a series of detailed recommendations about the potential re-use pathways available to researchers and communities of data. The project will produce a proof-of concept model, and a case study on re-using the data associated with Belgian refugees produced by a variety of projects and held in disparate repositories around the British Isles. Based on this, it will also produce a series of detailed recommendations about the potential re-use pathways available to researchers and communities of data.


Through research and consultation, the project will explore emerging methodologies for innovative knowledge representation to connect the content in a selection of digital archives, reconciling entities such as persons, locations or institutions and incorporating local contextual knowledge where available.  The project will scope datasets related to the (broadly defined) topic of Belgian Refugees, and test a variety of technical approaches for integrating disparate data, including data modelling, harmonisation of data, using data at the API level, and Linked Open Data approaches. A proof of concept project will be developed, demonstrating in practical terms this variety of approaches to integrate data, drawing on the following key datasets:

Tracing the Belgian Refugees

People’s Collection Wales.


The project is taking a ‘hackathon’ approach to exploring the data. Three workshops are planned, at The National Library of Wales, and The Mitchell Library, Glasgow, to explore the data and underlying archives.

The project will work with our Network of experts in a process of active research to provide a concrete model of digital humanities innovation: scoping historical research questions that will enable the exploration of disparate datasets, and exploring new approaches to linking and using the data.

A final project event at the National Library of Wales in December 2019 will showcase results.


Workshop at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, 14 June 2019

Luca G.

On the 14th of June the WW1_BRILDH team (prof. Lorna Hughes and me) went to the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth and met with Paul McCann, Siân Thomas, Illtud Daniel, Owain Roberts.
The aim of the meeting, organised by the AHRC ‘Linking Disparate Archives’ Project based at the University of Glasgow, was to discuss NLW Digital Collections and archives that relate to Belgian Refugees in the First World War, and collaboratively develop ideas about the underlying data and how it can be linked. The focus of the AHRC project is to explore how digital archives can be taken out of ‘silos’ and integrated: the project has been developing some historical research questions that can start this process. These questions are configured around migration of Belgian refugees in the British Isles from 1914-18, and they can help inform the kind of linkages between digital sources that the project is exploring.

This is why we thought it was fundamental to discuss the,
Welsh Newspapers Online, and the People’s Collection Wales digital archives, which Paul McCann, Siân Thomas, Illtud Daniel, Owain Roberts have been involved in. These three digital archives are quite big and populated with all sorts of material. Finding what we are looking for, i.e. information relating to Belgian refugees, requires a bit of digging and mocking about under the bonnet, although a first simple search query on the three website returns promising results.

Search for 'belgian refugees' on People’s Collection Wales


Search for 'belgian refugees' on Welsh Newspapers Online


Search for 'belgian refugees' on CYMRU 1914


During the meeting we discussed ways of getting access to the raw data, so that I can customise the queries and getting results which are not directly identified as linked to Belgian refugees due to poor metadata, for example. In the end, the supportive NLW team provided us with everything we needed. More specifically, an API entry point for the People’s Collection Wales, which will allow querying the data directly. I also have now on my laptop a full copy of the database for the website, which means that I can run an independent Solr instance and launch all the queries and filtering I want, and perhaps cross-checking the findings with other databases and archives.

Exciting times ahead.

Technical approaches

This project addresses directly the fragmentation of First World War digital archives. It will use analysis, reconstruction and exposure methods and tools to trace histories currently located in a variety of disparate digital archives. Digital publication also involves many different techniques ranging from transcribed (and OCR’ed) textual resources, OAI, manual and (semi) automatic textual annotation, production and consumption of existing data types (including CSVs and RDF), interlinkage as graph-based data, and the provision of Linked Data-driven APIs: we will examine how fragmented and diverse unstructured and structured sources can be harmonised.


aThank you card from Belgian refugees in Llanfair, Wales, 1915. 
W. D. Roberts Manuscripts, 1738-[1925),p. 68. 
NLW MS 9982E

Thank you card from Belgian refugees in Llanfair, Wales, 1915.
W. D. Roberts Manuscripts, 1738-[1925),p. 68
NLW MS 9982E

Defining historical research questions at the first archival workshop: Mitchell Library, Glasgow, June 3rd.

Defining historical research questions at the first archival workshop: Mitchell Library, Glasgow, June 3rd.