The Railway Work, Life & Death project has been using crowd-sourcing and working with volunteers to co-produce research questions and topics. In this post for the RHS, the project team of Karen Baker, Mike Esbester and Helen Ford share a great example of how large numbers of people can collaborate on an historical topic which might appear on the surface to be quite niche: accidents involving British and Irish railway workers.
Kate Strasdin’s recent Historical Transactions post on historical research via social media reflected our experience of undertaking research in less traditional ways.
Records of accidents to individual railway workers from the 1880s to the 1930s number in the tens of thousands. These reports contain all sorts of information about the who, what, where, when, why and how of the accidents. While most accidents were relatively mundane, the records are incredibly rich and revealing sources about the everyday lived experience of work in what was one of Britain and Ireland’s biggest industries. Additionally, they give us insight into day-to-day working practices and where these came into conflict with the bounds of safety, company economics, trade union imperatives and state roles.
The twin problems we faced were the scale of the records and the format: there were simply too many records for one or two people to get to grips with. The reports were spread across a number of archives, unindexed and virtually unknown. If they could be made more easily accessible, we were confident they would be of great value to a variety of researchers and users: family historians, the current rail industry, museums & archives professionals, academics, rail enthusiasts and more.
But how this might be done?
Before doing anything, we considered the ethics of making this information more easily accessible. The information was already in the public domain, but there is a world of difference between material held in a physical archive and making it available at the touch of a button online, via our website. As part of the project design, we applied for ethical opinion through the University of Portsmouth, with oversight at the partner institutions. Once we had received a favourable opinion, work could start.
One of the ethical issues we considered was anonymising the data: something we felt it was important not to do, in order to give full recognition to the sacrifices of the individuals involved, and as one of our key interest groups, family historians, would need this data in order for it to be usable. We are, however, aware of the potential upset that some may feel: after all, the cases discuss deaths and injuries in frank detail. From the outset we’ve had a protocol in place should we be contacted by anyone concerned by the details included. Fortunately in the 2 years we’ve had information on approximately 4,500 accidents publicly available, so far no-one has raised any concerns.
Our initial conversations had given us confidence that people would be interested in a transcription project. But our belief in the project’s value has been borne out in the tremendous support and enthusiasm of the volunteers involved in the project. From our starting point with the National Railway Museum in York, we have extended with a partnership with the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick, bringing in records from the RMT union (with their support, too), and we’re working with The National Archives of the UK to bring railway company records in. Around 50 volunteers across the three archival institutions have been helping to transcribe data. Going beyond the work of ‘just’ transcription to involve volunteers in the research process has also been important to us: we’ve hosted co-production sessions for those teams based on-site at archives, and have tried to find ways to involve the NRM’s remote volunteers more strongly with the research.
The response has been fabulous. We’ve been invited to talk with the current rail industry (including Network Rail and the Rail Accident Investigation Branch), and the Office of Rail and Road, the current industry regulator, has provided us with some accident reports. Family historians in particular have been core supporters. Some of our most positive contacts have been with descendants or relatives of workers found in our database. In many cases we’ve provided new information and in some cases even helped clear up family mysteries. Indeed, increasing numbers of family historians are coming to us and contributing guest blog posts that give a rounded picture of the railway employee accident in their family past.
This kind of collaborative outcome is a win-win situation, and something we’ve actively sought. We’ve taken the project to family history events and organisations, engaged on Twitter with initiatives like ‘Ancestry Hour’, and tried to make ourselves as helpful and easily accessed as possible. That relationship with the family history community has really paid dividends. It has even helped us contribute to the establishment of the ‘Historians Collaborate’ network of researchers trying to bridge the supposed divides between archivists, academics, family historians and others.
One of the reasons we think we’ve managed to work well with our volunteers and the different communities excited by our project is that we treat each casualty as an individual, a real person, part of a family and a community at the time, and possibly with descendants to this day. This has helped us go beyond the headline figures (like the nearly 30,000 railway workers killed or injured in 1913 alone) to see the people involved.
The project has taught us a tremendous amount about the goodwill of people and their willingness to contribute, whether as volunteers transcribing data, champions who spread the word and help us with contacts, institutions and their staff who support us with their time and expertise, those who provide us with greater insight into the individuals who had accidents, or researchers who make use of the information. To all of them, our thanks – and a recommendation to all that whilst collaboration can be time-consuming and complex, it can also bring huge rewards.
The Railway Work, Life & Death project website, with plentiful free resources including our expanding database, can be found at: www.railwayaccidents.port.ac.uk . You can also follow the project on Twitter @RWLDproject.
About the Project Team
Karen Baker is Librarian at the National Railway Museum and NRM contact for the Railway Work, Life and Death project. Her interest is making resources such as this as accessible to as many people as possible.
Mike Esbester is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Portsmouth, and co-leader of the Railway Work, Life & Death project. He researches, teaches & publishes on topics relating to risk, safety & accident prevention in modern Britain.
Helen Ford has been Archive Manager at the Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick, since 2006 and is the MRC’s lead for the Railway Work, Life & Death project. The MRC is the largest repository of trade union archives in the UK and includes the records of the railway unions being used in this project.