By Liz Wood, Assistant Archivist, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick
On 12 November 2011, Wembley Stadium hosted a friendly between the football teams of England and Spain. Amongst the usual pre-match shots of flags and anthem singing, the television cameras picked out one English fan in the crowd with a home-made placard commemorating the British volunteers of the International Brigade, who had fought for the Spanish Republic 75 years earlier. The incident was an example of how the Spanish Civil War has maintained its place in the British popular consciousness in a way that is perhaps only exceeded by the two world wars.
In recent years it has been the subject of popular history books and formed the backdrop to best-selling novels and an HBO made/Sky broadcast television series starring Nicole Kidman; meanwhile the often bitter debates between supporters of different Republican factions in 1936-39 continue to be played out on internet message boards. Despite this public and academic interest, only a small quantity of primary sources in English were freely available to researchers online – last year the Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick, added over 13,000 pages more.
What has been digitised?
Most of the online material comes from the archives of the Trades Union Congress. During the 1930s the Trades Union Congress produced literally thousands of files on a wide range of subjects. The TUC was not just interested in the day-to-day work of its affiliated unions, it looked into most topics that could affect the lives of working men and women in Britain. The organisation’s strong international links, through trade unions and socialist organisations in other countries, gave it a network of informants on conditions elsewhere in the world.
The TUC compiled over 40 files on the Spanish Civil War – more than on any other international issue during the 1930s. Their archives contain unique sources on the British response to the conflict, including documents on the policy of non-intervention, the ‘Aid Spain’ movement in Britain, the attitudes of the British and French governments, intervention by Germany and Italy, the response of British and international labour, and the attitudes of British Catholics towards the conflict. There are also files on related subjects, including the 1934 uprising in Asturias and Catalonia, and the 1936 Barcelona People’s Olympiad.
The contents – correspondence, reports, memoranda, minutes and publications – were produced not only by the Trades Union Congress, but also by individuals and organisations with whom the TUC was in contact. This eclectic attitude has ensured the survival of rare administrative documents and striking ephemera from short-lived campaign groups.
The collection is particularly rich in material on the provision of aid to the Republic through organisations such as the International Solidarity Fund, the Spanish Medical Aid Committee, the Basque Children’s Committee and the Scottish Ambulance Unit. These include vivid first-hand reports from Spain – from an account of medical work on the front line to a desperate telegram calling for the evacuation of 4,000 Basque children to Britain, shortly after the bombing of Guernica.
To provide different (although still pro-Republican) opinions on the war, over 100 pamphlets and journals from the archive collections of political activists were also put online. Many of these reflect the Trotskyist view of the conflict – similar to that of George Orwell in ‘Homage to Catalonia’. These include publications from Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM), in both English and Spanish, and English language material from anarchist groups, including CNT-FAI. Pamphlets and speakers’ notes from the Communist Party of Great Britain are also included.
How was it done?
The main digitisation project took nine full- and part-time members of staff 13 months to complete. A common view of digitisation is that once a document has been scanned, it is ready to go online. Irritatingly this isn’t the case. As we wanted it to be possible for researchers to use keyword searches to find one relevant document or paragraph within the 13,000 pages, we needed to produce short descriptions (“metadata”) for each item – recording what it was, who produced it and its date – together with full transcriptions of every page.
To produce the transcriptions, we used optical character recognition (OCR) software to “read” the images and convert them into text files. Unfortunately OCR is unable to recognise handwriting and can struggle to accurately read 1930s printed or typescript text. We therefore had to go through and manually correct the text file for every individual page to ensure an accurate transcription (a ‘before’ and ‘after’ example is available at www.warwick.ac.uk/go/scw/more/project/ocr). Unsurprisingly, this was the most time-consuming part of the process.
As many of the documents we wanted to digitise are still in copyright, we had to attempt to identify and contact copyright owners in order to request permission to publish. Once this had been obtained, we could upload the images, transcriptions and metadata on to digital collection management software; and, finally, write webpages to put the documents in context and explain some of the background to the Spanish Civil War.
The project was completed (and the resources made publicly available) in May 2012. Responses from researchers in both Britain and Spain have, so far, been overwhelmingly positive – the searchability of the documents and the provision of a timeline of the conflict proving particularly popular. The time-consuming nature of the digitisation process means that we will never get to the stage when most or all of our collections are available online, but the Spanish Civil War project was the first of a series of windows into the Modern Records Centre’s holdings.
Information about our next project – the radio broadcasts of Richard Crossman MP – is available elsewhere on this site.