Monday, March 29, 2010

Some successes, a few frustrations

I've officially finished transcribing the letters from my Social Memory project. I still have quite a bit to do, but I thought I would take a moment to reflect on some great moments as well as a few of the frustrations I have encountered as I have worked through this project over the past few months.

I'll start with the frustrations, as they are (fortunately) not too extensive. The greatest would be the lack of information available on British soldiers who fought in World War One. As Gerald joined up with the British Expeditionary Force the majority of soldiers mentioned in the letters are British. This information is available only through the National Archives in London, where the records haven't been transcribed or digitized. holds some records but charges a fee for viewing. It seems odd to me that Canadian records are widely available online but that those of British soldiers are not so readily accessible. Fortunately, the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry war diary has helped me to discover the dates of birth and death for some of the men mentioned in the letters, but it is less easy to find out about those who survived the war.

Despite the limitations involved in researching on British soldiers of WWI, I have had some really great moments while putting together this small collection. Back in January my mom and I visited the U of T archives and were fortunate enough to talk to the archivist who had put together the Blake and Wrong family fonds. Talk about the benefits of having an archivist know his or her collections! He made some great suggestions and we saw photographs of my great-grandmother that neither I nor my mom had ever seen before.

We also took a drive over to the house that Gerald Blake grew up in on Jarvis Street, which is currently a historic site in downtown Toronto (see right).
Gerald's grandfather, former premier of Ontario Dominick Edward Blake, built the house in 1891 for his son, Ned. His own residence, known as Humewood, was next door, and is also still standing.

As we came up to the house we saw that it was being gutted and prepared for a new restaurant and bar called The Blake House (at least they're inspired by history!) which is set to open this Spring. We shyly sidled up to the door and explained to the builders that we had these letters and they told us to go on into the house and take a look. It was strange timing, because had we arrived even a week before or after, we might not have seen the original fireplace and wallpaper, the remnants of the staircase, and some beautiful old stained glass windows that were uncovered by the renovation. I'm going to be as corny as I like here and say that it was pretty special to be standing in his childhood home. It made him as a person more real, which is sometimes hard to envision when all I have of this individual are flat images and text.

That visit was definitely one of the highlights of this project, but I also have been able to apply a lot of the new technical skills I've learned from this program. Before Digital History I would not have been able to use the highly effective GIMP program to restore some old photographs that I plan to use. I have just finished scanning photographs from an album that is nearly a hundred years old. Since the book was a bound copy rather than sheets held together by string I had to be really careful, particularly since the leather cover had come off. When I looked at the results, though, a few of the images were poor at best. I could barely see a few of them they were so faded. Below I've included a sample of one picture I've been playing around with. The picture shows Gerald and his friends at the Blake family cottage at Lac Gravelle, Quebec. Gerald is the man at the front with his legs stretched out.

(Before editing on Left, After on Right)

As I said, there is still much to do, but I'm really looking forward to seeing it all come together. Until next time!

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