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Job done!

Photograph of leather bound journals and diaries

Our volunteers have finished transcribing the First World War diaries.


As we mark the centenary of the end of the First World War in 2018, our dedicated volunteers have completed the task of transcribing some 108,474 pages of diaries from that conflict held by the Library. It’s over 10 years since they began transcribing the diaries in the lead up to the centenary of the war.

The nationally significant collection was acquired from 1919 through the 1920s. Initiated by Principal Librarian William Ifould, the European War Collecting Project was the first collecting drive of its kind in Australia. It was a strategic campaign to acquire the most detailed and well-written private war diaries and related materials of those who served.

Ifould believed the diaries would be of great interest to students of the future, and predicted the fascination that many Australians would have with the history of the Anzacs:

It is very important that this material should be collected and preserved in such an institution as the Mitchell Library, where it will be available to the students for all time, where the men themselves and their friends and descendants will be proud to know that their contributions to Australia’s historical records will be permanently preserved (Chronicle, 6 December 1919).

Rich in social and military history, the diaries were added to the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World register in 2015 and were one of the first manuscript collections to be digitised as part of the NSW Government funded Digital Excellence Program.

With accounts ranging from the laconic and humorous, to the poignant and even devastating, the diaries reflect the diversity of those who served. They record soldiers’ adventures in Cairo and London; the names of women met behind the lines; rates of pay and who owed them money; what they ate for breakfast and the brands of cigarettes they smoked. Some write about homesickness, others about the horrors of warfare and conditions in the trenches.

Some of the many volunteers who have transcribed First World War diaries and letters

Some of the many volunteers who have transcribed First World War diaries and letters; from left: Dr Peter Craswell, Rosemary Cox, Rex Minter, Lyn Williams, Peter Mayo, Gail Gormley, John Glennon, John Corbett and Barbara Manchester, photo by Bruce York

Many volunteers became engrossed as they followed the war experience of individual soldiers through several diaries. Some transcribers researched the background of their diarists’ war experience, locating their battalion and regimental details and providing historical context for their involvement in significant battles.

During the project, the Library developed an online transcription tool that allowed volunteers to log in and transcribe the diaries at home, as well as in the Library. It also led to our first crowdsourcing project, making it possible for members of the public to join in the transcribing from home.

The transcription tool also allows for keyword searches across the entire collection of war diaries, bringing these disparate collections together as an integrated digital archive. New generations of students and researchers can access the diaries in ways unforeseen by Ifould and his contemporaries.

Historians, authors, film-makers and the media have made good use of the transcribed diaries, with many publications and documentaries referring to them in the past few years. In collaboration with the Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP), the Library developed a script based on many of the war diaries. The play, A Town Named War Boy, was performed in Sydney during 2015 and is now touring nationally.

We recognise the significant achievement of the volunteer-led diary transcription project, which has supported the Library’s many activities for the centenary of the First World War.

Elise Edmonds, Senior Curator, Research & Discovery

This article appears in SL Magazine Winter 2018, available from June 2018 in The Library Shop.