Different perspectives on our project

Today’s post is a little different to usual – though hopefully still relevant and interesting to our readers. Typically we’ve taken a case or two from the project database and explored it in some detail, pulling out key points and issues that were perhaps underlying the accident but not brought to the fore in the report. But in this post we wanted to take stock and think about what it is we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and what it may mean to people.

This was prompted by Saturday’s excellent day seminar, ‘Accidents will Happen’, put on by the Guild of One Name Studies. It was a fascinating day, with speakers covering trades union records (from the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick, with whom we’re working on extending our project), coroners’ records, accidents at sea and even ‘accidents’ in the family tree that were revealed through DNA testing … And of course we were represented, with Mike Esbester giving an introduction to railway worker safety and accidents, and our project! In due course we’ll make the video of the presentation available, courtesy of the Guild, but for now we’d like to extend a vote of thanks to the Guild for the invitation to speak and to all the participants for their constructive engagement with us.

We’ve not yet had the chance fully to go through the written feedback that seminar participants provided on our talk, but a first glance shows that it’s all very positive, which is fantastic. There was certainly lively discussion following our introduction to the project, which we’re going to feed back into developing our next steps. And it’s also prompted us to think more about how we as a project interact with the various different groups who are interested – or who might be interested – in our work.

The project background is very much in the railways – it’s a combination, after all, of the National Railway Museum and the University of Portsmouth lead, Mike Esbester, whose research interests have at their core the history of railway worker safety. We could clearly see the railway angle to our work – and it’s perhaps been relatively straightforward for us to engage with the various railway audiences for the project as a result.

At the same time, from the project conception, through planning, to the present, we’ve had a keen eye on other groups who might be interested – to the extent that it’s important that they are not somehow ‘other’ (and thereby less central), but equal partners to the railway interests. Academic historians – Mike’s background – were another obvious group who might be interested, as were family historians and genealogists. This latter combination played an important role as we developed the database, ensuring that when it was populated by our brilliant NRM volunteers it would provide key data that lots of different groups would be interested in. It’s not perfect, of course – and the discussion on Saturday was really valuable in highlighting some areas where we might make improvements. We’re already investigating these, so there are some concrete thanks due to those who made the critical but friendly suggestions at the seminar. They will produce a better resource for us all.

One thing in particular was interesting, which we’d not really considered as fully as we ought to have: it’s about why people might come to us and what they’re interested in. The railway crowd will primarily be interested in the railway detail we can provide, whether about a particular location, railway company, grade of worker or type of operation being performed. On the other hand, the genealogists and family historians will probably be more interested in the story behind the accident, and how that event fitted in to the individual’s life (and possibly death). When you stop and think about it, this isn’t so surprising. But it does mean we need to think a bit more about how we can make sure as many people as possible know about our project and use it to make connections relevant to their research. We might not be at the core of that research, but we could still play an important part – particularly given initiatives like the ‘2018 Ancestor Challenge’, in which people are seeking to uncover and tweet/ blog about one family member for each week of the year (no mean feat!).

Conversely, that genealogical research could play an important part in our work. We’d like to reaffirm that we’re keen to hear the stories behind the names in our database. What we’ve got is detail about a particular moment, produced with a particular purpose and audience: a formal report into an official investigation. Often we lack the wider context about those concerned. We don’t want to forget that each of the 3,911 cases involves real people, and their families, and their communities. Finding out more about the accidents they were involved in and what impact they had upon the individual’s life and the lives of those around them is really important.

For the future we want to work on a facility to allow people to upload documents or details about the accidents which they may possess and which may extend our knowledge of the accidents and those involved. The holy grail of that would be, of course, personal testimony from those involved or affected – we’re really keen to find this, but we’re also interested in all sorts of other documents which link up with the official reports, be they newspaper accounts, coroners’ records, compensation documentation, union paperwork … we’re open to suggestion! To that end, a previous post starts in that direction, and we’ve got more planned for the future (so keep returning to us!).

Until we can get a system up and running on the website for people to contribute, our fall-back position is: please email us! (railwayworkeraccidents@gmail.com)

As an aside, by chance the day after the seminar one of our family history followers on Twitter, MsGenealogy, tweeted us her most recent blog post, on her maternal grandparents and their involvement in a passenger crash in the 1950s. This uncanny timing really reinforced that message about why people might come to us and how they might make use of our project’s information.

So, how do we see what we’re doing on the project? We’ve always thought of it as a finding tool, to help make information about the accidents better known and more easily accessible. We’re encouraged that we’re on the right lines here, and we’re keen to find out what you all go on to do with the details from the database – do please let us know. At the same time, we’d like to become a ‘go-to’ point for all railway worker accidents, somewhere where people can meet and discuss, and find as full details as possible about a given case. That’ll take time and help, of course, and we’ll be looking to our readers and followers for that in the future.

To return to the ‘Accidents will Happen’ seminar, one further thing that was gratifying about the warm welcome we received from Guild members was the number of people who indicated they’d be willing to help with our plans to extend the project in the future. Some of them noted that many people have railway work somewhere in their family background – not surprising given at the start of the 20th century the railways were one of the largest employers in the UK. As a result, they thought that a project like ours could really be of interest and relevance to large numbers of researchers, even if it didn’t yield any results for their families. This spirit of goodwill, even if there isn’t an immediate gain for the individual, is a testament to those concerned, as well as being essential to crowd-sourcing projects like ours and those in the Zooniverse fold. Our initial belief – that we’ve got a lot to contribute to and learn from each other – has only been reinforced by all of this.

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