the Monumental Archive Project: an open database of historic cemeteries

Archaeologists, historians, genealogists, community groups, and cemetery enthusiasts all over the world have recognized the historical value of gravestones for studying identity, social relationships, tradition, practice and choice, grief and emotion, self-representation, symbolism, trade and craft production – the possibilities are endless.

Crowded cemeteries are rich historical resources.

Crowded cemeteries are rich historical resources.

As a PhD student working in historic cemeteries in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the Caribbean, I have repeatedly faced the same problem: there are a lot of people doing great work recording funerary monuments but very little access to the data afterwards. This limits historical research by restricting sample size and comparative studies, but it also results in the constant repetition of work that has already been done. A rich historical record already exists, if only it was accessible.

The Monumental Archive Project (MAP) will act as an open database of historic cemeteries to address accessibility and sustainability issues whilst stimulating creativity. It will act to:

1)    preserve and provide access to existing records (and encourage data reuse);
2)    stimulate new research and engagement with historic cemeteries (an at-risk heritage resource);
3)    and establish collaborative networks and discussions between diverse interest groups.

Current vision for the Monumental Archive Project's interface.

Current Vision for the Monumental Archive Project’s interface.

The MAP project’s interface will be an open-access website with a database of monumental records, a curated collection of research projects (connecting data to methods and interpretations), and an interactive means of contributing data and commenting on research. The primary interface will organise the user experience into two interactive schemes. On the landing page, a map will highlight areas where records exist, with pop-up summaries and links to the corresponding database (and project collections of methods/interpretations where possible). There will also be traditional drop-down menus and a search function to access databases, or collections, to view on the website or download for easy use of data. The range of options for use reflects the diversity of the audiences for whom this website will be of value and the orientation of their research.

The second prong of the website will use a crowd-sourcing platform to facilitate and structure contributions. Individuals (be it scholars, local history societies, community members) can either submit completed databases formatted to MAP standards, which will be outlined on the website, or they can submit data (primarily photos of monuments, notes, maps) for transcribing by the MAP community through crowd-sourcing projects. This data once completed will be available on the primary web interface.

Behind the scenes, the archiving and preservation of this data will be critical, given the long-term historical value of the records. Because historical cemeteries are exposed to the elements and also to human activity, they are difficult to preserve long-term – it is critical that as much information can be recorded and preserved for future research, even if the monuments themselves continue to weather.

The pilot content for this project will be records of monuments in Barbados (~2000 monuments, 16 cemeteries), from my own research, including inscriptions, location, and material descriptions (style, iconography, font, material). It is hoped that this will encourage the contribution of data/content for the website to grow the database in following years. The structure of the website will therefore be designed with the flexibility to accommodate what will hopefully be a growing resource.

The Monumental Archive Project will be a collaborative, interactive database platform focused on accessible, sustainable and creative engagement with the past. In the coming year, development will focus on establishing a long-term database, user-friendly design, and a strong community of interest.

Katherine Cook
University of York
@KatherineRCook

 

 

12 Comments

  1. How is this different from the Find A Grave database in the U.S.? It uses crowdsourcing as well and is available to the public.

    Reply
    • Find A Grave is a great website and resource, and it has amassed an unbelievable number of graves in its time. This project isn’t looking to replace it or other websites like it, but rather develop an alternative platform to facilitate other types of research. Because of the way it was developed, Find A Grave is very much focused on the individual grave (for instance famous people, or genealogies); records for each grave vary considerably and there is no easy way to take large datasets for external use without re-transcribing them all.

      The Monumental Archive Project will focus on curating collections of monumental records (with complete and standardized sets of photographs, maps, and inscriptions for all monuments in a cemetery) that are easily downloadable, in addition to being archived in a system that will preserve them long-term (outlasting the website if necessary; see for instance the work of Archaeology Data Service at the University of York). This is essential for contextual research, comparative analysis and the longevity of these valuable records.

      Reply
  2. I am interested in this project for a number of reasons including (1) that all such physical records (e.g. MI) need to be preserved and (2) such records would be useful for my own research, and that of my colleagues.

    Reply
    • Glad to hear! Hope you’ll follow our development, and if you or your colleagues have any records/research that you would like to see curated as part of this project, it would be great to work with you!

      Reply
  3. When are you planning to SELL OUT to Ancestry.com and how much will the FEE be to use your SITE before that happens?? Thanks!

    Reply
    • For me, it is really important that these resources be open access – that is, free for everyone. As such, it won’t ever be housed by a system that charges an access or membership fee. I will work hard to get funding to cover any necessary costs in order to make that happen.

      Reply
  4. Our Family History Society holds a database of 34,000 inscriptions from 63 graveyards within our area (Calderdale, West Yorkshire). These are available free to members & for a nominal charge to non-members of our Society. We also finance further projects from the sale of CDs, of which Monumental Inscriptions form 3. Three questions :-
    1. How will this fit into your MAP system ?
    2. Will individual inscriptions be available through MAP ?
    3. Will MAP guide users to our site & sales areas to be able to purchase information ?

    As a non-profitmaking organisation, we welcome wider distribution of data, but need to ensure that we can continue to may sufficient money to finance further projects.

    Reply
    • Great questions, Peter. As a longtime user of historical societies’ CDs of monument inscriptions, I know the value of these resources but also the role of CD sales, and it is not my intention to erode that system!
      Individual inscriptions will be available through MAP, in conjunction with photographs and maps, and it will be possible to search individual names as well as for cemeteries as a whole. However, all our records will have to be submitted; we won’t simply take what’s on the web elsewhere or buy CDs and put them online. At the same time, all records will have citation information linked into them so that it will always be clear who recorded them, with links to original websites where available.
      I know it won’t suit everybody, but it does have the benefit of extra exposure, as well as being a secure archiving solution for the future. At the same time, this project is still in the development stage, so if there are particular things that you think would be important to historical societies like yours, I would be happy to work on building them in as much as possible and would welcome further discussion.

      Reply
  5. Look forward to this going on-line. Realize this will be a very large task.

    Reply
  6. This is an amazing resource for researchers and for students. I’ll be incorporating it into my class curriculum this year. Excellent work.

    Reply
  7. I’m not sure if I have been doing something similar to your project over the past 10 years, but on a much smaller scale. I have created a fully-archived cemetery database of Monocacy Cemetery in Beallsville, MD to include grave photos, plot photos, digital database of each person’s vital information (birth, death, places, parents, children, marriage(s), obituaries, occupations, and military service for all 5, 598 people buried here. I used FindaGrave’s website functions to link entire extended family members together. My Excel spreadsheets for each row of graves is complete so the caretakers now know where every single burial is, as well as every available grave site for future sales. There are online programs for this, but we weren’t able to spend $10,000 to have them do what I did for free~~~!

    Reply
    • I’ve seen the Monocacy records before so nice to make contact with you. A great database – congratulations on all your efforts. You’ve spent a lot of time working out how to disseminate and link your data – any observations on what would have made the process easier or faster? Since I’m in the development stage, I would be interested in making the process as user friendly as possible for others.

      If you were ever interested in archiving your database through MAP for added security and exposure, I’d love to work with you and shine a spotlight on this project.

      Reply

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