Peer Boselie: Historical Material at the Use of very Modern Questions. The Aezel Project

Peer Boselie (De Domijnen, NL)

Born in Eindhoven (the Netherlands) in 1958, Peer Boselie studied at the Rijksarchiefschool (Den Haag 1979) and theology and church-history (Heerlen/Nijmegen 1996). He worked as an archivist in Eindhoven, Maastricht and Sittard. Since 1999 he is director of the Sittard-Geleen and regional archives, from 2010 to 2015 also director of the Euregional Historic Centre (now Archief De Domijnen).


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Historical Material at the Use of very Modern Questions.
The ‘Aezelprojek’
How to build city history and have fun!

In the Aezelprojek, which is all about georeferencing and verctorizing all kind of archival data, cooperation is the key-word. The project is being undertaken by a small staff of professionals and (meanwhile) more than 100 volunteers. In this growing ‘family’ there are (next to the principle that hardly any money is available) seven main principles:
a) starting from volunteers, their interests and capacities
b) digitally excavating the history of the city
c) doing that starting from vectorized cadastral information
d) connecting history of people and society itself with cadastral information
e) using only authentic information (archives, museum-objects, photo’s, oral history, video, archeological finds…)
f) making use of open source programs and simple formats
g) making every part of information traceable to its source

(House and family = emotion)
I come from Limburg, the most southern part of the Netherlands. A region of at about 20 by 100 kilometres with has many identities and more than 50 dialects.
The ‘Aezelproject’ (Aezel means donkey in Limburg) starts from the premise that people find twó things particularly interesting when it comes to history: their family and their immediate environment, starting by their home (and in further circles: neighbourhood, village, city, region, country) …
In the Aezelprojek therefore special attention is given to as well habitation/housing history ánd genealogy.
A house (or a barn, or a piece of land) is after all only an empty shell without the stories of the people who have had a relationship with it, or have lived in it, and the word ‘house’ is of little meaning without the contextual information of the people who have lived in it. Furthermore it is very desirable that this information is interactive, to make more people interested than only the historians, but also to encourage them to add more information to the already existing information. In this way personal identification is added to authentic information, which results in still more emotional binding tot the project.
This means however an enormous amount of work that has to be done, because all kind of data has to be digitized, georeferenced and vectorised. We do that slowly but constantly, like donkeys…

How did it start?
We are already working for many years on settlement history (in 2003 we were one of the national pilot projects in the Netherlands relating settlement history) but from 2008 on we started a structural cooperation with a number of volunteers of our institution and the historical society in Sittard. Given the opportunities the project offers to make information from the records accessible to a large audience, the Euregional Historic Centre Sittard-Geleen (since 2015 De Domijnen) herein has taken a prominent role. We acknowledge in particular the (Eu)regional scope of the project and we made many archival sources available for the project in a modern way through digitization. The project is a collective project. .
Because of the large scale and the lack of money it would be necessary to make use of volunteers, so a forum was set up to be able to do this. Means, methods and organization needed to be structured to meet this goal: working with people who want to undertake history as a hobby in their free time. Now all kinds of people are working in the project. Special knowledge of archives, scripts, source material or the like, is not required, apart from some special tasks. Interest is the main requirement. The forum provides support and guidance, so already several volunteers became transcription-specialists! There are simple user databases and modules designed that allows data entry to take place on a large scale.

In the Aezelprojek volunteers took the initiative in the town of Sittard-
Geleen; the Euregional Historic Centre (now De Domijnen), and in the mean time also several other archives saw possibilities and embraced, facilitated and expanded it. This is done by over 100 volunteers, and in Sittard-Geleen alone about 55.
Among them pensionado’s, housewives and unemployed people, but also a number of autistics and other people who need extra attention. In this field we are working together with health care institutions and unemployment agencies. At this time also museums, libraries and historical societies, not only in Sittard-Geleen but also in several dozens of other cities and villages in and outside the province of Limburg, work together to broaden the scope and possibilities of the project.
Using simple (but correct) formats, historical data, photos, movies, oral history and museum objects are stored in a large database that is monthly filled by tens of thousands of additional facts and links between them.

Open source
All data are entered into various open source systems. This is because (in hindsight fortunately) six years ago, a few hefty subsidies to develop an integral history of the region were not allocated to the Euregional Historical Centre.
Around that time (2008/2009) the Aezelprojek was founded and by using open source we can still achieve our goals despite the fact that there is little money. We had no trouble because of the financial crisis…Starting point always is the fact that the original source is directly linked to the presentation. What you see is what you get, so to speak…
The Aezel project works with all available platforms.

The project is a Cadastral project
It all starts with a scanned and vectorized cadastral map, which is fed in open source geo-information system (QuantumGIS). Starting point is the cadastral map of 1842.
These maps still had to be geo-referenced and vectorized, which is done by volunteers. From the year 1842 until today all further cadastral information is entered in databases. It is also possible to add pre-cadastral data from the years before 1842.
Each cadastral plot that exists in 1842 becomes a unique ID (identification-number), which is and remains the ‘linking pin’ to all other information added to the project.

Extra cadastral enriching
Information from the cadastral layers can be supplemented with details from other sources, for example by advertisements in old newspapers and magazines, or notary archives. And of course, drawings and photographs are of enormous importance!
But not only archives are important, also museum objects and of course archaeological data could be added to the cadastral map, as even oral history can be relevant ánd tagged.

Genealogical information
Family-history is ‘hot’. Linking it to cadastral data is even more interesting, because it offers a great deal of contextuality. So therefore almost all information about individuals and families from church registers (from the 16th century on) and Civil Registry (from ca 1794 on) has been digitized, and volunteers are busy linking it to the cadastral information. Only as far as the law permits it to be shared it is linked to the cadastral information however.

Thematic layers
It is also possible to make a thematic layer. Basic information already present can be enriched by other, special data. For instance a ‘secret-garden-layer’ or a ‘poverty-layer’ can be added in such a way, but also a shop that celebrates its 100th birthday can become a thematic layer…

Three-dimensional building
To make information not only useful for researchers and interested adults, but also for youth, visualization is very important. So some volunteers have begun to create three-dimensional buildings. Ten years ago in AutoCAD and nowadays also in Sketch Up. Some parts of Sittard now have been created in 3D.
We are now trying to develop a further step to create interest among youth, by developing a serious game about the history of the city.

When all the basis information that is needed is entered in the databases, clicking on plots provides information about the property and the owners, clicking on names provides pedigree information. If you click once more you can see the scanned birth certificates, cadastral information, but also pictures or whatever other information is added.
The interesting thing is that all data is and stays directly related to the original archival (or museum!) objects, because of the unique ID of each scan related to the data. So in fact, you also build a sort of e-depot of the archival material used in the project.

Relevance to the modern administration
Being busy with history is one thing, but making it interesting and even useful for nowadays civil administration is another thing! This however is done. The historical (Big!) data present in the project is at this time so massive, that without expensive researchers much of the necessary information about for instance monuments, (possible) archaeological sites or environmental information can be supplied with one push on a button. These facts ensure that we annually save some tens of thousands of euro’s each year in the city of Sittard-Geleen alone. But most important remains the fact that by just visualizing (cadastral) information, you get new insights. In this way we discovered for instance the contours of a long disappeared bastion and could clearly see with the help of 19th century reconstructed map, where exactly a road, that had disappeared in the 14th century already, had entered the town. But for the administration saving money is often more interesting of course: so by indicating under street level the remains of a city-gate so that a new sewerage can be placed around it, to avoid archaeological costs and even fire-men can be helped with mass-data about the construction of a building, is having a win/win-situation…

And now: Business?
It is not our intention to ‘make money’ out of this project. However, it is also not our intention, to carry water to the sea.. A small business-model is needed….
In the last six years, over 300.000 euro has been invested by the Euregional Historic Centre in Sittard-Geleen, in capitalized labor, but about 50% in computers and other equipment for the many volunteers and the volunteers themselves. They become travel allowance, Christmas breakfast and a yearly excursion. At least 140.000 hours of work have been done by the volunteers in these six years. We do not want to get this money back. What we do want is to have all the basic-information to be freely accessible to the public. What certainly is needed for that, is a way to get the data to the internet. We need to do that without the enormous costs of data-traffic keeping us at our current low-profile.
Luckily, we are now starting a cooperation with the Leuven university in Belgium, that is very interested in our georeferencing and vectorising possibilities. So in the next few years we will become much more visible..
And yes, additional information may possibly cost money for users? For instance companies like real-estate brokers might sell a house quicker and at a higher price if they sell a house with a story? And will it even become economically more interesting if nowadays mass-data can be attached to our historical mass-data? We might even help the fire-brigade by doing this…
We will see… and in the meantime, we’ll keep filling this databases, slowly but constantly, like donkeys….

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