1. Citizenship: Context

(This video can be downloaded from Media Hopper Create)

Fiona Laing works in the department of general collections at the National Library of Scotland (NLS), in Edinburgh.

Nik Williams is the Educational Coordinator for the WEA Scotland project, Legacies of Resistance to the First World War. This project seeks to explore the legacies of conscientious objectors of the First World War in Scotland, with a focus on Edinburgh, Dundee, and Glasgow.

What is this project about?

The project aims to empower self-motivated, adult learners from the three key cities, to explore, and bring to life, the legacy of conscientious objectors from communities across Scotland. These were people who, motivated by religious, political, social or other reasons, decided not to join the war movement and refused to join up to under conscription.

What are the key challenges in researching a project like this?

One of the key challenges is the general lack of information surrounding this subject. It is one of the hidden parts of history, in many ways similar to women’s history and the history of people of minority backgrounds. So that background research is a challenge.

One solution in researching a subject like this is to connect partners and different organisations that may have some existing knowledge, run previous projects around this subject, or knowledge of other connected fields. Another solution is to reach out to the communities to find stories from family histories that can be collected and retold.

The next step is to piece together the information that is found, to form a foundation for further research through libraries, and online resources.  It is important in a community learning project such as this, that there is enough information and support to get the project off the ground, but not too much, as the learners need to define the direction of the project themselves, and make it their own.

What kinds of resources have already been found?

One of the best existing resources is Cyril Pearce’s database of Conscientious Objectors of the First World War from across the UK. Cyril Pearce is an academic who has spent a large proportion of his time looking at the lives of conscientious objectors. He has worked with the Imperial War Museum, as part of the centenary to put this database online and make it searchable.

Another interesting resource is the National Records of Scotland, reports and records from military tribunals, from Lothian’s and Peebles. It is unfortunate that only the Edinburgh area is included in this resource, however, it is a really fascinating first step to look at primary information that includes dates, names, and processes. It is these details help to take the research further. So, one job is to take these isolated pockets of records or academic research, and piece them together.

How can the National Library of Scotland help with this research?

There are a number of useful resources that are held at the National Library of Scotland. Firstly, there is a digitisation project on the Great War, which contains some freely available images and text on conscientious objectors and would make a great starting point for a project like this.

If you were to join the NLS with a reader’s ticket, you would get access to a number of other purchased and subscribed for, digital resources. The licensing agreements that the Library has with these databases means that Library members can access these online from home. If you were not based in Scotland you would need to go to your local library or the largest library within your local area, to see what subscription-databases they have available for their members.

Another excellent resource for this project would be the UK Parliamentary Papers, which references Hansard. Hansard is a collection of the official record of debates in the British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, or South African parliament. So this would let you know what was said in parliament about the conscientious objectors at that time. Newspapers are another good source of primary information. The Library has subscriptions to the Scotsman and the Times for use by their members.


Do you have a project idea that involves engaging a community in research?

This may be, like the WEA project, investigating a hidden part of our history. It may involve bird watching, or botany, or heritage. It could link in to, and make use of existing communities of interest, like genealogist’s, growers, artists, or yoga groups.

Brainstorm for ideas for a community engagement project.

  1. Why do you think people would be interested in it?
  2. How many participants would you need to make your project viable?
  3. Where would you go to find your community participants?
  4. What would be your area of research?
  5. What resources would you use to get the project off the ground?

Find out more