Virtual world set to change history as we know it



A groundbreaking project at the University of Sheffield is set to revolutionise the way we engage with the past via the use of online virtual worlds and social networking.

Based on popular online virtual worlds such as Second Life, academics from the University of Sheffield’s School of English Language, Literature and Linguistics and the Humanities Research Institute (HRI) are creating a virtual world to be inhabited by Ola Nordmann, a Norwegian peasant emigrating to America in the 1880s.

As Ola leaves his home near Voss in Western Norway to set off on the long journey to a new life in the Midwest of the United States, the public will be able to interact with him and follow his progress. From Voss to the port of Bergen, Ola will set sail for Hull, England. From there he will travel across the North of England on a train journey to Liverpool in order to catch a steamship that will take him to New York.

The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and is due to start in March 2012 and run for a period of 20 months.

The team are using the extensive historical materials available in the British Library, the Norwegian National Library in Oslo and the West Norwegian Emigrant Centre near Bergen to create the Ola Nordmann Goes West virtual world. Members of the public will be able to comment on Ola’s experiences as he travels.

The website will become a social network in itself, with comments and contributions from members of the public being used to enhance and develop Ola’s world. It is hoped that the virtual world will remind people of family stories and historical insight that can then
be instantly captured through the interactive elements of the site.

Professor Andrew Linn, Principal Investigator on the project, said: “In particular we are seeking to generate more information about the England stage of Ola’s journey, which has been less intensively studied. Initially this is by means of our contacts at the seamen\’s churches in Hull and Liverpool and subsequently through the Ola Nordmann project. This England stage will be a particular focus in the virtual world. We hope that the project will be informative and entertaining for a large community of potential participants.”

“Between the 1820s and the 1920s more than 800,000 Norwegians left for the Promised Land, which means that there are millions of American citizens today of Norwegian descent. Second Life, one of the most widely known examples of a virtual world, has 18 million registered users, and so we anticipate engaging with a lot of individuals with an interest in both the project\’s content and its design.

“The project also aims to make a serious contribution to historical research methodology by trialling the use of online social networks as a tool for carrying out oral history and for engaging with informants. Its design also allows the team to investigate the relationship between historical record and collective memory and to evaluate how the actual historical experiences of the migrants have been distorted and redefined as the memory of them has been passed down through the generations.”