The digital challenge to historical research

I’m sitting on the train going home to Berlin. I spent the day in the city of Braunschweig, somewhere in the middle of Germany, attending the opening conference of a new working group which has been set up within the German Historical Association. The working group is called “Digitale Geschichtswissenschaft”, i.e. digital history, and has been founded last year at the biannual gathering of German historians, the Historikertag. Its aims are, well, there’s the first point: some initial aims have been identified, but as the whole field of digital humanities and digital history, also this initiative still needs to define more precisely what it actually is going to deal with. I don’t claim that the arrangers of the conference and the working group’s steering committee were clueless. It’s just a fact that, way too often, we simply declare that the digital turn is happening, but we seem to find it hard to leave the meta-level discussion and to go hands-on.

One of the things that struck me was how differently we look at the digital turn in historical research. Some of us have been dealing with the changes at hand for some time, some have only begun to. Some are hard bloggin’ scientists, some are sceptical, some interested. Of course that’s only stating the obvious.  Just because one might accept and support the changes that the digital turn is bringing about, one does not necessarily need to embrace it. However, why do we – at least that was the case at this one-day event – still talk about the digital as if it had just started to happen?

The initiative to establish an own working group within Germany’s largest professional association within the humanities has to be welcomed, there’s no doubt. After having staid passive, partially even hostile, vis-a-vis the digital turn, many historians in the German-speaking countries have opened up towards it. The adoption of digital history, be it blogging and tweeting or using advanced digital computing tools in their research, is happening all the more in a vehement manner. It’s almost like the oft-cited pebble that has been thrown into the water, and now the water circles are spreading.

So, on one hand: how good that this step has been taken. On the other hand: why is there still so much scepticism even amongst those who mean to wave the flag of digital history? Shouldn’t we be more daring and trust more in the added value we will gain from applying digital methods to historical research and teaching? Shouldn’t we be more self-confident and offensive in demanding the chairs, post-doc positions and scholarships dedicated explicitly to DH to be established? Only with a self-confident attitude and a well heard voice will we be able to pave the way for digital history and digital humanities to become more of a self-understood branch within history as a discipline.

To quote Phil Collins (what?!), “we still have a long long way to go” (always easy to say, by the way). The steps we have to take next, however, need to be way larger, at least that’s the impression I was left with.

What is “digital history”? vol. 2

When entering the digital humanities / digital history discourse, not being an ICT / IT specialist, I felt rather unsure about my position. In fact, I still do. Attending a DH workshop at my home university which the department of art history had arranged, I was fascinated with the topics the speakers were presenting, but had the distinct feeling of understanding only half of what they said. As in all disciplines or research environments, there is an own DH jargon which I was not aware of until then (I’m still not, until date!). People all of a sudden seemed to make deeply philosophical statements when pointing to “ontologies”.

I’ve managed to learn about some of the concepts and technologies behind these terms, a lot of which remain unintelligible to me all the same. But I haven’t started to adopt text-encoding or image-processing. So far, I am not sure what technology I will need to answer my research questions. It could be that data mining comes into question when examining the use of e.g. the social media by cultural and scholarly institutions. So while my fascination with what you can achieve by using digital technologies in the humanities is ever growing, I’ve gone through some trouble if it were legitimate to position myself within the context of digital humanities.

When I visited a meeting of Berlin based digital humanists for the first time (I’ll actually have to attend the meetings more often!), I admitted my uncertainty if what I am dealing with is “digital humanities proper”. The prompt answer from an American colleague came as a relief to me: “There is no digital humanities proper!”

As a matter of fact, who would be setting the boundaries, anyway? Isn’t the whole field of digital humanities and thus also digital history yet to take shape? And even if it continues to do so, should we wish for clear demarcations of what DH should be “allowed” to be? What can we agree upon? What should be the minimum requirement for a project/scholar/institution to be part of DH? I think these questions will keep us thinking for a while…

What is “digital history”? vol. 1

Dealing with history and the web does make one think about what “digital history” actually is. I usually point to this term when explaining what my project is about. But the term is as vague as it could be. Looking to the context of digital humanities doesn’t seem to help that much either. For that reason I thought it might be worthwhile to repeatedly (I deliberately avoided the term “regularly” 😉 ) reflect upon this concept here on the blog, thus contributing to how the term could be understood and which facets might be added to its understanding.

I consider my project to be “DH”, referring to both digital history and digital humanities. Looking at the history of this field of study, you will usually find the genealogists pointing to humanities computing as the most prominent forefather. Today I read the concise and quite instructive introduction that Frédéric Clavert and Serge Noiret wrote for their their co-edited anthology Contemporary History in the Digital Age, which was published recently. According to them, the genesis of digital history can be traced along the lines of information and communication technologies (ICT) finding their way into historical research. Their perspective is mainly a technological one: historians incorporating digital tools into their research become digital historians. But when it comes to the impact the web has on history, other aspects come into play: “We are faced, above all, with new ways of reporting history and, in contemporary history, with new forms of identity representation and memory construction.”1

The Swiss specialist for history didactics Marko Demantowsky claimed, in an article currently online for an open peer review (the text is in German), that we cannot talk of an independent discipline called “digital history”. He also denounced the digital humanities to not be very aptly named thus. Something like a “digital history” could not be epistemologically justified – as far as I understand it, he is pointing to the fact, that the nature of the discipline doesn’t become “digital”, that the framework of historical methodology and theory, the questions we have to pose to the source material etc. doesn’t change in principal. It’s rather the digital (in his case especially: learning) environment that does change. The access to and communication about historical knowledge changes, but not the way of doing historical research.

I am not quite sure about that. We do need a new understanding of “doing history” in the digital age, yet the problem is, that few seem to address the topic at hand in detail. I’ve read numerous claims about how our attitudes have to and will change, that this is going to be a watershed in the history of historiography. But I haven’t really seen this being fleshed out, or at least I haven’t found authors exploring this beyond such general statements. That is one of the motivations behind this project: to try to understand how the change is happening in practice.

  1. Frédéric Clavert/Serge Noire: “Introduction. Digital Humanities and History. A New Field for Historians in the Digital Age.” In:  Frédéric Clavert/Serge Noire (eds.): L’histoire Contemporaine à L’ère Numérique. Contemporary History in the Digital Age. Brussels 2013, pp. 15–26, here: p. 24. []