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. []

Blogging in English

I opted for English as my working language on this blog. Not being a native speaker, I am aware that my use of the English language might have some shortcomings. I recently discussed the issue with a colleague and we agreed that it is hard or even impossible to reach the same degree of precision and detail when not writing in your mother tongue (which is German in my case). However, I felt that considering the scope of the topic and the public I would like to reach, English would be the right choice. Since English is so ubiquitous as the academic world’s lingua franca, of course one gets used to reading and communicating a lot in this language. Besides, a lot of the literature on the field I want to study and write about in the blog is in English. Several of my case studies and samples will be taken from the UK and the USA. Finally, I hope that using English will enable me to create a worldwide network of people with similar interests, thus creating a larger pool of knowledge to profit from and to contribute to myself.

Even though I have some trust in my verbal skills in English, I know I’m not perfect and that my way of putting things is perhaps not always apt and 100 % correct. Thus, I will be thankful for linguistic advice or corrections.

Getting started

Finally, I’m sitting down to write my first post here. I have to admit I’m a bit nervous and excited, but well…here it is! The blog to accompany my research project on the changes that history and memory cultures are undergoing due to the digital turn. This will be my public research scrapbook, my “open journal”, where I will discuss all kinds of matters connected to my research on this exciting topic. There will be some distractions, some marginal aspects, but also a lot of sweet little toppings on the cake, i.e. links, hints at recent publications on the field, CfPs etc.

But what you will read here mostly is how the project is emerging, the stages it will be going through, including drafts of texts I am and will be writing, but also questions, all sorts of ponderings about how to address the topic, methodological questions etc. I’ve taken the inspiration to do so from two people: the leading digital historian Peter Haber (1964–2013), who recently sadly passed away, and Martin Weller, Professor of Educational Technology at the Open University. Both have based the writing of books strongly on blogging about the subject. Weller stated that he wrote his fascinating volume The Digital Scholar through his blog. Peter Haber on the other hand wrote his seminal study on the Digital Past (which, despite its English title, is in German) by posting more than 500 mostly rather short entries on the blog he co-administrated weblog.histnet.ch.1.

Whenever I read about the positive experiences that authors like the mentioned ones described, I felt in awe but could not imagine to do the same. Actually, I first had to overcome my own skepticism towards blogging. When participating in a course on the use of web 2.0 tools in academic teaching and research I discovered the world of blogs, twitter and (academic uses of) Facebook. As an experiment, I started a blog on the field I have been teaching and doing research on for more than ten years now, which is Northern European History. NordicHistoryBlog, which is predominantly in German, has become quite a successful project, even winning the poll on the German-speaking branch of hypotheses as most popular blog 2013. From a solo project, this blog has grown into a group blog with other permanent authors as well as guest authors.

This has not only been a most encouraging experience, but also the impetus to start a  blog on my post-doctoral research project. I’ve been working on it for a while, but to tell the truth, it took me a while before deciding to submit the application for this new blog. I was rather hesitant at first, unsure whether it’s a good idea to go public still at a rather early stage of my project. In contrast to my other blogging experience, I feel rather…naked, one might say. I was not sure if I were confident enough to present unfinished thoughts, drafts, a project still in its infancy. But then I finally said to myself it should be worth “taking the risk”. Well, what risk, actually? I decided that there is nothing to lose and much more to win. I hope you will be joining me on my journey through the digital world of history. I am looking forward to your comments and remarks!

  1. Haber and his colleague Jan Hodel were pioneers of scholarly blogging in the German-speaking humanities when establishing their history portal hist.net in 1998, followed by the blog in 2005. []


The blog is connected to the post-doc research project of the same title conducted by Jan Hecker-Stampehl at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany. Blog and project focus on the impact the digital turn has on the representation and dissemination of historical knowledge on the world wide web. Which specific ways and tools have emerged on the web to spread historical knowledge? Is something like a memory culture 2.0 developing and what are its features? How does the philosophy of the web 2.0 help to diversify public discourses on history? How do established players on the field of history and remembrance culture (like archives, libraries, museums, universities etc.) react to the digital turn? What kind of strategies and agendas do they pursue and in what kind of societal context does this happen? How do historians take up the challenges that the digital turn poses? Are traditional “interpretative hierarchies” crumbling because of the digital turn?
The blog will present research hypotheses, methodological questions, partial results and text drafts.