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.

Acquiring the taste

I borrowed the title of this blog post from the title of the second album by the British 1970s progressive rock band Gentle Giant (which gives you a hint about my musical preferences, by the way!). Somehow the headline sprang to my head when I thought how I could describe the process I’m currently in. I have been sketching up my project for more than a year now, have done a lot of reading and conceptualising. With the blog going online, of course I feel myself under a stronger pressure to write about the actual aims of my study, about the contents and projected scope.

Yet I feel almost as if I still have to, well: acquire the taste. What does my project actually “taste” like? Is it spicy enough, does it stimulate my own senses enough, or have I added too much salt? Is it OK to actually only present the recipe instead of simply saying, here’s the finished meal? What kind of toppings will I add to the dessert? A double espresso or a double Dimple afterwards?

Acquiring the taste: I think I still have to work on the menu. I have a rough idea of the case studies that will be the parts out of which the whole is going to be created. I still have to find out if it’s going to be a four-course or a five-course dinner. For some courses I have an idea about the ingredients, but not how I should cook them. Not to speak of the seasonings which, of course, I can only add at the end.

But I think, it’s going to be delicious and pleasantly surprising, that’s what I am sure of.