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. []