Wolfgang Schmale: A New Practice in Digital History

Wolfgang Schmale, Digitale Geschichtswissenschaft, Wien, Köln, Weimar, 2010

Review with respect to digital humanities

Wolfgang Schmale, Vienna University, wonders whether “digital media are historically powerful”. It struck him that digitization transforms space and time in “flowing, unbounded categories”. The digital image of a medieval manuscript, for example, is something different than its original. Its code in dots per inch (dpi) produces a “presentification” on the screen. This goes along with a focus on the individual. Millions of “private archives” are established. Does arise from this a new “power in history”, a “digital history”?

Digital media and specifically the Web have a “dimension of depth” that increases with the length of experience. This “media revolution” consists of several components. The focus is on technology. The work in the humanities is now obvious on the computer screen. This forms a part of the “process of networking”. But “digital history” is not a fact yet, for the time being only “a potential”, “a way”. It must be more creative, if it wants to be succesful  in the net.

Another important component of the “media revolution” is the “liquefaction and acceleration of communication”. Not just access to but also the exchange of the (processed) information, that is, ultimately, research as such is accelerating. Its infrastructure will be shifting more and more into the network. For historiography is thereby crucial to set standards for the quality of content against the openness of the network. The network changes the relationships between individual, collective and knowledge: The loss of individual authority in terms of knowledge contrasts with the profit of importance in the collective formation of historical sense. The sum of all these factors then results in “digital history”, Schmale says.

Not knowledge but “networking knowledge and people” is power, Vannevar Bush said in his famous essay of 1945 “As we may think”. An impressive evidence of this is Wikipedia, in which knowledge is no longer bound to a specific socio-professional group. For the construction of an encyclopaedia of “historical cultural studies” old and new content should be descriped in such a way that semantic connections between data sets can be found (descriptors). In the foreground stand thus indexing, classify and tagging, as in pastperfect.at, Schmale says.

First and foremost on the wish list of researchers is the access to digital sources. Here much is done in the archives, but “digitizing all record groups would not be justified by any cost-benefit-analysis”, Schmale believes. Another priority issue are “collaborative digital work tools” as in pastperfect.at, where hypertexts are jointly produced. The opening up of the Web is especially exciting for the development of historical science. How do you recount “historical phenomena that have a network-nature”, Schmale asks. The “fluid” can only be handled by hypertexts as medium – here is the place where “digital history” is being developed, he says (see my post to the The place in the Digital Humanities, to this).

And then Schmale starts heating things up in his essay: The world in which the Web gains significant importance is that of the “civilization of metropolises”; here “social relationships mutate from a structure to a network”, to a hypertext so to say. It is not entirely clear why this is so. But: Here we find “history, which takes place on the Net”. And by that the position from where we operate historiography is changing radical. So: What is “digital history”? A “science of historical coherence” in networks with “fluid and volatile individuals”, the (re-) presentation of stories in hypertext, Schmale says; for him digital history is a part of historical science that, as a whole, is going to be a “hybrid science”.

Remark / interjection: Digital History as a collection of stories in the form of hypertexts strongly refers to the concept of bricolage as we know it from Claude Lévi-Strauss (please see my post to this and the concept of decentration from Jacques Derrida).

Reading Schmale consequently one believes that “the end of historical monograph” has come. But, fortunately, no: In his view the book remains the domain of „grand scientific stories“ (see my separate post on The Book in the Digital Information Age to this). How does this work together with the “civilization of hypertexts”? Schmale believes, contrary to Michel Foucault, in the “eminent personal and individual deed of science”. He therefore primarily seems to advocate a renewal of the communication of research results. So, Schmale recognizes the digital revolution. But, where Charles Leadbeater advocates the Pro-Am-Revolution (see Link for the review), he wants to keep and reinforce the place of the historiography and its experts. He therefore counts on the Semantic Web. Schmale’s ideas form an important contribution for a coherent concept of “digital history”. To this please see also my post on Peter Haber’s Digital History.

Post Scriptum:

(1) One popular visual communication instrument are slides. They often are awful boring. But, not this one: QualitativeVersus Quantitative Research – Visualization in the Humanities. It is simple and effective in the best sense, a good example in order to show that visualization in the humanities must not be directed against the text but can very well go with it.

(2) A very interesting project in order to visualize archival sources is Trading Consequences: A Case Study of Combining Text Mining & Visualisation to Facilitate Document Exploration from the Universities of Edinburgh, Saskatchewan and St. Andrews. It has been presented at the DH Conference 2014 in Lausanne, Switzerland.


Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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