Open up the Workshop of the Historian!

Pierre Mounier, Die Werkstatt des Historikers öffnen: Soziale Medien und Wissenschaftsblogs, November 4, 2011

Review with respect to digital humanities

How digital technologies are changing the work of historians?

Data bases, (retro)digitization and analysis of social networks are important milestones. Digital technology has changed the toolbox of historians and their publishing fundamentally. Digital technology and its social impacts carry all signs of a “permanent revolution” according to Philippe Breton. These are new practices of interconnected communication, which are also broadly reflected in the humanities. The tools of Web 2.0 are characterized by their easy use and their horizontal and immediate nature of communication: Platforms for sharing content (documents, photos, references), blogs and social networks provide an ensemble of social media for scientific use.

What is the role of a blog in research and when is it used? On a blog the historian is working “in an open workshop”, he reveals his routine working, reading, knowledge, his hypotheses. A blog gives its author great freedom in terms of theme, rhythm, shape and length of his publications. This draws a “hybrid readership” that gets in contact with the author. Blogs therefore are methodically and thematically very different.

News and comments out of the research of the author are often found in blogs. They are becoming a monitoring tool, a scientific radar – as Nuevo Mundo Radar for Latin America for instance. Other blogs have detailed notes about specific aspects of research. In many team blogs, historical sources are shared and commented. They are then research journals, which themselves may become a source for research for others.

Archives still play a central and crucial role in the workshop of a historian. His discoveries may give him a competitive advantage, which is why he might hold documents back. Nevertheless, some researchers are working on “open archives”. The blog about the Parliament of Paris for instance is a collection of sources as well as a research journal.

In a number of disciplines methodological blogs are created. This often are tools for the self-reflection for researchers. Who is going to read this, then? It varies. A blog can unlock creativity because it is exempted from academic formalism. However, this process functions only if the blog is subject to public reading, Mounier says. It is not quite clear why that is so. A blog is a risk, howsoever. But it is worth it.

Pierre Mounier’s short, vivid and interesting article describes what is state of the art in “digital history” today. We are curious what Digital History will be tomorrow.


Guido Koller

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

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2 thoughts on “Open up the Workshop of the Historian!

  1. Hello !

    thank you for the review ! To answer you last question, I would say that the risk taken when you make your work public is a strong incentive to be creative. It has something to do with adrenaline I guess ! When you have to respond publicly about what you are writing, you do your best. It is the paradox and the engine of the blog as a reflexive tool : you write for yourself AND in front of others. It is this paradoxical situation that triggers creativity, in my opinion. There are other good arguments in favor of making public draft writings : your peers and people you don’t know can just help you improve your ideas/hypotheses/demonstration/argument/text. For example, when Marin Dacos and I wrote our small book about digital publishing, we released on our blog, draft versions of some of the chapters we were writing. We had some very good advice from readers and our manuscript was strongly improved thanks to these comments.

    I would like to ask Benoît Kermoal, Marie-Anne Paveau, Stéphanie Messal, Mélodie Faury, Jonathan Chibois, and others from the Reflexivités team what they think about that.

    • Dear Pierre,

      Thank you for your response.

      To publish a text is something quite exciting. But we should do it sine ira et studio, as Tacitus used to say.

      We are talking about peer review, then. In the paper era we (used to) do that normally before publishing. But Charles Leadbeater is absolutely with you in this. He published a draft of his famous book We-Think in the net and asked for feedback – just as you did with the book you have been writing with Martin Dacos. “His” – Leadbeater’s – book had many co-authors, then. So the question arises: who is the “author” at the end? I know that Michel Foucault was very sceptical about the notion of “author” in relation to books and work. But shouldn’t we keep to that notion in the Humanities, at least? As a historian I should and I want to have a position, my position, then let others argue with it. This forms a debate, a discussion, a process of an added value of knowledge – I think.

      Cordialement,
      Guido Koller

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