Digital History in Zurich and elsewhere

For a Workshop about Digital History held on May 13, 2014 at the University in Zurich, reports are now available, notably on HSozKult (in German). Here an English short cut of this report by Christina Rothen:

Christina Rothen: Digital History, 13.05.2014 –14.05.2014 Zürich, in: H-Soz-Kult, 18.07.2014, <http://www.hsozkult.de/conferencereport/id/tagungsberichte-5462>.

Please be aware that any changes I made to the original, including possible distortions in meaning, are solely my own responsibility.

Here an English short cut:

In re-drafting scientific history, digital media and tools have high potentials. But they bring also many questions with them. The workshop discussed mainly conditions and epistemological consequences for Digital History (please see my posts tagged Episteme to this). Young researchers presented arguments for and against the use of digital sources and discussed different forms of contextualization and interpretation of digital or digitized sources as well as the treatment of digital sources.

Catherina Schreiber (Luxembourg) opened the workshop presenting an overwiew of the development of Digital Humanities since the 1960s. She then lectured about methodological questions dealing with digitized and “digital born sources”. For her, the new challenges working with digital sources sharpen the awareness of the procedural and multi-modal characteristics of (digital) history.  These characteristics are to be observed espacially in source criticisms.

Pascal Föhr (Basel) talked about digitally born objects, too. He fears the volatility and the lack of traceability and therefore questions the authenticity of such sources. There is no guarantee that they are really suitable as historical sources, he says. So, source criticisms become one’s more an important issue (see my posts tagged Documents to this).

After the question of materiality, the difficulty of transferring analog archive structures in digital order principles was discussed. Patrick Kammerer (Zurich) described the trend from Kliometrie to an enhanced processing of quantitative data collections. He used the project Historical Statistics of Switzerland Online as an example (see my posts tagged Data to this).

Enhanced metadata is an important issue: Ingrid Brühwiler (Lausanne) showed thatonline access alone does not produce additional context. Good metadata are necessary for historical contextualization. This shows the example of the Swiss School Survey from 1799 that recently has been published online. But, it must also be said that, in certain circumstances, digitization can go along with categorization, as Markus Heinzer (Bern)proposed. He identifies categories before digitizing a large amount of data for his database with a direct assigment of the data. On the other hand, Anne Stisser and Anne Hild Göttingen) found open categorization tools rather tempting – positively and negatively, I assume. Can transparency really be guaranteed, working with such such databases, they ask, reporting their experience with a virtual research environment (Semantic-CorA) for an educational science lexicon analysis.

Text minining and natural language proceedings was an issue in Zurich, too. Raphael Zahnd (Zurich) showed how the use of such tools make the processing of otherwise hardly manageable digital archives feasible. Tools visualize the data and such make it possible to select sources according to their content.

Flavian Imlig (Zurich) is certain that anticipated decisions structure the digital processing of historical sources. This leads to an “unnatural” rigidity of the content because the “right”of a source for veto is neglected. Thomas Ruoss (Zurich) completed the series of short papers, problematizing, as Imlig already did, the “granularity of information in online publications” (see my remarks on Wolfgang Schmale’s New Practice in Digital History to this). Without general or universal used categories, individual research results wouldn’t be comparable any more, they complained.

Interesting were also questions of digital literacy and the impact of digital gateways to the epistemological function of narration. Beside that we lern that University are thinking about inventory projects. The value of such projects for the historical sciences is unquestionable. But, given the problem of more and more data cemeteries, the management, storage and archiving of such data should not be neglected. The portal of the digital historical sciences in Switzerland, Infoclio.ch, is planning to give this subject more attention in the next few years.

At the end, the researchers attending the workshop agreed about the fact of a digital turn and the will to participate in their respecting fields (please see my ShortOutline of a Theory of Practice to this). But it is good to be alerted to the change of methodological approaches and the epistemological consequences doing so, too.


Guido Koller

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

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