Everyone’s history?! An inventory on writing contemporary history in the digital age

Frédéric Clavert, Serge Noiret (Editors), L’histoire contemporaine à l’ère numérique, Contemporary History in the Digital Age, Bruxelles, Bern, Berlin, Frankfurt, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2013. 381 p.


The humanities are subject to a continuous, but recently accelerated change. In the meantime, this change has a powerful name: Digital Humanities. And this name is program – the humanities are to be made ​​ fit for the digital age. To this, in october 2009, a symposium took place, organized by the Centre virtuel de la connaissance sur l’Europe and the University of Luxembourg. The aim was to take into view the new sources, tools and methods of contemporary history. The contributions are now available in a rich anthology, edited by Frédéric Clavert and Serge Noiret, two protagonists of the Digital Humanities in Europe.

In their introduction, they remember Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, who predicted in 1973 that “future historians will either be programmers or no longer be”. [1] Has it come to this? The editors compare the current digital revolution with the invention of printing in the Renaissance. The change affects not only the resources, tools and methods used, but also the epistemology and theories of historiography – a fundamental change, then, that Clavert and Noiret call digital turn”. They plead for cooperation between computer scientists and historians, to meet this change. Le Roy Ladurie actually seems to be right, then.

Bild Clavert Noiret 2013A special opportunity and challenge is the Web 2.0. It dismantles professional authorities, of that some are dangerously tightened, and destabilizes the production and transmission of knowledge. The traditional concept of authorship does not function anymore, a finding, that Michel Foucault has established long before the Internet. [2] Clavert and Noiret ask to renew historiographical methods and to join the digital humanities. So, they outline a development that implies a convergence of methodology in the various disciplines of the humanities.

What that means for the infrastructures of history and humanities, Marin Dacos shows in his article in the first part of the volume. [3] They provide access, stability, interoperability and evaluation (interpretation) of research data. [4] An example is OpenEdition, which operates an information system that flexibly meets the needs of researchers, while ensuring the long-term availability of the data.

Another basis for new research applications is the Web 2.0. Gino Roncaglia has been talking about its key concepts: user-generated content, semantics (metadata, tagging), “collaborative filtering”, RSS feeds, mash-up, apps and design. These features make it easy to classify, select, share, aggregate and use data (information). They are the (technical) basis for social networks, which make up the huge success of the interactive Web 2.0. The humanities can learn from them to renew and restructure their research.

Serge Noiret makes “Digital History 2.0” out of it. He is oriented critically towards Wikipedia, “an information service”, which attracts many users, but contains “little academic content”. He says that it is important to analyze the hypertext architecture carefully, each with its logical, visible and active layer. The web offers an excellent opportunity for public history, where the relationship between historians and the public takes new forms. Noiret shows in many examples how people participate and build whole “history landscapes” that previously would not have been possible. [5]

The proceedings of the symposium contains in its second part further examples of projects for the evaluation (interpretation) of sources: The Archives of the European Parliament (Andreas Bagias), the French press (Annick Batard) and the Belgian Justice (Aurore François). Of particular interest is the Parallel Archive project, which makes available documents from various archives in Hungary to a wider public (Eva Deák). Motive and aim of this experiment: “Turn matters of fact into matters of concern” (slogan of the Parallel Archive).  It will be worth to pursue it, because there are probably many open methodological questions. In addition, important issues of library digitization (Stefan Halikowski-Smith), digital photos (Patrick Peccatte) and “heterographie” in history have been discussed in this section of the conference (Vilanova Genaro Miranda de Oliveira).

It was devoted to detailed questions of method and writing history, too. They form a third part of the volume. An example is Olivier Le Deuff, who emphasizes the risk of “infopollution” in history. He is skeptical about whether science and Web 2.0 really can come together. In contrast to this, Tito Menzani emphasizes the great opportunities of the Web for “scientific output”. The historiography of the cooperatives in Italy so far suffered from the fact that the records were scattered in hundreds of small archives. Now, the web helps to assemble them virtually into a whole, so to make research easier, and to facilitate the communication of the results. The “distribution of products” of historical working is also the subject of further posts in this section: The history (and memory) of regional migration (Philippe Rygiel), the  assembly line at Renault (Alain Michel, Shadia Kilouchi),  Jewish traditions (Gerben Zaagsma) and the fight against Holocaust deniers (Tsuriel Rashi, Isaac Hershkovitz).

The highlight of this methodological part of the symposium is the contribution by David J. Bodenhamer. He starts with the spatial turn in historical research and links it to the potential of Web 2.0.  With the aid of Geographical Information Systems (GIS), space as a “complex social formation” can reduce the distance between observer and observed, let the past appear as dynamic and contingent as the present. So, history is to be seen as a practice. Time is then a series of presences, which are grouped around a particular location. Geography situates us on a physical map, history in time. It is necessary to combine both, structure and activity, to cater the “dense contingency” of all social life. If we change time into motion, we see dynamic patterns, which in turn can identify common reasons or causal relationships. The “geospatial Web” forms the core of a possible “universal humanities GIS” (Trevor Harris), in which participants are both producers and consumers of data (information). A Deep Map would anchor any object – letters, photos, reports etc. – in time and space, thus allowing us to obtain each view on our cultural heritage. Fascinating!

The fourth part of the volume is dedicated to the “digital environment”. In his article on “Primary Online Documentation”, Richard Hacken discusses, inspired by Walter Benjamin, the question of authenticity in the digital age that makes a true copy now very easy. Enrica Salvatori uses Wikipedia, Facebook and Second Life for her medieval lectures. She argues passionately for the training of “digital humanists” in order to use the attractive new digital possibilities for the design and teaching of history. Other examples for the use of the “digital environment” are museums (Marie-Pierre Besnard), libraries (Milagros García Pérez, Cristina Blanco Sío-López) and music (Elodie Nowinski).

“Does the Web allow a better understanding of history?” This question was behind all contributions in this symposium. New technologies and new media open up new possibilities. The papers show that in 2009 this was mainly the case for access to documents and for communicating historical themes. But for the organization of research and the transfer of results, the Web was astonishingly little used at that time. This has greatly changed in the meantime. The humanities are building research infrastructure to facilitate access to resources, to secure data and to communicate results integrally. Here, a new trend is emerging: the data-driven research, which will probably move the humanities even closer to the social sciences. [6] Whether this will end in an “empirical turn”, as postulated at the Hamburg Conference 2012 [7], is currently still an open question.

The conference showed impressively the reality of the “digital turn” in the humanities and the fears it can cause. Perhaps they are related to the incredible speed with which this change goes along. But now, one thing is quite clear: The digital world has revolutionized the production and exchange of information and knowledge, as Frédéric Clavert emphasizes in his final chapter of this interesting book. Data, algorithms and design put our traditional conception of history in question. We recognize, at last: history is for everyone!

[1] Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Le territoire de l’historien, Paris, Gallimard, 1973.

[2] See Guido Koller, Foucault revisited for the Digital Humanities, http://wethink.hypotheses.org/280.

[3] Marin Dacos is Directeur du Centre pour l’édition électronique ouverte.

[4] The European Science Foundation published an excellent report to that: Research Infrastructures in the Digital Humanities, in: Science Policy Briefing, Nr. 42, September 2011.

[5] See Guido Koller, We think History, http://wethink.hypotheses.org/. An interesting analysis of the chances of collaborative working, with Wikipedia as an example, see Guido Koller, We think: Charles Leadbeater and the Digital Humanities, http://wethink.hypotheses.org/24.

[6] See Guido Koller, Digital_Humanities: THE Book!, http://wethink.hypotheses.org/854.

[7] See Guido Koller, Empirical turn in the Humanities? The Frankfurter Allgemeine on the results of the Hamburg conference 2012, http://wethink.hypotheses.org/542.

Guido Koller

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

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