Outlines of a new, digital source criticism

Pascal Föhr: Historische Quellenkritik im Digitalen Zeitalter, Basel 2018; https://edoc.unibas.ch/64111/ Thesis (Dissertation). Review

Not only society, but also science and with it historiography are changing. If this change takes place outside of existing basic patterns of scientific thought, there will be a paradigm shift, induced by new techniques and concepts. The “digital turn” triggered by computers, programs and algorithms and amplified and disseminated by the Internet would have to prove to be a showcase case of a scientific revolution in the sense of Thomas Kuhn, even if he developed his concept primarily for the natural sciences. The difficulty of such an investigation lies, however, in the question from which point of view we should lead it – we are in the middle of it. This can also be seen in Pascal Föhr’s dissertation. While the question of his research corresponds to the traditional historical method, the majority of the terms he uses come from the new world of computer science.

In his carefully designed investigation, the author explores the question of how historical source criticism is currently changing. His aim is to develop new, contemporary foundations for the historical-critical method. This is necessary because digital sources have new properties and differ from previously known materials. In order to make the new types and genres of digital sources usable for historiography, Föhr relies in particular on information technology methods. He presents in detail the problems in dealing with digital objects and proposes solutions to bring the infrastructure and working methods of historiography up to date.

It is not so that digitality is not discussed at all in history. According to Föhr, however, this discussion is characterized by new forms of acquiring and imparting knowledge and by digital archiving; but digital source-critical methods have hardly been discussed to date. From this deficit, Föhr derives the choice of topic for his dissertation. He sees the humanities and social sciences facing the challenge of developing a (critical) awareness of the handling of digital objects. He seems to miss a clear commitment to the new possibilities: Historians would be reluctant to acquire the necessary knowledge of computer science. But Föhr, too, shows a certain scepticism as to whether the “Digital Humanities” actually form a new, independent field of research. They have yet to provide proof of this with genuinely new questions and insights.

Pascal Föhr understands “Digital History” as the processing of historical questions with computer-aided analysis methods on the basis of digital sources. This (working) definition takes account of the open field of practice by permitting various developments: new research materials, new methods and techniques for source criticism, new channels for the production and mediation of historical knowledge (Internet, Wikipedia), digital archiving, e-learning, hybridity, interdisciplinarity. The protagonist around whom Föhr’s dissertation revolves is the “digital object”. He assumes that it is “physically intangible” and therefore represents “a new kind of source”. Consequently, there must also be new types of sources and a new critique of sources that can only be described and developed with the help of computer science. From this, Föhr concludes that digitality, in Kuhn’s conceptuality, represents a new paradigm, and in his work he shows in detail how this changes the way history works.

The author first examines the properties of the digital object, which exists in three forms, “digitized data”, “born-digital data” and “reborn-digital data”. He then examines how the “process steps” of the traditional historical-critical method – heuristics, source knowledge, source criticism, interpretation, representation – have to be adapted due to the three new source types. The heuristic as such remains, but is supplemented by new spaces, strategies and methods of search. Also the source knowledge does not change in principle, but is extended by algorithmically generated references by search engines.

As to to source criticism, Föhr comes up with a surprising demand: in order to determine the authenticity of a source, he not only demands the application of information technology questions – with which hardware and software was the object generated? in which format is it available? – but also an (individual!) storage. In this way he wants to take into account the volatile properties of digital objects. However, two questions arise here: Should the backup not be entrusted to the specialists in the archives and bibliographies?

The interpretation, on the other hand, does not involve any fundamental adjustments. However, Föhr points out that the information system in which the digital object to be interpreted is present must always be taken into account. Finally, the representation as a process step also remains, whereby new possibilities for the mediation and networking of research results arise on the Internet. Overall, Föhr comes to the conclusion that digital rather than physical objects must be regarded as the “leading medium”.

In source criticism, the author attaches great importance to authenticity and integrity: a source should reproduce an event as it actually was; the object representing it at the time of the research must correspond to its former state. The object is semantically integer if the real or modelled facts are reproduced truthfully. This can be checked with a “hash value” or a “digital signature”. Föhr notes that the reproduction of a digital original does not create one copy, but two “clones”. He therefore rejects the term “original copy”, with which Gisela Fehrmann tries to define the status of original and copy as a product of transcriptive processes.

Föhr suggests introducing a time stamp as proof of the integrity of a digital object in scientific publications. He also attaches great importance to the solution of persistence, because offers such as “Digital Object Identifier (DOI)” or “Permalinks” do not really guarantee permanent addressing of authorship, unless it is associated with long-term archiving, as is the case with URNs issued by libraries. Studies show that about one third of the sources linked in “social media” are not retrievable after two years. Föhr therefore also calls for a “link check”; he describes links to information that supplement the content of the primary object as relevant.

While the authenticity of a digital object can be checked with its history of transmission and the storage location is decisive, the specification of a publication location can be dispensed with in the future. The digital object must always be understood as a manuscript, notes Pascal Föhr, its representation always depends on an information system: “The Code is not the Text (unless it is the Text)” (John Cayley). Föhr’s source-critical considerations lead to an approximation of authenticity, which mathematically calculates the usability of a source on the basis of its integrity, persistence, dating, authorship, addressing, content and relationships.

The author stresses that information systems allow more source material to be evaluated and new connections to be uncovered, and is convinced that computer science is not an auxiliary science, but the foundation of the new, digital, historical-critical method. This also applies to the presentation of research results on the Internet, where digitality in the form of hypertext, visualization and networking questions the traditional monograph. He also advocates blogs as “places of knowledge for research” (Mareike König). They have already proved useful as tools for modular communication and networking. However, since information on the Internet is basically “volatile”, Föhr recommends an extended chain of references as citation form (author, title, identifier, link check, version, date, collection, page).

At the end of his dissertation, Pascal Föhr advocates the training of “digital historians”: He is guided by the draft “Guidelines for the Professional Evaluation of Digital Scholarship in History” of the American Historical Association. The focus is on information and media competence, understood as the ability to determine the need for information, develop search strategies, use sources, evaluate data, and communicate results (digitally). “Innovative technology needs competent people who can master it instead of being mastered by it” (Gerd Gigerenzer).

Pascal Föhr has written a dissertation that takes “historical source criticism” well into the “digital age”. A possible new paradigm, however, only emerges in outlines. Föhr points out the problems of change and presents possible solutions. His finding that the metadata and parate texts of digital objects and their environment are “fundamentally untrustworthy” is thought-provoking. But here, too, he provides a remedy with his innovative approximation of authenticity. Föhr counters the high volatility of digital objects with (individual) storage measures. He rightly ultimately relies on archiving in a public or state environment: as many sources as possible should be made available digitally and physically. The future remains hybrid, even if the new lead medium is no longer physical, but digital.

Guido Koller

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

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