Digital History. Ready made.

Peter Haber, Digital Past, Geschichtswissenschaft im Digitalen Zeitalter, München 2011

Review

“What happens to the historiography in the digital age”, Peter Haber, Basel University, wants to know. His concern is primarily about three things: The origins of electronic data processing in the historical sciences, the changing of the production of historical knowledge and the emerging of a new “Workshop of the Historian” (Marc Bloch).

With this questions, the author has been a pioneer in the Swiss historical landscape. Nowadays he shares this field of an emering scientific practice with many other – as can been seen with the activities of the Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences or the universities that begin to establish respective departments, for instance. But: If we can already speak of a digital turn in historical sciences, as the author does, seems still questionable, at least for the time being.

Here is a brief overview of key aspects in this book:

First, Haber deals with the question of how the computer has come into the humanities. He describes quantitative text analysis, the use of the personal computer as a “smart typewriter”, the first real hype with the new communication medium e-mail and the final breakthrough of digital media with the Internet. Henceforth, also the tradition-conscious history could no longer escape to the use of a so powerful media that will shape many more knowledge fields in future.

Then, the author devotes a large part of his book to the question of how the digital media change, or have already been changing, historical sciences. This involves inter alia the importance of the increasingly digital “order of knowledge”. Also here, Haber argues close to the practice with concrete examples of digital knowledge systems such as Wikipedia and blogs. He is asking about the sheer volume and the archiving of information produced and mediated on the Internet, a question that not only interests future historians. He speaks of the myth of the “universally available knowledge” and the “Google syndrome”. Haber stresses the need to provide “information literacy” to students.

The impact of the digital media in history is also reflected in respect to the work with historical sources. In particular, the critical assessment of sources must be extended with the consequences of the digital factor. To deal with such crucial terms as the “original” or “authenticity” proves to be difficult. The historical sciences will have to use appropriate techniques as digital signatures for instance. In contrast to Kiran Klaus Patel, Haber is optimistic: he pleads for a “new history” with “new sources” in the digital era. For him, Google Ngram, the statistically useful database of Google Books, is a modell for a historiographical tool.

Further, Peter Haber sees a decisive impact of the digital media in new forms of communication of research results in history. He focuses primarily on hypertexts, the endless writing and cross linking of short texts on specific topics, as also Wolfgang Schmale does.

Finally, the digital instruments open new collaborative work processes (see my input to the model of Charles Leadbeater to this). Here, Haber remains rather vague, understandable, given the speed at which new digital applications develop. He consequently abstains to identify the main technological trajectories here.

x x x

Peter Haber is, as already mentioned, a pioneer of Digital History in Switzerland. He seems to move on a line with the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at the George Mason University in the United States. A slightly different orientation can be observed in France, where the infrastructure for communication seems to be in the foreground of the digital humanities (see the different tools of the platform OpenEdition).

In the meantime, in Switzerland, universities and the Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences have adopted the issue. If we can already speak of a digital turn in historical sciences, as the author does, seems still to be an open question. For the time being, it is probably primarily a cross-cutting issue or a new auxiliary science. Thus, the University of Berne has announced 2012 a corresponding assistant professorship.

Haber’s book describes very well informed – watching and participating – the development and current status of Digital History in Switzerland. One question remains open, it seems to me: Is it necessary to have a theory of the digital humanities? If this is so, then an analysis would have to deal with questions as, for instance, the following: the delegitimization of great stories, the decentration of authorship and episteme, the question of place and time. To this, see the inputs on  We think History. Ready made.


Guido Koller

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

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2 thoughts on “Digital History. Ready made.

  1. Pingback: Digitization is not research: Theories and practices in the Digital Humanities | We think History

  2. Pingback: Digital History. Ready made. : Global Perspectives on Digital History

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