Digital History

In recent years, a shared space has become imperative: in our modern world of data, a revolution is underway in the humanities and social sciences. With the digitization of primary sources, historians are not immune to these changes, particularly historians of the contemporary period whose sources in the future will be ‘born’ in digital format.

Not only are historical sources being digitized, they are being made available online—researchers can now consult them without having to visit the archives. These two changes will force us – or have already pushed us – to adopt new tools and new methods and to think about a new epistemology.

This collection of essays brings together feedback and assessments, both positive and negative, to foster broader reflection on the historical profession in the digital age. The chapters provide a better understanding of the tools and methods that are useful for historians trying to make their way through the now ubiquitous digital environment.

Exploring the Digital Environment of Historical Research

A great many issues about this digital environment are emerging from its uses:

  • The growing use of digital resources;
  • The use of the web which has changed our everyday lives as researchers and teachers ;
  • The uncertainty of the status of digital texts, which are ‘fluid’ both in their form and content;
  • The uncertain future—although it is becoming more certain with the Open Access movement— of research publications.

The case of Parallel Archive (Eva Deak) illustrates the many methodological questions about online archives: what confidence can be placed in the users who upload documents? How representative are these archives, which for the most part are private? How to judge their authenticity? Despite these questions, initiatives such as Parallel Archives also promise a bright future, of making available online private archives that are otherwise very difficult to gain access to.

CC Flickr bryan Mathers

In addition to questions of authenticity and trust, there are the legal issues of intellectual property: even though IP has been the subject of an unprecedented expansion in the digital age, it is also the object of profound and ambiguous challenges. It is indeed perceived by researchers as a barrier to research as well as to protection of the results of that work. Other legal questions such as personal data are also of concern, a sensitive issue for which associations of archivists have drawn up petitions. Andreas Bagias, then archivist for the European Parliament, has shown the possible difficulties that may arise when trying to implementing the political desire for greater transparency: the Parliament of the European Union put numerous documents online, yet this transparency is contrary to the right to be forgotten. Does the latter, which protects the individual, risk making us forget our collective past?

CC Pixabay slightly_different

Another issue about the equality of languages ​​and cultures – although more difficult to understand – is just as real. For example, text recognition software is not adapted to ‘rare’ languages such as Hebrew (Gerben Zaagsma). Is the digital age leading to a marginalization of what is already a minority? While one may respond that the decentralized structure of the web should enable exploration of the margins, the emergence of large companies with a monopoly, such as Google, largely challenge that answer. Text recognition here is only one example: our greater dependence on technology also raises the question of how technology is developed, in other words based on a mainstream, Anglo-American culture. This, however, should be seen as a call for historians and researchers in the humanities and social sciences to participate in information technology to encourage IT people to take into account cultural diversity.

Seize opportunities

Digital research does not only raise a number of problems; it also extends the range of possibilities for the historical sciences:

  • makes collaborative work more easy and thereby we have sources about subjects that have traditionally been somewhat neglected (Élodie Nowinski);
  • facilitates large-scale projects for interdisciplinary and international research;
  • varies our sources by using multimedia that are easier to store and analyze massively;
  • find shared solutions thanks to open software and open access;
  • capture new sources by calling on ‘crowds.’

These new opportunities need to be seized and given a methodological framework. Yet for that, historians must first be aware of the need to do so, which is not always the case for the social and collaborative Web 2.0 (Gino Roncaglia, Olivier Le Deuff, Serge Noiret).

CC Flickr Mkhmarketing

Among these opportunities, the question of historians’ audience must not be overlooked. Some have feared that the historical narrative now develops without historians. However, the articles by Tsuriel Rashi and Israel Hershkowitz on Yad Vashem, and by Enrica Salvatori and Serge Noiret, show the extent to which digital technologies enable historians to address a wider audience and to involve them in developing historical narratives, for example by transforming ‘public history’ projects into an experience in museums (Marie-Pierre Besnard). Historians can also be inspired by high-quality ‘amateur’ projects such as PhotosNormandie (Patrick Peccatte).

The digital environment also pushes us to do history differently. David Bodenhamer insists on the growing connection – very dear to the French – between history and geography, which is a connection encouraged by digital technologies.

Conditions for Transforming Contemporary History

There are, however, conditions to be met in order for the issues raised by digital contemporary history to be transformed into opportunities. First, the methods and tools needed require greater technical mastery, which in turn requires interdisciplinary work and recourse to the ‘auxiliary sciences’, which have fortunately been rediscovered. Some of them have even adapted much faster than history to the world of digital research.

The projects described in a work by Alain Michel, Shadia Kilouchi (Usines3D – a 3D reconstitution of a factory line in a Renault workshop in 1920) and Aurore François (just-his.be – putting sources about the history of Belgian law online) are a good example. Indeed, without cooperation between librarians, research assistants and historiens, these projects would have been impossible. This call for interdisciplinarity also leads us to analyze the needs of historians in terms of digital tools and training – not only in research, but also in teaching (Genaro Oliveira).

CC Pokepedia

Another condition for historians to fully dive into the digital era: the evolution of large digital infrastructure for education and research. This is needed to avoid the archipelago syndrome (Marin Dacos), that is to say, the fragmentation of research based on technologies that cannot communicate. This infrastructure needs to ensure interoperability between projects and the data produced by research, by giving increased attention to the standards, protocols, and software used. Since the publication of this book, and especially the conference where its papers were given (2009), the research infrastructure in France has changed considerably-evidenced by the vast research platform Huma-Num or the OpenEdition portal revues.org.

These platforms will also ensure that research-related data will be available for a long time. This is especially important because it overcomes the major drawbacks of doing project-based research, which often does not follow-up after the project is completed.

Reinforcing History

Finally, as pointed out by the late Peter Haber, the digital age strengthens the disciplinary foundations of history. As a result, our critical thinking should be more highly developed than ever before. Source criticism, the heart of our methodology, takes on even greater importance. For contemporary historians (and others), the fact that sources are available for a long time carries another particular consequence: the digital document, as it is fluid or ‘liquid,’ must be subjected to ‘archeology’ to analyze the traces of its preceding forms and content (Le Deuff). Source criticism, in an updated version but with the same rigor, and has a bright future ahead of it.

Crédits image à la Une : CC Pixabay Geralt et crédits image d’entrée : CC Mondes Sociaux


Frédéric Clavert

Université de Lausanne ( frederic.Clavert@unil.ch)

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Frédéric Clavert

Université de Lausanne ( frederic.Clavert@unil.ch)

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