Monthly Archives: September 2017

Commentary: History and its Sources – after the Digital Turn, GRAINES Summer School 2017

By Sophie Drescher

‘After the digital turn’ – the title of the GRAINES Summer School 2017 in Basel, Switzerland evoked images of a path into a new, largely unknown world, full of potentials and perils. It simultaneously conjured open doors in front and impenetrable walls behind every researcher – the death of the traditional historian, the birth of the digital historian. Scholarship has turned digital, there is no way back – but: is this true and do we like it?

The presented projects showed a fascinating diversity in scope, approach, and focus, and yet, whether they discussed databases and data collection, time machines, visualisation, or network analysis, they all connected over the same questions:

(When) is it useful to employ digital methods? What is the effect of using digital methods? And, parallel to the inherent problem of a historian’s work – quantity versus quality – the underlying question of limits, time costs, and frustration.

While many participants arrived with relatively set ideas as to their approval on digital humanities – ranging from “the next logical step in scholarship” to “I am more than sceptical” – every individual researcher allowed themselves and others an open discussion in which positions were repeatedly questioned, and even avid proponents of digital methods raised concerns and doubts as to their use and value.

As indeed, what is the use of a database that collects information just because it can? What is the use of a map that merely illustrates, a graph that adds nothing but colour to the written word? And how sustainable is our research in an ever-changing technical environment?

On a personal note, I arrived as someone feeling humbled by the seemingly endless opportunities of digital humanities, with a fear of technologies that seemed to require a completely different training than I had received. I left Basel as someone who supports the potential of digital methods, with a much more positive interest in employing new technologies than ever before.

Why? Because I realised that despite all the very real issues with digital methods (from ethical questions to the sheer amount of tinker time necessary to master the technical skills) they are simply a new way of doing our familiar work as historians. At best they open new ways of asking questions that a conventional approach might not uncover. At worst they waste time and energy in pointless activity without meaningful results. Databases ease the collection of data and allow for new quantitative approaches but they cannot select or answer our questions. Maps have been a selective representation for centuries, they do not change their inherent characteristics just because pencil becomes pixel.

Digital methods require critical engagement with both the techniques and the results. They require the skills every good historian has been trained in from the start of their studies. The trick to leave the fear behind and start to see the chance seems to be the realisation that a historian’s work still first and foremost happens in his mind – and that skill is open to everyone.

GRAINES Summer School – History and its Sources: After the Digital Turn – A reflection

By Adam Dunn

The GRAINES Summer School for 2017 introduced a topic that for most historians is both exciting and confusing. The way historians have interacted, used and abused digital methods has tended in two directions. The first, a caution or fear of the unknown. Historians feel that they cannot learn the skills that are required to make best use of the digital humanities or they simply refuse. The second, is with open, uncritical, arms of the miracle technology that will eventually save the Historian’s Craft. The line between the two positions seems thin and difficult to walk. However, this Summer School did a perfect job of it.

The workshops, discussions and project led sessions were critical, engaging and informative. Sessions designed to teach showcase new skills, such as GIS or database software, did not just uncritically present their digital packages as one-size-fits-all deals, or as black boxes in which one could place their research questions and magically find them answered at the other end. Instead, they made us critically engage with the digital turn and to reflect upon why and how we use certain methodologies. One of the most important messages to take away is that the digital humanities must be subject to the same critical criterion of any historical methodology. Additionally, the digital humanities is not a device we can use to answer every question, instead it is useful only so far as we make it useful. A database for the sake of a database is nice but runs the risk of becoming nothing more than a pretty toy.

The project related sessions added a more personal touch and an excellent space to show the benefits of the digital humanities for a diverse range of specific topics or to air one’s concerns or struggles with these new methods. It was also a chance to showcase a wide range of tools that could, potentially, be of use to the historian and how they may go a certain way to answering research questions, or even of creating new ones.

From a personal perspective, I came to Basel having tried many of the digital methods and exploring their possibilities in relation to my topic. More often than not, I came away frustrated and unsure of what the digital humanities could offer me. However, after this intensive week of discussion and discovery I feel that I should give the digital humanities another chance. The help I have received has reinvigorated my desire to retry techniques, apply them in new ways and to ask different, more critical, questions of my method.