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.

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