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.

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