gerben zaagsma's blog

It’s the context stupid

On July 9, 2013, a conference took place in the Jewish Museum in Berlin entitled Public History of the Holocaust - Historical Research in the Digital Age. One of the issues brought up in the closing forum discussion was the loss of context in working with online digital archives and/or libraries, a point made by Stefanie Schüler-Springorum who used the example of doing newspapers research to illustrate it. Having used this example often to illustrate the methodological challenges of doing history in the digital age, I was very happy to hear it being addressed in the forum. For loss of context, or loss of awareness of context, when using and working with digital resources is a key issue that is in dire need of more discussion by historians, whether they describe themselves as digital or not.  [node:read-more:link]

Doing history in the digital age: history as a hybrid practice

In reading up on various topics to prepare my lectures for a digital history course I am currently teaching I am struck by the extent to which a dichotomy is created between supposedly new ‚digital’ ways of doing history versus traditional, or if you will analog, historical practices. Whether the focus is on data as a new type of source, digital methods to analyze it, new forms of academic publishing or calls to change our narrative way of writing in order to better integrate and explicate our methodology, the suggestion is invariably that we face a fundamental break with past practices. [node:read-more:link]

Course Digital Historical Research

This week I started teaching on a new course entitled Digital Historical Research. The course is offered to employees of the Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands and NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies from february-july 2013. It is organized by myself and my NIOD colleague Hinke Piersma. I am teaching several of the classes and will upload the slides to my slideshare account. The course website (in Dutch) can be found here


Report Digital History workshop 7 January 2013 at Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands

[This is an English translation of a short report on the digital history workshop held on 7 January 2013 at the Huygens ING, as it appeared on the Dutch website Full disclosure: I did not only write this report but also organized the workshop and gave the introductory lecture. More information on the workshop, including the slides of many presentations, biographies of the speakers and abstracts of the papers (several of them in English) can be found on the website:]

On 7 January 2013, the Royal Netherlands Historical Society (KNHG) and the Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts & Sciences) organized a workshop on the theme of digital history. The aim of this well-attended workshop was to discuss the methodological and epistemological changes that are brought about in historical research as a result of new technologies and the availability of digitized sources. With discussants for every paper, and about 50 participants in total, time was clearly too short to deal with all questions that came to the fore. [node:read-more:link]

New article out in Choosing Yiddish: New Frontiers of Language and Culture

Wayne State University Press has recently published a new book entitled Choosing Yiddish: New Frontiers of Language and Culture.

It contains an article of mine called "Propaganda or fighting the myth of pakhdones? Naye Prese, the Popular Front, and the Spanish Civil War", discussing the engagement of Jewish migrant communists in Paris with the participation of Jewish volunteers in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War.  [node:read-more:link]

Music of the composition BOTWIN on the Spanish Civil War now online

A small update to my previous post on the composition BOTWIN, a musical commemoration of Polish-Jewish participation in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War.

The Centro de Música Contemporánea Garaikideak has recently uploaded the complete work here on youtube: 

BOTWIN: a new composition on the Spanish Civil War

In 2008 I completed my Ph.D. thesis on Jewish volunteers who fought in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War. My thesis centered to a large extent around the Naftali Botwin company that consisted mostly of Yiddish-speaking Polish Jews (see my publications list to download some related articles).

Last April I was contacted by a young Spanish composer named Ignacio Fernandez Galindo. Working with several musicians, Galindo was in the process of creating a composition entitled Botwin. The resulting composition is a musical commemoration of Polish-Jewish participation in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War or, as it is called on the website of the Centro de Música Contemporánea Garaikideak with which Galindo is associated, "a tribute to the forgotten civil war". It includes two poems by the Polish-Jewish Yiddish poet Leib Olitzky (1894-1975) and the Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012).1 [node:read-more:link]

Transitions: on using Drupal in the humanities

In this post I want to discuss the use of Drupal and Drupal distributions in academia, especially the humanities, where Drupal has become an increasingly popular CMS in recent years.

This has not always been the case. Traditionally, Wordpress has been a popular choice among humanists, especially for personal websites/blogs, and in humanities institutes in general, particularly for conference and project websites (see also my post on building a blog with Drupal here). Given its relatively easy learning curve, out-of-the-box functionality and general ease of use this is an understandable choice, if also a self-perpetuating one: given the scarce availability of resources in many humanities institutes, previous experience with a particular system is often a key criterion, even when other systems might suit a project's functional demands better.  [node:read-more:link]

Building a blog with Drupal

When I decided to create this website the first question that came up was: which CMS will I use? I built a previous version with Wordpress which is pretty much ideal for a blog-oriented website. But as it happens I built several websites with Drupal already and I currently work as a web developer using Drupal Commons to create a major new website relating to Dutch history. [node:read-more:link]


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