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.

Lex Heerma van Voss, director of the Huygens ING, argued in his opening speech that the impact of digitization is inescapable. Be that as it may though, historians lack insight into its possibilities and often do not yet master the new methods that are called for. The workshop continued with an introductory lecture by the organizer (and writer of this report) in which the current debate on digital history was historicized by providing an overview of the history of computing in the humanities and in historical research. The terminological transition to what is currently labelled digital humanities was also discussed. Advocates of digital humanities sometimes speak of a paradigm shift: historical research will supposedly become more scientific as it will be based to a larger extent on verifiable procedures as they are known in the sciences. Such claims about historical knowledge production tend to induce a fear in more traditionally minded historians that historical research and writing are reduced to data crunching in which the narrative aspect will get lost, a fear, incidently, that harks back to the early days of history and computing in the 1960s. 

Digital history was defined in the introduction as a (methodological) approach and not as a separate field or subdiscipline. This stands in contrast to what is suggested by the label historical information science ('historische informatiekunde’) as it has been used for a long time in the Netherlands, and whose advocates very much had a specific sub discipline in mind. In addition, the balance between 'analogue' and 'digital' was discussed, not only in terms of source materials  with which the contemporary historian is dealing but also in terms of analysis and source criticism. The contemporary historian still needs significant digital training as hybridity will be a hallmark of the future practice of historical research.

After the broader framework of the workshop had thus been established, different aspects of the theory and practice of digital history were discussed in eight subsequent papers. Chiel van den Akker (Free University of Amsterdam) argued in favor of the online dialogue as a new form of academic history writing. Fien Danniau (University of Ghent) discussed another crucial aspect, namely the way in which the internet changes the relationship between historians and their audiences; the internet does not only provide unheard of opportunities to reach the public at large, the same public also actively participates in online history writing. According to Danniau the amount of online sources is inversely proportional to the amount of online historical context. All this implies that there is much work to be done for digital historians in terms of providing methodology, context, interpretations and historical thinking. Her presentation was followed by Peter Heyrman (Catholic University Leuven) and Christophe Verbruggen (University of Ghent) who raised the question in their respective papers of how heritage can be organized online and how to best implement a digital research infrastructure.

The second part of the program was especially devoted to the practice of digital historical research. Hinke Piersma en Kees Ribbens (NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies) discussed their experiences with two (Clarin funded) digital history projects and the possibilities but also the challenges of doing digital historical research: how to formalize research questions in such a way that computers can work with them? And how to deal, for example, with implicit references in texts which can be recognized as such by a human being but not by a computer without training? The possibilities and limitations of using online historical information was also shown by Rik Hoekstra (Huygens ING) in his talk on the representativeness of the Biografisch Portaal for biographical/prosopographical research. Yannick van Loon (Catholic University Leuven) then proceeded to show how relevant digital information for historical research can be organized online by discussing the example of the Jesuitica portal. In their final paper, Rens Bod and Andreas van Cranenburgh (University of Amsterdam) argued for the use of text analytical methods in historical research. 

As had been the case before, this final paper provoked some spirited discussion on the sense and nonsense of digital methods and the alleged uniqueness of historical research. Provoking that discussion was exactly the aim of the workshop. Both enthusiasm and a certain reluctance to embrace the digital age with all its possibilities were at display. At the same time the inevitability of integrating 'analogue' and 'digital', as well as the need for more thorough and open discussion on how the métier d'historien is changing in the 21st century. The workshop provided a good impulse for the latter and the discussion will no doubt be continued. 

Gerben Zaagsma, Huygens ING