Abstract: Gerben Zaagsma, Exploring the History of Digital History

Montag 01.03.2021, 15h30-16h45: Roundtable 2 “Digitale Praktiken in der Reflexion” (Diskussion Paper/Screencasts, Moderation: Jörg Wettlaufer)


As long as new preservation technologies and computing machines have been developed, the question of their utility and uptake in historical research practices has been debated. Yet, the very fact that historical knowledge production has always been affected by new and emerging technologies is often forgotten. Similarly, the fact that key epistemological and methodological questions in what we now call ‘digital history’ were already debated decades ago by earlier generations of computing historians (analog and digital) is mostly overlooked. It seems as if every new generation of historians rediscovers the promise of ‘digital history’, with all of its attending hopes, visions and ambitions for reinventing and reshaping historical research.

This rhetoric of radical newness is not unique to digital history but, as Nyhan, Flinn and Welsh have shown, a general feature of much discourse about digital humanities in the past twenty years (Nyhan, Flinn and Welsh 2015). They warn that without an understanding of the history of computing in the humanities, “we are condemned to repeat the revolutionary trope ad infinitum” and succumb to a superficial and “evolutionary model of progress” in which that complex history is effectively erased. In order to ground our current ‘digital’ practices and learn from past experiences and expertise, we need to contextualise and qualify what is new and what is not. In other words, we need an answer to the question: what were, and are, the continuities and ruptures in the use and uptake of new technologies in historical research, and in the debates that accompanied them?

If exploring the uptake of new technologies is key to unpacking the origins of digital history, it is equally important to understand the role of ideologies in shaping its prehistory. Technological innovations, after all, have always shaped and been shaped by the political and ideological currents of the time. The role of punched cards and early computing in shaping post-WWII society, and in sustaining powerful new visions of post-war modernity, is well known and extended far beyond alliances between the military and the sciences (Leslie 1993). Steven Jones, for instance, refers to “the complex and ambiguous entanglements and collaborations by which [proto-digital humanist Roberto] Busa’s kind of humanities computing emerged in the Cold War era” (Jones 2017). When historical research is concerned, however, the nexus between ideology, technology and the academy was nowhere more clear than in efforts made behind the Iron Curtain to integrate computational techniques in a new (politically inspired) historical materialist historiography.

Any discussion of these two intertwined aspects, the uptake of new technologies and influence of political ideologies, however, needs to start from an in-depth comprehensive overview of the full breadth of the various trajectories that ‘digital history’ has taken since the 1950s. Such an overview serves another key purpose too. The oft-observed current dominance of Anglosaxon digital humanities discourses and practices belies a much more complex reality and spatial diversity (Fiormonte 2017; Mahony and Gao 2019). This is equally true for digital history, where sometimes a tendency exists to ‘look West’ only. Yet, from the 1950s onwards, the first ‘history and computing’ conferences brought together practitioners from the USA, UK, many different European countries (‘West’ and ‘’East’), as well as the Soviet Union.

Several national case studies exist that focus on historical aspects of the development of digital humanities in general and/or digital history in particular, but very few attempts have been made to compare and/or integrate national perspectives. Since Daniel Greenstein’s seminal 1996 article, in which he traced the diverging developments of computer-aided historical research in Europe and the United States (Greenstein 1996), only Boonstra, Breure and Doorn have attempted to widen the spatio-temporal focus in their 2004 overview Past, Present and Future of Historical Information Science.

This short paper will present the first results, and outline my new project which investigates the early trajectories of history and computing and focuses on the networks of computing historians in the pre-PC and early PC period. A key focal point for this reconstruction are the DH conferences that took place in the 1960s and 1970s and later those under the aegis of the Association for History and Computing (1987-2001) and its national member organisations. By studying which scholars attended and where they came from, and by linking that to the topics and methods that were discussed, it will be possible to chart, over time, shifting geographical, topical and methodological developments.

Part of this reconstruction also entails a web/internet archaeology of the old AHC website old H-NET Discussion List for History and Computing (now: H-DigitalHistory). The aim of building this data set is to be able to analyse and visualise the networks of (proto) digital historians, and chart which topics came to the fore over time and in specific spatial contexts, so as to gain insight into the early development of the field of history and computing. As the AHC website, and secretariat, was hosted in the Netherlands for years, this work will also be complemented by conducting oral history interviews in the Netherlands.

Key references:

  • Boonstra, Onno, Leen Breure, and Peter Doorn. Past, Present and Future of Historical Information Science. Amsterdam: NIWI-KNAW, 2004.
  • Fiormonte, Domenico. “Digital Humanities and the Geopolitics of Knowledge.” Digital Studies/Le champ numérique 7, no. 1 (2017).
  • Greenstein, Daniel. “Bringing Bacon Home: The Divergent Progress of Computer-Aided Historical Research in Europe and the United States.” Computers and the Humanities 30, no. 5 (1996).
  • Jones, Steven E. Roberto Busa, S. J., and the Emergence of Humanities Computing. The Priest and the Punched Cards. London: Routledge, 2017.
  • Leslie, Stuart W. The Cold War and American Science: The Military-IndustrialAcademic Complex at MIT and Stanford, New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
  • Mahony, S., and J. Gao. “Linguistic and Cultural Hegemony in the Digital Humanities.” In Proceedings of the Digital Humanities Congress 2018. Sheffield, UK: The Digital Humanities Institute, 2019.
  • Nyhan, Julianne, Andrew Flinn, and Anne Welsh. “Oral History and the Hidden Histories Project: Towards Histories of Computing in the Humanities.” Literary and Linguistic Computing 30, no. 1 (2015).

Gerben Zaagsma is an Assistant Professor at the Centre for Contemporary and Digital History (C²DH) at the University of Luxembourg. His main fields of interest are modern European Jewish history (including Yiddish Studies), digital and music history. Before joing the C2DH he worked as a research fellow in the project “The diaries of Anne Frank. Research—Translations— Critical Edition” at the Lichtenberg Kolleg, The Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of Göttingen, where he was responsible for the annotations of a new critical scholarly edition of the diaries and conducted research on Jews in hiding in the Netherlands.

Within the context of digital history he is particularly interested in the methodological and epistemological implications of using new technologies in historical research and writing. He currently works on two related projects that investigate the politics of digitisation and the history of digital history.



Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
AG Digitale GW (2021, 21. Januar). Abstract: Gerben Zaagsma, Exploring the History of Digital History. Digital History. Abgerufen am 15. Juni 2024, von https://digitalhist.hypotheses.org/2590

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AG Digitale GW

Die Arbeitsgruppe "Digitale Geschichtswissenschaft" des Verbands der Historiker und Historikerinnen Deutschlands e.V. wurde auf dem Mainzer Historikertag im September 2012 gegründet.

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