Digital Hermeneutics: From Research to Dissemination
The radical impact of the digital turn on the practice of all stages of historical research (archiving, research, analysis, interpretation and narrative) requires critical reflection on the methodological and epistemological consequences of digital technologies for historical scholarship. The Fourth Annual GHI Conference on Digital Humanities and Digital History will revolve around the concept of “digital hermeneutics,” defined as the critical and self-reflexive use of digital tools and technologies for the development of new research questions, the testing of analytical assumptions, and the production of sophisticated scholarly interpretations. At the same time, we wish to extend this concept to the realm of dissemination and storytelling. The conference thus aims to critically discuss tools and practices of digital historiography, on the one hand, and to focus on how the digital engenders new forms of public engagement and online dissemination of research results, on the other.
Digital History as first described by Edward L. Ayers in 1999 deals with “historical issues relating to digital or digitized source collections, which should (must) be carried out using interdisciplinary means of digital analysis or visualization.” (Föhr, Historische Quellenkritik im Digitalen Zeitalter, p. 8). While there is little disagreement on such basic assumptions, the actual topics, aims and methods of digital history have taken different directions in the United States and Western Europe. American digital historians (and those in the UK as well) have been strongly influenced by public history concerns and, as a consequence, tend to address citizen scholars, i.e., lay historians, teachers, filmmakers, museum curators, and history associations from the outset. Discussions in Europe tend to focus more on scholarly practices in academic environments, if one can make such generalizations. This bifurcation is especially evident in different approaches to digitized and digital born sources, with European debates displaying an increasing concern with questions of epistemology and source criticism in the digital age. Such renewed digital source criticism reflects on both the potential as well as the hurdles and pitfalls of moving from the analogue to the digitized archive. One question the conference “Digital Hermeneutics” will address is what consequences these different approaches and their methodological implications have for scholarship in digital history on both sides of the Atlantic.
While there has always been an abundance of analogue sources to select from and analyze, the shift to digitized or digital sources has given rise to the phantasm of searching and analyzing everything. Distant reading methods and big data techniques promised to fundamentally transform the way history could be explored. But, as Gerben Zaagsma has argued, the challenges the discipline of history is currently facing lie not so much in creating ever bigger data sets or developing new tools, important as these are. The real challenge is to integrate ‘traditional’ and ‘digital’ approaches in a new and self-aware practice of doing history that draws on digital and analogue sources alike. Digital techniques and collaborative working forms used in this process, as well as the temporary virtual knowledge spaces created in this research process, need to be evaluated and their epistemological impact examined in parallel with the actual research.
In addition to the discussion of methods in the field of digital history, a lively debate has recently developed on the significance of the “digital turn” for the methodological-theoretical self-image of historical scholarship as a whole. Following up on Ayers, Wolfgang Schmale points out that digital historiography is characterized by rhizomatic, multidirectional “historical narration” in the form of hypertexts and links. Describing, analyzing, and understanding historical developments diachronically and synchronously from different angles and perspectives while interweaving textual passages with audiovisual material, exploratory statistics, and visual analysis certainly contain the potential to break up the linearity of analogous historical master narratives.
At the conference we want to discuss this thesis not only theoretically but also on the basis of empirical scholarship. We invite scholars to contribute by presenting and reconsidering their specific projects, reflecting on the methodologies and forms of collaboration they have been using and on their results (new scholarly findings, tools, use cases etc.)