History in a digital world

von NordicHistoryBlog

A guest contribution by Kenneth Nyberg and Jessica Parland-von Essen. One of the fundamental processes of change affecting all academic disciplines over the last half century or so is the impact of digital technology on both research as such and how it is communicated in a wider context. In the last few years, the awareness in universities of the challenges this development poses has increased. Even so, the attitude towards information technology and methods based on it is often uncritical or naïve, due to the fact that technology is so accessible that we do not see how sophisticated software is shaping all that we do with its help. For these and many other reasons it is becoming increasingly important that historians, as well as those responsible for collecting and preserving cultural heritage, have a basic understanding of the technical aspects of their work and how these affect research and scholarly communication within and outside the cultural heritage sector.

Working with digital materials and tools requires much reflection and careful planning. Each project is unique, but there are still good reasons to know some basic things. Since all of us now work with computers, in practice this applies to everyone involved in any kind of research. Considering the fact that today we potentially have more digital sources than any other type of material, and that the historians of the future will primarily have digital sources for reconstructing or understanding our own age, this is an urgent area of concern also for cultural heritage institutions like archives, libraries and museums.

In an international context Digital Humanities (DH) is already a large and growing field, and in both Finland and Sweden work based on advanced technological solutions is underway. One such project is “Zacharias Topelius Skrifter” (The Collected Writings of Zacharias Topelius) and another is “Litteraturbanken” (The Swedish Literature Bank, see also the contribution here on NordicHistoryBlog). In English there is by now an extensive, partly quite specialized literature on Digital Humanities, but in Swedish there are not even more general works that introduce the topic.

The purpose of our project “Historia i en digital värld” (History in a digital world) is to write an elementary book that can meet this need, and that also touches upon some of the epistemological and general methodological issues raised by „the digital turn“. We mainly focus on historical research and questions about preservation of sources used for such research, but large parts of the book should be relevant also for humanities in a broader sense. Our aim is to put together a publication, ideally both digital and printed, that is equivalent to a short monograph (perhaps around 60,000–80,000 words). The primary goal is to provide a broad and brief overview, but on a number of specific points it will also contain more extensive and slightly more technical treatments of topics such as TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) markup, GIS (Geographic Information System) technology etc. A large number of links and references will lead the reader to more specialized literature and external digital resources for deeper coverage or real-world examples of the phenomena that we discuss.

During the initial phase, which began on 15 May 2013 and is expected to end in early January 2014, the main text as well as the specially commissioned in-depth articles are published in weekly instalments on the website http://digihist.se, where each new section is announced in a brief blog post. This process of writing in public makes it possible for anyone who is interested to comment on the work in the form of questions, critique or other suggestions. The original publication plan outlines eight chapters divided into c. 30 sections and about ten in-depth articles, but as we write through the chapters and sections merge or new ones get added the plan is revised, and there is a page where one can always see an up-to-date publication schedule with links to those chapters and sections that have already been made available. In the second phase all of the comments we have received will be worked into the manuscript of the finished book, which we hope to be able to publish by the end of 2014 at the latest.

Kenneth Nyberg is Associate Professor of History at the University of Gothenburg (Göteborg) · webpage: http://kennethnyberg.org · Twitter: @ksnyberg

Jessica Parland-von Essen is Adjunct Professor of History at the University of Helsinki (Helsingfors) and Executive Director at Brages Pressarkiv · webpage: http://www.bragespressarkiv.fi/ · Twitter: @jpve

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