Digital History: the new craft of (Public) Historians
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Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie promoted the French School of the Annales. In his essay The Historian and the Computer (1973) he wrote that “history that is not quantifiable cannot claim to be scientific”. History had to be done only using computers. For this “nouvelle histoire”, the historian’s craft was depending first on the demographic and economic structure, then on social factors and finally, from intellectual, religious, cultural and political issues. Only historians analyzing enormous quantities of data’s would have revealed the real “meanings” of history. Quantitative history would have explained the structure of historical processes and the computer was the new instrument needed to perform such a task.
The databases organizing the historical statistical sources were using specific computational languages as John Backus IBM Fortran (1957). In the sixties the big IBM mainframes were working with magnetic tape and punched card without keyboards, storing serial data’s and answering statistical queries. In 1963, a political historian, William O. Aydelotte adopted quantitative study methodologies to describe electoral behaviors. In 1974, Robert Peter Swierenga, historian of the Dutch emigration, wrote that mainframe computers allowed universities to promote quantitative comparative history.
Edward Shorter wrote a first guide on the historian and the computer in 1971.
Many of these quantitative studies failed because of the impossibility to recreate and verify the process. Still today, historians remain skeptical about the overall results of these computational activities and about their impact on history as a discipline. In 1979, Lawrence Stone criticized this technological and quantitative determinism based on assumptions derived from sources that nobody could have re-used. For Stone, the many quantitative studies were too formal, often useless and they dispersed an enormous amount of energies and financial means for supporting the IT teams needed to work with big computer architectures.
The digital revolution started from the use of new word proceeding software’s and specific programming languages for historians which served directly individual research in stand-alone history workstations, a “microcomputer revolution for Historians” wrote Richard Jensen in 1983. This hardware and software transformation permitted a new kind of handcrafted workshop in historical research and coped better with the complexity of history not limited to serial data’s.
|Manfred Thaller inventor of Clio-Kleio|
Manfred Thaller was one of the leaders of the methodological transformation of historical computation.
|Clio interface later Kleio|
The new programs were able to analyse hidden semantic linkage between primary documents. In 1986 in London, an International Association for History and Computing was created to promote the use of computers in history. At the end of the 1980, Thaller invented new computing relational languages with more sophisticated retrieval capacities: the Clio-then KLEIO– software at the Max Planck-Institut für Geschichte. Kleioserved to manage and access diverse typologies –not only statistics- of primary sources in the “history personal workstations”.
|Edward E. Ayers (around 1997)|
A new koinè, humanities computing and historical computing, with new databases, new retrievallanguages to index information, semantic and textual analysis, new typologies of iconographycal and visual sources, the use of geographical information systems, etc. became soon and thanks to web based communication, a new field of historical practices called by Edward E.Ayers in 1997 as “digital history”.
Digital Turn in History: the web revolution.
|Medieval Historian Jean-Philippe Genet|
In 1992, the French medieval historian Jean-Philippe Genet introduced the concept of meta-sources, the new sources created during the computing process and derivated from a “material” evidence. The first important primary sources digitization projects were loaded in the web in the second half of the 1990s in North America and Europe.
|A guide to gathering, preserving, and
presenting the past on the Web
by Daniel J. Cohen & Roy Rosenzweig, 2005
But today, digital history faces new interactive scenarios integrated into what is now called digital history 2.0. Digital primary sources are not only made of meta-sources but are often born in digital format and web sites themselves are new kind of primary sources. Large scale crowdsourcing activities in a web now conceived as a more interacting and collective enterprise, are building new invented archives. The contribution of everybody is needed to complete new web contents in a new kind of web open to many different actors. These new digital archives are offering an enormous potential for new historical inquiries in most fields, thereby redefining history as such.