Digital history & historiography

Exploring the History of Digital History

For 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 (analogue and digital) is often overlooked. There is a lack of transmission of accumulated knowledge from the past and it sometimes 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. 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?

This paper is an attempt to frame what such a history of digital history might look like. It will do so by focusing on hybridity as a key characteristic of historical research. Hybridity, seen as some form of integrating newly emerging tools, technologies, materials, and/or practices in historical research, has a long history that predates the advent of computers. In my paper I will map and qualify that history according to the main phases of historical research: data & information gathering, processing, analysis and dissemination. Importantly, the speed, enthusiasm and rate of the uptake of new technologies in historical research differs and has differed significantly across these phases, in space as well as time. The paper will conclude by outlining what groundwork is necessary to explore digital history’s forgotten roots: a basic overview of the field’s different spatio-temporal trajectories and the networks of computing historians in the pre-PC and early PC period.

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