Digital history & historiography

Keynote lecture: The Hybrid Historian - Historical Research in the Digital Age

In the past decade, we have witnessed a shift from technological determinism to more attention to the methodological and epistemological changes in historical research which the digital turn has brought about. This talk will focus on how the practice of doing history has changed in the digital age against the background of broader historical developments in the so-called digital humanities.

I will argue that, in many ways, hybridity, seen at its most basic level as the integration of 'traditional' and 'digital' approaches, is the new normal for most historians. However, when more broadly conceptualised as the integration of newly emerging tools, technologies, materials, and/or practices in historical research, it also becomes clear that hybridity has a long and often unacknowledged history that predates the advent of computers – analog and digital.

Against this backdrop, the first part of my talk traces this unacknowledged history and the debates accompanying the (wo)man-machine encounter in the historical research process more generally. As I will argue, this encounter needs to be qualified according to its most elementary phases (data & information gathering, processing, analysis, and dissemination). Crucially, the speed, enthusiasm, and rate of the uptake of new technologies differs, and has always differed, significantly across these phases. In the second half of the talk, I will then offer a concrete example of these insights by using my research on the diaries of Anne Frank as a case study and will demonstrate the hybrid nature of today's historical research process, both as a reality and potentiality.

Exploring the longue durée of the impact of new technologies on the practice of history is not to deny the specificity of the current moment but helps us to see how 'digital' has now come to affect the entire historical profession in ways unseen before. Indeed, technology has become inescapable, even if many historians refuse to acknowledge the fact and remain reluctant to embrace it. Yet, we can only truly ground our current 'digital' practices, and learn from past experiences and expertise, by contextualising and qualifying what is new and what is not. The real challenge for our profession now is to take a mental leap forward and be consciously hybrid, to acknowledge that 'digital' is not merely complementary but integral to the practice of doing history, and purposely reflect its implications.

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