In the welcome surroundings of the refurbished Institute of Historical Research, Jo Guldi (Brown University) kicked off the 2014 Autumn Term programme of the IHR Digital History Seminar. In town to discuss The History Manifesto, her new open access book co-authored with David Armitage, Guldi’s talk ranged from the public role of the historians, the Digital Humanities and new model of publishing to impending environmental catastrophe, the need for deep history and data processing tools that can help citizen and scholars alike overcome the problems of modern bureaucracy. To see how Guldi weaved all this threads together, you’ll need to watch the video below. Here I just want to tease in no particular order at a few of threads that stuck in my mind, threads that pertain to most, if not all, digital history projects that pass through the seminar.
Tools as provocations: Paper Machines is a research tool. But it is also a provocation, an experiment with using large swathes of information to inform historical research in the longue durée, a vantage point – the tools makers argue – historians take not often enough. The tool, in short, is the argument.
What we need now: As we sit on the precipice of environmental catastrophe, does it not behove us to think about what digital projects we need? Do we want digital projects that analyse art for art’s sake, that recapitulate old research paradigms and do not address problems of a wider, public relevance?
Hypothesis generation: At the heart of Paper Machines is hypothesis generation. It allows the scholar to take a vast paper archive and facet that archive, make visualisations, select where to read closely. How that macro to micro scaling changes the history that is written, how scholarly debates mature to integrate the inevitable discrepancies between interpretations made at these scales is the challenge historians must re-engage with.
Being bold about method: Works that change the focus of disciplines usually open their accounts by stating ‘you missed this because your method was wrong’. Digital history can and should do the same, it can and should be bold about how it comes to the conclusions it does rather than hide the methods, ways, and means that underpin its particular take on historical phenomena.
My partial, incomplete, CC BY notes on the seminar are available on GitHub Gist.
The next Digital History seminar, ‘Interrogating the archived UK web: Historians and Social Scientists Research Experiences’, will take place on 4 November and a full listing of Autumn Term seminars is available on the IHR Website.
James Baker (Curator, Digital Research, British Library)
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