The Future of the Past

By Anne Welsh, on 22 March 2012

On Tuesday  Melissa Terras spoke at the Institute of Historical Research’s roundtable on Digital History (#dhist). In this post, Greta Franzini provides a short summary.

The IHR’s roundtable session, The Future of the Past discussed the future of history and how digital resources affect the way historians preserve history.

The panel included Dr Melissa Terras (Co-Director of UCLDH), Dr. Adam Farquhar (Head of Digital Scholarship at the British Library), Dr. Torsten Reimer (Project Manager at JISC) and Prof. Tim Hitchcock (University of Hertfordshire), the latter reading a paper by Prof. Andrew Prescott (Head of the Department of Digital Humanities, King’s College London) who could not attend in person due to an injury. The talk was wrapped up by Prof. Lorna Hughes’ (University of Wales) response summarising the main points and discussing her views on the topic.

Prof. Andrew Prescott’s paper  flagged the current propensity to over-rely on electronic publications of historical data, used as replacements rather than surrogate media. It also noted that the academic market for historical studies is not the most profitable one, so we should strive to create large historical, crowd-sourced projects and collaborations to counterbalance commercial resources and act against the commodification of knowledge. Prof. Prescott has posted his paper on his blog.

Dr. Melissa Terras discussed how computers and datasets are changing historical methods by examining three points:

  1. Scale of datasets. In the past, data-analysis projects were forced to meticulously select materials due to resource, time, technological and work-force restrictions. The unlimited power of today’s computers, however, allows us to perform quick, effective and seamless analyses on large datasets. Improved data querying and manipulation encourage new interrogations and change the way historians articulate their research. Dr Terras also described the difference between humanities and sciences datasets, whereby the former tend to be very noisy, error-laden and fragmented while the latter are organised and systematic.
  2. Detail of historical materials we look at. Today’s technology allows us to discover details that have so far escaped our attention. Exploiting new technologies, such as multispectral imaging of manuscripts, furthers our understanding of cultural heritage and history.
  3. Agency. Who is allowed to contribute to history? More and more projects nowadays rely on crowd-sourcing as a cost-effective means of producing large scale datasets and results. Transcribe Bentham exemplifies this trend in that it allows the general public to contribute to the project. The more people we involve, the more detail we get. But by the same token, the more information we get, the more chaos is produced. We need to ensure we trust and are clear about what we are doing.

Dr. Adam Farquhar’s work seeks to address the digital needs of historians and other departments within the British Library by producing digital tools to facilitate scholarship and research. In particular, Dr. Farquhar looks at the development of innovative models for digital scholarship by exploiting digital content and new technologies.Digital scholarship, Dr. Farquhar added, needs to rely on comprehensive digital collections and infrastructures, especially as radical changes in research have seen a growth of digital content, more interdisciplinary and collaborative work, more data analysis and repurposing of content. This trend comes with a set of requirements: mass and focused digitisation, visualisation tools, improved discovery, open licenses and APIs, conversion to data and analysis tools and interfaces for sharing (to mention a few).

Good examples of this new digital wave are the First World War digitisation project, set up to celebrate its 100th anniversary; the British Newspaper Archive which aims to become a free service and to facilitate historical research; the collaboration with Google to digitise books produced between the French revolution and the end of slavery; and the IMPACT project, whose aim is to improve state-of-the-art OCR technology which has yet to produce satisfactory results for old books, magazines and newspapers.

Dr. Torsten Reimer  began his digital history career in his undergraduate years in Munich where he worked on a digitisation project on history of early modern warfare and persecution of witchcraft. Echoing Prescott and Hitchcock’s previous remarks on the complementarity of digital and ‘real’, Dr. Reimer emphasised the need to effectively use digital methods so to avoid the frequent misconception of digital humanities as ‘digital photocopying’. We should be ‘big and bold’, ‘go public’ and not be scared by projects dealing with large-scale datasets as these can quickly gain interest and have the potential to be expanded. JISC’s new project, JISC Elevator, gives people the chance to advertise their project ideas through video-pitches and to receive JISC funding depending on their popularity. Historians can now make digital scholarship more exciting as they have access to a much more varied set of resources (images, film, sound, etc.), thus deeply changing historical research practice.

Lorna Hughes’ response, heavily tweeted under #dhist hashtag, essentially asserted how digital is not to be perceived as a plugin but as a founding pillar of good history.

The following Q&A session was also heavily tweeted, again under the #dhist hashtag.