Digital history


Historians and archaeologists are learning to master computer tools. This unavoidable change has the potential to reinvent these fields.By Fabien Goubet

​Everything is becoming digital. No exception is being made for the humanities. They are also transforming under the weight of computers and algorithms. Note that we are no longer talking about word processors or instant messaging but about structural mutations that are emerging at all steps of the process: knowledge creation, digitisation of sources, analysis and so on. New practices are also emerging, even new careers. University teaching cannot hide either. In fact, digital humanities now have everything they need to level the humanities’ playing field.

According to Claire Clivaz of the Digital Humanities and Culture Laboratory of the University of Lausanne, the term ‘digital humanities’ only officially appeared in writing in 2004. “We used to talk about ‘humanities and computing’, as if the two concepts were opposed”. The semantic change shows how intimately linked they are today.

Computers drawing borders

The work of Sylvian Fachard of the University of Geneva shows clearly the new possibilities that the digital era is bringing. Fachard is an archaeological geographer who wants to establish the exact placements of the borders between the different communities of Attica, the region encircling Athens, between the 10th and the 1st centuries BC. “The few scarce texts that we have were all analysed at the beginning of the 20th century and do not allow us to move any of the borders already on the map”, says Fachard. Given this difficulty, he has opted for a spatial model of the region. This is composed of other objects, e.g. ruins, tombs etc. that were discovered during digs, and which are indexed according to their location and age. He takes this information and links it with available geographical data such as the topography of the land. All of this data is fed into an algorithm which estimates, with a certain probability, the exact location of the borders for a given year.

Of course, such computer tools do not prevent the archaeologist from working on the ground, as Fachard points out. With the predictions of his model in hand, he can return to his role of archaeologist to seek the evidence needed to confirm or refute them. “All the data must be interpreted if you want a relevant result. Digital technology creates even more data which still needs to be connected. This means taking the analysis to the next level of complexity”.

Collective historyAnother of the digital era’s greatest changes is that of scale. “The digital culture has taken us from the solitary to the collective, as it did in the hard sciences”, says Clivaz. “Articles these days are signed by teams of researchers and no longer by single authors”.

Timescales have also changed, adds Fachard. “When we leave on a dig these days, we take with us touchscreen tablets that allow data collected to be centralised in real time. This means we can adapt our strategy on a day-to-day basis, giving us an incredible flexibility”. Clivaz adds: “Science’s rhythm is changing. We now have continuous production, particularly in the form of blogs written by researchers”.

Clivaz is studying manuscripts from the New Testament, and the digital era is finally giving her access to part of the 5,800 manuscripts written in ancient Greek. Furthermore, it is also changing the way that the historical document is perceived. “There is no longer a single text in a single version, but a real genealogy of all the versions”, she says. “The text has therefore become multiform. This completely changes our way of looking at things. Our highest priority used to be to find the very oldest version of the document; today, however, we see a document as having changed throughout the history of reading”.

She refers to the book historian Roger Chartier, insisting that computer tools are moulding the way we think, adding, “it’s greater than the printing press; the digital
revolution is the most important leap forward since we moved from the scroll
to the codex (Ed. a book bound from handwritten sheets).

A tool to generate hypotheses

One of the effects of this leap has been the change in the relationship between historians and their sources. Martin Grandjean is a doctoral student in history at the University of Lausanne who is looking at the collaborations between scientists and the League of Nations during the period between the two World Wars. One particular
aim of his work is to understand how German researchers managed to continue to
work on the European stage despite having effectively been pushed to one side. To do
this, he is creating a spatiotemporal map of their correspondence.

“I’m less interested in the content of the letters than I am in the metadata, i.e., who
wrote to whom and when”, he explains. This information is then used to sketch out
schematic representations of the metadata with the hope of finding information that
has so far eluded historians. But as rich as his map may be, it does not constitute a
result in itself. “Visualising data gives me ideas and suggests hypotheses, but as with
any historian, I must then consult with the archives if I am to verify them”. These complex data visualisations are also at the heart of a research project between
the universities of Bern and Giessen, the Repertorium Academicum Germanicum
(RAG). At the project’s core is a database of 50,000 academics and intellectuals
who attended universities in the Holy Roman Empire between 1250 and 1550. In
principle, nothing has been stopping anyone from creating such a “Who’s Who”
in the absence of digital tools, except the much more difficult process of interpreting
the results. The RAG researchers have chosen to present this information as a
function of time, an original choice that may also lead to new hypotheses. “It allows us to rethink the role of mediaeval universities with a much wider perspective”, says
Kaspar Gubler, deputy director of the RAG. “The digital nature of our index also allows us to create more links between other research projects”.

The data of the past

Digital solutions and all their power may be the stuff of dreams, but emphatic promises can also attract criticism. Take, for example, the Venice Time Machine, a media project at EPFL that hopes to recreate the Venice of the last 12 centuries using the archives of the Venetian state. The first step is scanning millions of extant documents (some 80 km of archives). “It would be just impossible for human beings to analyse so many documents” says Frédéric Kaplan, leader of the project and professor at the Digital Humanities Laboratory of EPFL.

These machines will decode written manuscripts and extract data such as the
price of cinnamon imported from the East, the salary of the condottieri or even a list
of apprentice masons for a given period. “In brief, this project is about getting the big
data of the past to create the Google Maps and Facebook of Venice”, says Kaplan, who
compares his project to the sequencing of the human genome. “Creating this large
infrastructure is a way of providing assistance to many future researchers”. Along
with his partners in Venice, he also hopes to create a virtual tour guide of the city for

This great vision is attracting scepticism, and even distrust, amongst many historians – though they prefer not to be named. “This project has almost zero framework”,
says one of them. Another thinks that “history needs large-scale approaches just as
much as it needs individual approaches”. Kaplan, however, continues to have confidence in himself and his project. “Soon we will publish a complete model of the first district of Venice, the Rialto”, he says.

Keeping one’s identity

Will digital humanities continue to be simple tools amongst the many others already
at the historian’s disposal, or are they going to create an entirely new discipline? “I
think they will, but the question is still being debated within the community”, says
Kaplan. Fachard, on the other hand, thinks that he “will continue to be an archaeologist above all”. Clivaz says: “for me, it’s neither one nor the other. I think that ‘digital humanities’ is just a way of describing the transition, because, at the end of the day, human and social sciences will become digital whatever happens. Even though adjectives such as ‘digital’ may soon disappear on their own, through mere redundancy”.

The digital age may be building bridges, but they are not always easy to cross. In the
corridors of new centres, historians meet with sociologists, computer technicians
and statisticians. “We need people who are able to create the ties between these
different universes” says Bella Kapossy, also of the Digital Humanities and Culture
Laboratory of the University of Lausanne. Any change in a discipline will lead
to the potential redefining of its identity. As Clivaz says, “one of the challenges is
knowing how far we can take collaboration with other disciplines without losing our
own identity”.

Fabien Goubet is a science journalist at Le Temps.