Inaugural Conference of the German Working Group on Digital History – an Interview with Simone Lässig

slaessigIn September 2012, a Working Group on Digital History was founded under the auspices of the German Association of Historians (VHD). The inaugural event of this Working Group took place on September 3rd. Mareike König interviewed the speaker of the Working Group, Professor Simone Lässig, director of the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research.

Professor Lässig, Tuesday 3 September 2013 saw the inaugural event of the Working Group on Digital History, which has been convened under the auspices of the German Association of Historians (VHD). Over 100 people attended the conference in the German city of Braunschweig. A number of blogs are carrying pieces about it, and the tweets from the event have been collated into a Storify feature. How do you feel the event went?

I’m very pleased with it – for at least four reasons: First, the actual conference attracted a larger-than-expected audience and enabled us to welcome a lot of new members, bringing the Working Group’s total membership to 78. Second, the major players in academic research policy here in Germany, such as the German Council of Science and Humanities (Wissenschaftsrat), the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), and the German Research Foundation (DFG) accepted our invitation to attend the event and respond to our questions – and they didn’t limit themselves to just giving vague, general answers. Third, the involvement of the German Association of Historians, whose chair gave the event’s opening speech, can only be of advantage to the relatively new sub-discipline of digital history; I see the VHD’s being on board as an indication that it is broadening its horizons, in spite of its conservative reputation, and that the challenges of the digital world are attracting attention across an increasingly broad spectrum of historians. Fourth, and following on from this, the conference provided additional impetus for dialogue among historians; afterwards, we received a clutch of emails praising the event and making some interesting suggestions for the Working Group’s further activities, as well as a number of critical comments, largely in social media, containing thoughts and ideas that will be no less important to our further development than the praise. There are clearly developments afoot, as we can see not only in the response to our event here in Braunschweig, but also in other activities, such as the conference held at your institute on “Research Conditions and Digital Humanities: What are the Prospects for the Next Generation?” The Working Group is one of the organisations with a key role to play in ensuring these developments and others like them are visible not only to those who have already discovered the potential of digital ways of doing history, but also, increasingly, to those working in the mainstream in our discipline.

 

A great deal of tweets were made about the event using the hashtag #digigw2013 – and plenty of them were critical ones. One view which emerged from users’ tweets was that the Working Group is taking a very cautious, indeed almost sceptical approach to the digital revolution in academic history. Is this in fact the case, and if so, what’s behind this attitude – who is the Working Group taking care not to upset?

As I said before, I followed all the comments on the event, including the more critical ones, with great interest. To a degree, I can understand our critics, who feel that much development in this area is progressing too slowly. And in some ways, our commitment to the digital revolution in academic history does appear perhaps a little patchy; open access publications, for instance, have not yet found broad acceptance in academic history. On the other hand, our reaching out to those who are more hesitant in this respect, those who are sceptical and those who feel the need to weigh up the advantages and drawbacks of digital history, is precisely in the interests of those historians who are forging new digital paths. Why? Well, for one thing, our ideas and plans will meet with a much more favourable response in the debate around resources – which are essential to all academic research – if we have the backing of the organisation which carries real weight in our field, rather than being represented only by a small group of enthusiasts and/or specialists. Observing organisations and associations within other academic disciplines is highly instructive in this regard: the computational linguists, for instance, have long been a separate group of specialists with few lines of communication to the mainstream of linguistics, which does not take a very welcoming attitude towards them.

For another thing, those people committed to digital history are mostly upcoming young academics; and it would be a poor show indeed if this group of historians weren’t out there pushing to open up new fields and methodologies for history and creating momentum among established academics. That said, whether or not their work will benefit their future academic careers depends quite substantially on the extent to which they are able to convince today’s leading researchers, who hold chairs and make decisions on appointments, that their approach is up to the job. This is where the Working Group comes in, as a mediator between the two; you can call this avoiding upset if you like, but it’s not just about the sceptics (whom we do need to take seriously – after all, a healthy dose of scepticism and the capacity to dispassionately weigh up benefits and risks are fundamental to all academic work), but also and indeed precisely about the interests of our upcoming young historians, who are discovering the opportunities provided by the digital world and making creative use of them in their research and teaching. And so I’d like to take this opportunity to emphasise quite explicitly something that perhaps the conference neglected a little: We don’t just want to capture the attention of those of our colleagues who are still working largely conventionally; it goes without saying that we also see our role as being a point of contact for, and representing the interests of, historians who have long been at home in digital academia – we want to allow them to inspire us and help us innovate.

 

How can the Working Group and the major academic institutions in the field of history be a positive support to the current digital revolution? As you said, a lot of people feel the pace of change at the moment to be too slow. One tweet read: “We need to just get on and do digital history rather than waiting for institutions to catch up.” What do you think – are we behind the times?

There are some areas in which we do need to catch up, and we would do well to look beyond Germany in this respect, to countries such as France and the US. But I don’t have the impression that we’re behind the times. As historians, we know that the timing of a good idea’s public communication and realisation is as important, almost more important than the idea itself; being a pioneer, being too early with something can often be as bad as being too late, and academia is no exception to this rule. I feel that now is the right time for us to give effective voice to our interests and put our ideas into practice. It wasn’t a matter of chance or coincidence that all the major German organisations in science and academia came to Braunschweig. Things are getting moving – there’s funding too, and strategies for further promoting the field. It’s crucial for us to join together to articulate our interests and, wherever possible, to ensure we get what we need. The bigger the overlap of our interests with those of historians in general – and academics who do history within other disciplines – and the greater the support and acceptance we can win within our own discipline, the more chance we will have of establishing digital ways of communicating, publishing and working in and from our discipline and securing funding and general recognition for research projects and training. In academia, reputation is all; that’s not going to change completely overnight, and neither, therefore, are the career paths young academics have to pursue. We’ll need to be in it for the long haul and, whether we like it or not, we’ll need to have influential institutions on board to be our voice when it comes to making fundamental decisions or even, one day, driving a paradigm shift in our discipline.

 

twitterdigiwThe Working Group is to be found on Twitter as @digigw, has its own blog and has posted videos of the talks given at the conference to L.I.S.A. What else is the Working Group doing and planning to do at the moment?

I’d like to point out at this juncture that our work is entirely voluntary; we don’t have infrastructure or budget of any kind. It’s simply not possible for us to put all the ideas we have or others have suggested to us into practice straight away or to the extent people might want to see from us. We’re going to be focusing first of all on providing information, including on international developments in the field. For this, we’ll need our members to get involved – anything anyone can tell us about ground-breaking projects, appropriate funding mechanisms or interesting potential contacts is very welcome indeed. Our need to share information is one of the reasons why we are using communication channels such as the blog platform de.hypotheses and the Digital History group on Mendeley. We’ll be keeping a close eye on the effectiveness of this approach and the academic benefits it brings us, and we’ll be asking young academics in particular to help us evaluate it. I’m particularly interested in finding out to what extent social media have already changed, or will change in the future, the ways in which historians working conventionally (and indeed productively) as “lone rangers” do their research. Another issue of great import is how we can store and preserve digital data and hypertext as sources for the next generation of historians. This is exciting and largely uncharted territory which we will need to explore in close cooperation with librarians, archivists and IT specialists.

Another activity we will be focusing on is the organisation of specific events and workshops for each of our domains. We’re also planning something of particular importance to us – an appearance at the next Historikertag [biennial conference of the German Association of Historians]. We will be submitting a number of session proposals, each using specific formats, on a range of aspects of digital history – from discussion of our experience of digital editions and digital publishing to the academic benefits of using social media. The overall motto of the next Historikertag, “Winners and Losers”, is exceedingly apposite to the discussion I have been speaking of around the costs and benefits of digitalisation in academia; this gives us grounds to hope that a good number of our proposals will be looked upon favourably by the VHD’s committee and we’ll be able to engage a broad audience in Göttingen with interesting presentations and lively discussion – heated debate is fine by us too.

Simone Lässig gave written responses to Mareike König’s questions.


Mareike König

Mareike König ist Historikerin und arbeitet u.a. über deutsch-französische Beziehungen im 19. Jahrhundert. Sie leitet die Abteilung 19. Jahrhundert, die Abteilung Digital Humanities und die Bibliothek des Deutschen Historischen Instituts Paris. Sie ist außerdem Leiterin der Redaktion des deutschsprachigen Blogportals für die Geisteswissenschaften de.hypotheses.org.

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