Last week, I gave a talk at the Europeana Newspapers Information Day at the Staatsbibliothek Berlin on the use of digitised historical newspapers in our Translantis project. I gave an impression of the tools and functionalities we are experimenting with and the challenges – in terms of source criticism and interpretation – that come along with this fairly new type of historical research.
These are exciting times for historians. Both the quantity of historical source material getting digitized in an ever-growing pace, as the development of tools and techniques for grasping this data will have an irreversible impact on the way historical research is done. All the more essential is the realization that digital methods are there to assist and not to replace the historian. They can never make up for the need for the ‘old-fashioned’ historical analysis and narrative.
The strengths of digital methods like text mining are in the heuristic process preceding the analysis. Digital history is a quantitative history of texts – in contrary to forms of quantitative or structural history that reached their height in the 1960s and 1970s and that relied to a great extent on numerical data. While statistical data enabled historians to make socio-economical analyses that gave a fundamental new dimension to historical storytelling, quantitative textual data has the same potential for the analysis of cultural and intellectual history.
Digital history has in common with ‘traditional’ quantitative history that the presentation of the data in these approaches to the study of history in itself does not suffice as proof (let cliometrics be the exception to this rule). Nonetheless, digital tools can revolutionize the exploratory search process. They are, through innovative and often surprising forms of visualization, able to present historians with a completely original view on texts and the other materials they are used working with. This is what we try to bring into practice in our Translantis project.
Here are the slides of my presentation (pdf, in German):