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I am Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow and Theme Leader Fellow for the 'Digital Transformations' strategic theme of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I tweet as @ajprescott.

This blog is a riff on digital humanities. A riff is a repeated phrase in music, used by analogy to describe a improvisation or commentary. In the 16th century, the word 'riff' meant a rift; Speed describes riffs in the earth shooting out flames. The poet Jeffrey Robinson points out that riff perhaps derives from riffle, to make rough.

Maybe we need to explore these other meanings of riff in thinking about digital humanities, and seek out rough and broken ground in the digital terrain.

21 March 2012

The Future of the Past

Visiting Belgium to talk at Leuven last month, I managed to fall (on a piece of water melon!) and broke my leg very badly, so I'm going to be laid up until the beginning of June. I'm trying to get myself geared up to working remotely, but it is amazing how long everyday things take on crutches.

Among the many exciting events I will miss as a result of my accident was a round table organised last night (20 March 2012) at the Institute of Historical Research on ''The Future of the Past'. Other participants in the round table were Melissa Terras from UCL, Adam Farquahar from the British Library and (kindly standing in for me at very short notice) Torsten Reimer from JISC. Lorna Hughes from the University of Wales also acted as respondent.

I sent along the piece I might have contributed, which Tim Hitchcock read out much more impressively than I could have managed. The whole roundtable will be available (I think) as a podcast on History Spot. However, I promised Mel that I would put my contribution up on this blog, so I'm giving it below, but not without some misgivings. I always find contributions to round tables rather unsatisfactory, since you start off saying something, realise it could have been developed much further, then end up missing the important points. I fear this happened here, but I'm glad to say that the other contributors to the round table picked up the essential issues much more competently than I did, so I would recommend checking out their contributions on the podcast when its available or via the Twitter reporting (#dhist). I was particularly struck by Torsten's contribution, with his insistence that we need to develop more innovative approaches that go beyond digital photocopying, which is too often how digital humanities projects are conceived.

There was one major issue which we missed, although it was pointed out in the Twitter discussion, namely the impact on the practice of history of e-books and new forms of e-publishing. History remains in many ways a literary discipline, so changes in modes of commercial publication are likely to alter it fundamentally. I feel sure that it is here that we will see the biggest shifts in the practice of history over the next few years. A straw in the wind is the enhanced electronic edition of Peter Mandelson's memoirs, The Third Man, which includes images of primary source materials such as letters, documents and diary entries, as well as additional audio and video footage. Not only does this pose a dilemma for scholars and libraries, since clearly the electronic version of Mandelson's memoirs has greater scholarly value than the print version, but it also perhaps indicates something of future expectations as to the way in which history will be presented for iPad and other tablet users in the future.

A point that Torsten raised was that the increasing availability of images of other historical materials, ranging from film to cartoons or material objects, means that historians are now able to use a wider range of source materials, beyond the conventional text-based documentary and narrative materials. This led to an exchange on Twitter in which Elaine Treharne emphasised how literary scholars have expanded definitions of text to embrace such objects as cave art, jewellery or ceramics. A good example of this is the way in which Burns scholars are making use of Burns memorabilia to study reception of his texts - information on this project is available here. Elaine's point that all cultural representations are textual in character and that there is nothing beyond text is very well made, and I agree with her, but nevertheless this is a point of view that few historians have embraced.For most historians, a major move beyond conventional, old-fashioned text will represent a radical change.

I followed the seminar on the excellent livestream, a wonderful initiative by the Institute of Historical Research, and enjoyed the Twitter exchanges. So here, for the record, is the text of my contribution:

"I am sorry for not being with you in person today, especially as I had been looking forward to our discussion.  Unfortunately I had a bad fall while visiting Belgium recently, breaking a leg, which greatly limits my mobility for the next couple of months.  Thus I am with you in spirit, if not body. 

We imagine we live in a time of great change in our relationship to the study of the past. Yet it is only 120 years since A. W. Pollard , the founder of the Institute of Historical Research, graduated with first class honours at Oxford and was told that there was no possibility of an academic career for him as a historian at Oxford. This must have been a dismaying prospect, as there were at the time few alternatives for an aspiring historian. Consider the state of historical provision at the time that Pollard graduated. The English Historical Review, the first recognizably modern academic journal for English historians, was only five years old.  Many of the learned societies which were to publish primary sources on a large scale, such as the Selden Society and Pipe Roll Society, had likewise only recently been founded Photographic facsimiles of manuscripts were just starting to appear under the auspices of bodies such as the New Palaeographical Society. Opportunities for historians to meet and discuss were limited to such small and restricted groups as the Royal Historical Society and the Society of Antiquaries. The only library of any size in London was the British Museum. The search rooms of the Public Record Office had opened in 1866, but much of the material remained uncatalogued and difficult to access.

During his lifetime, Pollard was to witness, and play a leading part in, the birth of professional academic history. The achievements of that period in opening up access to historical materials of all types were quite simply astonishing. The hundreds of volumes of the various series of Public Record Office calendars produced by now forgotten teams of historians over a period of just forty years represent perhaps the most important single initiative for enhancing access to historical collections ever undertaken. These calendars nurtured major new types of historical study, such as T. F. Tout’s pioneering study of medieval English royal administration.  The work of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts in surveying and summarizing manuscripts in private hands is equally breathtaking in the scale of its achievement. A bewildering variety of learned societies published hundreds of primary sources, while the growth of academic publishing created a whole new scholarly infrastructure.

In short, the period between Pollard’s graduation in 1891 and the foundation of the Institute of Historical Research thirty years later saw the emergence of modern professional methods for the study of academic history.  Are we likely to see anything as dramatic as a result of the current emergence of digital methods? I think that is unlikely. For all the enormous widening in access to resources that has taken place over the past fifteen years, even the most largest digital projects undertaken by academic historians look paltry compared to the huge energy and intellectual effort represented by (say) the printed calendars of public records. Indeed, it is striking that many of the flagship projects in this area (such as the Ancient Petitions project and Calendar of Fine Rolls) hark back to these earlier progenitors.

So, I would say that the first and most important thing in thinking about the impact of digital technologies on the study of the past is that we should keep a sense of perspective – indeed as historians it is surely part of our duty to challenge the facile historical comparisons for digital technologies with which we are daily confronted. For example, there has recently been a great deal of enthusiasm about ideas of quantification and data analysis as representing new types of history, yet there is a long tradition of statistical and quantitative analysis in many areas of English history, dating right back to F. W. Maitland’s own grappling with Domesday statistics in the 1880s. In this context, it is difficult to see quantification as representing a radical new departure. After all, it is now nearly seventy years since Lucien Febvre argued the case for ‘historical laboratories’.

Frederic Maitland, still in some ways one of the tutelary spirits of English historiographical traditions and certainly regarded as the embodiment of the modern professional historian when I myself trained as a historian in the 1970s, declared that the changes in the practice of history evident in the late nineteenth century were largely driven by increased access to manuscripts and archives. Similarly, I would see the most important changes in future practice of history being driven by a changed relationship to library and archive collections, but here I would see both dangers and opportunities. Let me start with the dangers.

The supreme danger is that an over-reliance on digital surrogates robs us of understanding of the nature of historical evidence. Maitland’s pioneering data analysis of Domesday Book ultimately proved flawed because Maitland misunderstood the context of the compilation of Domesday Book. Likewise, if we as historians rely too much on abstract bodies of data which we link, quantify and visualise without reference to the archival or other context, we will come up with bad history. A simple example of the potential pitfalls is the Burney Collection of eighteenth-century newspapers and pamphlets digitized by the British Library. Increasingly, scholars have been treating this as if it is a complete archive of eighteenth-century newspapers, but of course it is merely a selection formed by an eighteenth-century collector. As a result, large runs of eighteenth-century provincial newspapers not included in this collection are at present being neglected.

This process of creating new canons of historical sources is particularly alarming in that, all too often, it is happening without significant scholarly input. Notwithstanding such important scholar-led projects as the Old Bailey Proceedings, the bulk of the digital resources on which we increasingly rely are created by commercial companies such as Gale and Pro Quest, working directly with libraries and archives. It is these companies which really call the shots in determining the digital landscape. In historical studies, this is particularly problematic, because the academic market is not the most profitable one.  Arguably, the bulk of the digital versions of historical sources available today have been produced for family historians. Yet few academic historians would regard Ancestry or Findmypast as a first port of call.

Nevertheless, it is perhaps here that our first and most pressing opportunity lies. The family history community is huge, but historians still too often see it as a distraction rather than a potential ally.  There are immense opportunities for working with family historians in creating large crowd sourced projects which open up new types of historical source in forms which facilitate innovative analyses. Such collaboration with groups such as family historians offers us an opportunity to create large scale resources which can act as a counter-balance to commercial output.  Moreover, it is perhaps in such collaborative endeavours with new communities such as family historians that new forms of historical discussion may emerge.

But to my mind the most pressing requirement is to react against the commodification of knowledge and the way in which scholarship is being reduced to information. This means re-engaging with the materiality of the historical source and resisting its reduction to a spreadsheet. An emblem for me of such an approach is the recent multi-spectral imaging of the drafts of the Declaration of Independence, which showed for the first time how Jefferson initially used the phrase ‘fellow subjects’ and then altered it by degrees to ‘fellow citizens’. Tools such as multi-spectral imaging give us completely new ways of finding out how our sources were pieced together. They enable us to recover lost sources, such as the recent work at the National Library of Scotland and Birkbeck College  to recover lost pages from David Livingstone’s diary. A drawback of older methods of enhancing access to historical sources such as printed calendars was that they limited awareness of the physical nature of historical sources and the way in which this affects the nature of information in the source. Digital imaging methods offer an opportunity to improve our understanding of the way in which historical information is rooted in the materiality of the document. It is in that use of digital and other new techniques to enhance that engagement with the traces of the past in libraries, museums and archives that to my mind the most exciting aspect of the future of the past lies".   




  • Zsolt Almási says:
    22 March 2012 at 02:17

    Thanks for this writing, and I am happy that you have posted it, especially, because I could not have read it otherwise.

    What I have found the most interesting here is your conclusion, which actually made me more than happy, that is your emphasizing the digital representation of the materiality of historical documents. This made me happy, because I have arrived at the same conclusion at a paper I read at a Shakespeare conference a few days ago in Spain.

    I have analysed 25 databases containing Shakespearean texts and one of the conclusions was that these databases pay only or more attention to the linguistic aspect of a text than to its material aspect. And although there a few databases that present images of early prints, yet material features of these textual images cannot be searched at all. And this is a pity, and a theoretical shortcoming even in the case of literary texts.

    So thanks very much both for the effort you have invested in posting your paper and also for the conclusion.

  • ben howell davis says:
    27 March 2012 at 11:44

    You might be interested in my article for Scientific American, August, 1997 with the same title


    Full text at


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