Doctoral School 2017: Digital History and the Writing of History. Seminarhotel Leuenberg, Hölstein. 30th September – 1st October 2017

The main idea for the doctoral school was to reflect on digital history as narrativ and to rethink the possibilities of digital history as a new way of writing history.

The doctoral school brought together historians who work with deep mapping and «indigenous» archives, who experiment with new forms of narrative in their «traditional» writing, and whose regional expertise covers East Asia, the Pacific, and Europe. 10 doctoral students in the field of history attended the school, which offered all participants a platform to engage in discussion, reading, experimentation and intellectual exchange in the rolling hills southeast of Basel.

The workshop was opened by Prof. David Ambaras (North Carolina State University), who explored the idea of using digital tools to integrate dimensions of simultaneity and multiplicity into the writing of history. Pointing out the inherent multidimensional qualities of space, he introduced the concept of «deep mapping» as a digital history method to explore the multiple stories and relationships that are associated with a specific locale. At the same time, he presented it as a way of creating your own stories, to allow for participation, to de-authorize the historian as expert and to create a platform that encourages exchange.

Prof. Noelani Arista (University of Hawai’i) also stressed the potential of digital history to reach a non-academic audience. Presenting her work with the enormous, but largely neglected «indigenous» Hawaiian Language Archive, she made clear that in order to create an awareness for the richness of Hawai’i’s past oral and textual culture within her native community, it was necessary to embrace digital tools and media. Drawing on her experience with the «SKINS» Workshops on Aboriginal Storytelling and Video Game Design, she discussed the role of new digital media as a means to empower indigenous communities to engage with their cultural heritage in new ways and to be the creators and mediators of that culture.

Dr. Tobias Hodel (University of Zurich) surveyed the developments in the field of analytic tools that help to produce, to analyze and to process digital data. He explained the inner workings of machine learning, introducing the mechanisms behind artificial neural networks. He showed examples of text-recognition software for handwritten documents and shared his experience with the e-learning project «Ad fontes», which he had helped to develop at the UZH. His presentation spurred a discussion on the new agency of machines in historical research. It implied that in the age of digital history it will become increasingly important to study the coders of analytic tools as much as the data that these tools provide.

Dr. Jan-Friedrich Missfelder (University of Zurich) opened his session with the sounds of the historical recording of а phonautograph and initiated a debate on the resurrection of historical voices and the material aspect involved in this «necromancy». He then shifted the discussion from media archeology to digital history by arguing that the focus on the role of instruments should be an integral part in our interaction with the latter. In the ensuing discussion, he encouraged everyone to think more deeply about the materiality of digitized archival collections and the way how it changes the historian’s practice to engage with historical source material.

The doctoral school was organised by Prof. Martin Dusinberre, Dr. Andrea Westermann and Dr. Jan-Friedrich Missfelder (UZH), in collaboration with the DACH-funded ‘Lives in Transit” project (Prof. Martin Dusinberre and Prof. Roland Wenzlhuemer, Munich)