Digital history and the future of the past


Historians Gather in Amsterdam to Coordinate Work in Digital History.


International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam. Source: IISH

For two days in early November, historians from Europe and North America got together at the renowned International Institute for Social History (IISH) in Amsterdam, Netherlands for a workshop titled Big Questions, Big Ideas.  I was invited to discuss the Seshat: Global History Databank by the organizers Leo Lucassen and Richard Zijdeman. The workshop brought together scholars working on a variety of topics and time periods, ranging as far back as the early Neolithic to the 1960s. The geographic areas of interest to these scholars were similarly broad, with studies spanning North and South America, northwest Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, China and Japan, and the Indian Ocean.


Source: David Shankbone, distributed under CC-BY 3.0

This diverse group of around 30 participants shared two key things in common: first, we all use digital tools and construct large databanks in the course of our historical research; and second, all of our research touches in one way or another on the fundamentally-important theme of social equality. This thematic link is what made the setting so appropriate; the IISH has been championing the cause of social equity since the early 20th century, documenting everything from the abuses of European Fascist governments to uncovering how labor forces were organized, treated, and collectivized at different times in different parts of the world.

Source: Creative Commons

The Bolshevik. Boris Kustodiev. Source: Creative Commons.

The amazing thing about the workshop is how easy it was for all of the attendants to come to a common understanding – no small feat for a group of academics of any size! It was quite refreshing to see each historian move beyond the relatively narrow confines of her topic-of-study and embrace the idea of ‘global history’. We all recognized that, even though it is crucial for each of us to continue to study our specialized topics in very narrow detail to come up with appropriate and defensible arguments, it is equally imperative for groups of historians to bring these ‘micro studies’ together in order to compare and contrast the experience of different societies, to trace the long-term evolution of some of the critical traits that have shaped social equality over time, and to draw larger conclusions about a global swath of knowledge by using the ‘macro’ approach. Moreover, it was agreed that digital tools are the way to facilitate this sort of collective engagement.

To this end, scholars must continue to build databases of the information that they gather and to store and shape that information in such a way that other researchers can benefit from their work, adding to a database or incorporating their research into other studies in order to reach novel and interesting conclusions the original researchers had not anticipated– i.e., what we do in Seshat. As we discussed at the IISH, this process is becoming increasingly easy to accomplish thanks to continual advances in digital technologies, including rapid increases in computing power, the refinement of engineering languages for structuring and linking data by engineers in the Aligned initiative and similar projects. Importantly, historians and other scholars are increasingly aware that digital tools are out there and they carry innumerable benefits for historical research. So important, in my opinion, that these tools represent perfectly the future of how we will study the past! Our job now is to continue to spread the gospel of Digital History, which we can do much better thanks to our new friends at the IISH.


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