Introducing Digital History (History)

On a theoretical map of arts and humanities subject areas where disciplines could be positioned to try and demonstrate overlap and methodological common ground, there would be a strong case for placing the discipline of History squarely in the centre of the map, providing as it does a chronological backbone for all areas of research, as diverse as musicology, practice-based art, theology, literary studies and so forth. In terms of immediate adjacency, the borders of what might be considered ‘historical research’ would blur imperceptibly with a number of neighbouring subject areas: archaeology, classical studies, sociology and art history for instance; all of which have tools and techniques associated with them which are (or potentially could be) of use to historians. Appropriated techniques from computing and information science such as data mining and e-Science related methods are also increasingly coming to the attention of those seeking to explore new methods of engaging with research questions (as are techniques associated with geographical mapping and information systems) so it is clear that the scope for employing a variety of technical methods is very broad.

This view is echoed in a recent report written by Onno Boonstra and colleagues who outline numerous methodological and thematic areas of potential research, many of which they feel have yet to be tackled in a coordinated and purposeful way. Whilst very useful as a roadmap for possible engagement with a wide variety of technological tools and methods, the wider context of the report is gloomy in its overview of the recent state of ‘historical information science’ (the authors’ preferred term for computer-related historical research). At the time of writing in 2004, they expressed the view that the results of nearly two decades of History and Computing were ‘slightly disappointing’ and went on to qualify this statement as follows:

[quote]They are not disappointing because ‘computing’ failed to do what it intended to do, which was to provide ‘history’ with computerised tools and methods historians could use to expand the possibilities and to improve the quality of their research, but because ‘history’ failed to acknowledge many of the tools ‘computing’ had come up with.
(Boonstra, O., Breure, L., Doorn, P. (2004), Past, Present and Future of Historical Information Science, NIWI-KNAW)[/quote]

One of the major challenges that the authors identify is the provision of an effective internationally accepted forum for discussing and disseminating the results of this kind of research and it is clear that the various iterations of the Association of History and Computing (ACH) have a critical role to play in coordinating and promoting these kinds of activities, both at international and national levels.

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