The Historical Method 2.0

The hermeneutic challenges of engaging with digital data

By Lucia Hoenselaars

The world is changing profoundly through the use of the internet. Web 2.0 has caused a social interconnectedness all over the globe which has in turn created the possibility of new and exciting online platforms for intellectual activity. The process of collecting, examining and organizing sources is becoming more and more digitized, and historians are still learning to engage with digital data effectively. This digitization of sources has led to growing access to information as well as to a call for a new method to deal appropriately with this new, impressive body of data.

Historical research is affected by the new relationship between historians and source material online. Digital ‘data’, according to Trevor Owens and Frederick Gibbs, is of a fundamentally different nature than traditional historical sources. Engaging with digital data therefore requires other skills than those traditional, source-oriented research skills taught at universities. Owens and Gibbs argue that the hermeneutic process with regard to historical research and writing in the digital era should be present in the written end-product.

By explicitly accounting for the process of digital data-analysis in historical writing a process of peer-feedback, collective learning and eventual methodological agreement can be evoked. The web gives intellectuals an opportunity to reveal to their colleagues and the general public exactly how they came to their conclusions by providing them with access to the raw data in question. By doing this, historians could break down the Ivory Tower that is still often associated with the historical profession. Dave Perry wrote in his appropriately titled blogpost “Be online or be irrelevant” that this could open up a new world for public intellectualism.

Historians who regard their digital sources as data, could learn a lot from interacting with the social sciences on an online intellectual platform, without giving up its own place within the humanities. The ideas that Owens and Gibbs put forward are echoed in the Digital Humanities movement that has been encouraging methodological and hermeneutic learning processes in the digital sphere for all the humanities’ disciplines. It is not a question of territory, but rather of finding appropriate modes of engagement with digital data. This is a learning process to which all disciplines can contribute by explaining how data is processed. Owens and Gibbs argue, as do I, that describing the engagement with digital data in the historian’s story will have positive reverberations in the future of digital public history.

Incorporating this aspect of research into historical writing can be done in numerous creative and exciting ways. The most accessible platform for doing this, is the digital sphere. For example, one can build an interactive website which provides the ‘visitor’ instant access to attachments and raw data. Another very inspiring way of making digital public history is through interactive documentaries (For example Clouds over Cuba, where you collect a map of dossiers while watching the documentary online, and The Guardian’s A Global Guide to the First World War). This format combines an audio-visual tour through history with multiple options for interactivity while the documentary is playing. One can select subjects in order to explore them further, and, as Owens and Gibbs advocate, give the audience access to the data behind the story. There is so much possible in the world of digital interactive media, that I think historians should work together with interactive designers and programmers to reach the discipline’s full potential.

Let this be a call for an even wider interdisciplinary approach, not just within the humanities itself but also in cooperation with IT. Let’s not fear the web, its mazes and its challenges. Let’s take full advantage of digital complexity in order to present history in its full awesomeness. If historians do not use the digital complexity that is technologically available, the public will find historians’ online skills lacking and consequently will not see their value in the digital age. We should show the audience what historians have to offer. Share the data, the research and the writing, in order for the public to understand and comment on the practices involved. Show the world what it is historians actually do. Historians and their methods need to keep up with the times, in order for the discipline to flourish once again.