The Historical Sciences and Web 2.0

On Friday I spent a very energizing day at the one-day conference Geschichtswissenschaften und Web 2.0 in Basel, Switzerland, an event sponsored by Jan Hodel and Peter Haber of hist.net, the excellent Swiss history portal and infoclio.ch, another history portal in Switzerland. If you haven’t visited these sites, they are must reads.

In the morning session we heard from Prof. Manfred Thaller of the University of Cologne, one of the most important figures in digital history in the German-speaking world. In his presentation, Thaller argued, among other things, that historians have to begin paying much closer attention to the ways that historical information is being created, shared, and recreated online or risk becoming completely irrelevant to the larger public. Although he was preaching to the choir at this meeting, his focus on the multiple ways that historical information is now available and how malleable it has become reminded everyone that we have to be paying closer and closer attention to they ways the general public interacts with that information. I also appreciated his point that as the speed of the exchange of historical information increases, the amount of time we have for interpretation of evidence decreases. But, as he pointed out, more and more of that interpretation is taking place outside the academy. Sometimes the results seem strange or misguided to those of us who consider ourselves professional historians, but as Thaller pointed out, that very strangeness challenges us to think about our evidence in new ways. In short, his endorsement of the impact of Web 2.0 on history was a bit back-handed, but nevertheless stimulating.

Following Thaller was Prof. Sacha Zala of dodis.ch, the online portal of Swiss diplomatic documents. As he presented their work I was reminded of our Papers of the War Department project, but he pulled me up short when he reminded the audience that in the Swiss case, all these documents need to be available in German, French, Italian, and English, the latter to make them more generally acceptable. Given the nuances of diplomatic speech, making sure all these documents are translated perfectly is one difficulty, but the other is the complexity of full-text searching across multiple translations of the same text. Now I’m thinking the War Department project has been a bit easier than it seemed to an outsider.

The afternoon session began with three young German language history bloggers who explained how it was they had begun blogging in the first place and why it is they continue to do so. Each gave a similar reason to the one offered by all the history bloggers I know — they started blogging because they wanted a place to play around with ideas and they’ve kept doing it because it has been (a) useful to them personally and (b) has connected them with people and ideas they wouldn’t have experienced otherwise.

My keynote, which I will post up online when I get home, was titled “If I Stop Blogging, What Will You Tweet About.” To find out what I said, you’ll have to wait until my next post.

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