Auf Wiedersehen, Mein Freund

Over the weekend my friend and colleague Peter Haber passed away after an extended illness. I was only fortunate enough to know Peter for the past four years, but I benefitted greatly from his friendship, his collegiality, his ideas, and his good humor.

Like my former colleague Roy Rosenzweig, Peter was a “connector” — one of those people who brought others together for the benefit of everyone. Through Peter I have met and begun to work with a number of colleagues in Switzerland and Austria, colleagues I never would have met otherwise. More importantly, though, my understanding of digital history and digital humanities is so much richer for having read Digital Past. Geschichtswissenschaft im digitalen Zeitalter (2011). What Peter brought to the study of digital history was a scientific rigor, a style of analysis, that is so often lacking in English language scholarship on our field. If I could quibble with one thing about the edition of the book that I own, it is the photograph of Peter on the back cover. In that photo, he seems dark and mysterious. Those who knew him well, know he was anything but dark or mysterious.

Perhaps the most tangible evidence of Peter the Connector is his co-authored volume (with Marin Gasteiner), Digitale Arbeitstechniken (2010). When I read these essays I came away with a much better sense of the kinds of work being done by my German-speaking colleagues in digital history — work I would likely not know if Peter and Martin had not collected it. More importantly, though, I began to think about several issues near and dear to me in new and different ways. That is what the best scholarship does for us.

But really, Peter’s greatest academic contribution, in many ways, has been, perhaps the longest-lived digital history blog in any language. With his close friend and collaborator Jan Hodel, Peter spent more than a decade making all things digital and historical available and accessible to a wide audience. I knew of the blog before I knew Peter and Jan, and one of my happiest professional moments was the day I received an email from the two of them inviting me to speak at a conference in Basel. For my own family health reasons, I couldn’t attend that meeting and so I was very pleased (and relieved) when they kindly invited me back the following year to speak in Basel. That meeting was the starting point of our three way friendship and collaboration on Global Perspectives on Digital History, a project that kept us connected until he became too sick to continue.

One the most enjoyable days I’ve spent in the past several years was with Peter, when he was still feeling fine, touring the Fondation Beyeler, then returning to Basel for a coffee. That is the Peter I will remember. But I will also remember the Peter who, when you said something he didn’t entirely agree with, would cock and eyebrow, pause, and then ask a probing question that politely disagreed, while trying to find a way that the two of us could agree. I will miss both of those Peters very much.