The Digital Challenge to History: Research Infrastructures and Academic History

Over 100 experts from politics and academia converged on Braunschweig’s Georg Eckert Institute on 3 September 2013 for the Working Group on Digital History’s inaugural conference.

Which opportunities and challenges does digitalisation present to historical research? For some years now, new technologies have been fundamentally changing the way academics work – from the availability of research resources, data and sources to communication and cooperation among researchers, new research topics and issues, and innovative methodologies. The framework of conditions and circumstances in which historical research takes place is likewise currently undergoing a process of profound change, with many of the issues still up in the air: What are the implications of digitalisation for academic institutions and research funding? What changes are in store for teaching at higher education institutions and how will early career researchers be supported differently in the future? Which tools and infrastructures will historians be using in the new digital era?

The newly founded Working Group on Digital History recently provided a forum for the discussion of these and further issues in the shape of a conference entitled “The Digital Challenge to History: Research Infrastructures and Academic History”, which took place at the Georg Eckert Institute in Braunschweig on 3 September 2013.

Among the conference’s speakers was Prof. Martin Schulze Wessel, chairman of the German Association of Historians (VHD), who emphasised the significance to academic research of digital resources and technologies: “In these times, in which the government’s Excellence Initiative is promoting cutting-edge research, our day-to-day working lives as academics are highly influenced by competition among academic institutions. However, what really advances research is when findings are shared within research networks. Digital research infrastructures support academic cooperation across institutions and beyond national borders.”

Prof. Simone Lässig, director of the Georg Eckert Institute, who had organised the conference as the Working Group’s spokesperson, concurred: “Research infrastructures are essential to research and teaching in all academic disciplines. This is why the Working Group is committed to promoting their recognition as actual academic achievements, supporting their development and ensuring their sustainability.” Prof. Lässig also called for digital solutions to be discipline-specific: “Historians are very open to the potential of the digital universe – no other major academic association in the humanities has been as open-minded as we have towards this issue, a fact the fantastic response to this conference within our discipline only serves to confirm. That said, our approach to the issues is anything but naïve; we know that the opportunities presented by digitalisation are accompanied by risks. We intend to explore both the former and the latter, and we will be guided as we do so by a very clear principle: Historical research needs to be problem-oriented, not technology-driven.”

The conference concluded with a lively and thorough panel discussion featuring representatives from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, the German Council of Science and Humanities (Wissenschaftsrat), university infrastructures and libraries, the German Research Foundation (DFG) and the Working Group. In spring 2013, the governing committee of the German Association of Historians had established a sub-committee entitled “History in the Digital World”, with Simone Lässig as its spokesperson, to the end of enabling the Association’s interests to be appropriately represented in issues relating to digital history. The sub-committee met before the conference’s opening to draft preliminary statements on the topics to be discussed.