The Digital Public Historian

digital history imageThis contribution by Serge Noiret presents, in brief, the main issues of the Digital Historian’s work.

The keyword of his text is “distinction”: that is, what distinguishes the Digital History within the wider field of the Digital Humanities, its peculiar characteristics against or in confront of the traditional historiographical practice, and above all what constitutes the specific task of Digital Public History (DPH).

This exercise is not easy, even if dutiful. Understanding what features any cultural activity is part of the intellectual process that must define the limits and purposes of the research and gives it a scientific status.

The community of scholars feels that this effort to define and border knowledge is more urgent as the practice of the studies creates confusion and goes beyond the traditional boundaries. The digital turn happened within a short period of time from the birth of the personal computer and the emergence of the Web. It has received a further push forward, not predictable and devastating, by the 2.0 tools. Within a few years our everyday life has become part of a complex ecosystem where the boundaries between the physical and digital worlds become intertwined. In my opinion, this is the reason why scholars have made considerable efforts in recent years to understand and define the ongoing transformation, particularly to identify the fields of Digital Culture, Public History, and now, Digital Public History.

Thus, I understand the reasons behind Serge Noiret’s efforts to define areas of action and prevailing trends in the Digital History practice: however, this anxiety to standardize knowledge, to include research practices in a precise taxonomy of disciplines, could be a risky exercise, especially at this stage. This effort could in fact restrain the experimental and innovative feature of the research.

Besides the fact that a Digital Historian naturally tends to use some tools more than others, depending on his/her own interests, on the aims of the research and the peculiarities of the sources, the very fact of working in the Digital Humanities field will push inevitably him/her to overcome and then mongrelize the disciplines. This fact, which can be perceived as a generator of confusion, in my opinion is instead a golden opportunity, to finally bring out the history from the shoals of an excessive specialization. In the digital dimension, the historian has the chance to be again a complete humanist, without losing identity.

It is certainly true, as Stephen Robertson warns, that in the field of digital humanities, digital history is different from literary studies, the latter is much more interested in activities of text mining, topic modeling, and sentiment analysis. However, it is equally true that historical research can range on broad and differentiated sources, including sources needing an automatic language treatment. When this happens, where lies the dividing line?

I believe that if we want to specify a specific feature of the Digital History, this is, as the end Serge Noiret seems to point out, its public dimension. Although Public History was born long before the Web and outside of the digital world, it is undeniable that the web 2.0 has profoundly innovated and problematized methodology, epistemology and purposes of the Historian’s Craft. When a scholar promotes the transcription or the cataloging of the sources among a more or less wide community of non-specialists (crowdsourcing), when he/her finds historical sources created directly on the web and immediately reworked and reinterpreted by a virtual community, when bottom-up initiatives rewrite history at different levels and with different purposes with a direct impact in the real society, then the Digital Historian must act, dealing with a new way to do history: the Digital Public History (DPH).

Today the historian who wishes to do well in his craft should carefully consider the digital world (and thus make himself/herself aware of all its issues) and this choice will lead him/her inevitably to wonder what kind of relationship he/her wants to create with the people, which is his/her role inside real/virtual society or real/virtual communities which he/her addresses to. The historian could continue to act in the tradition, simply exploiting the huge deposit of knowledge of the Web and then writing the usual scientific essays, perfectly delimited by his/her subject area. This would be not innovative at all even if this scholar later publishes his/her essay on the Internet, thus making it available to a number of readers and opening to be read and used in manners not previously considered. The alternative, preferable in my opinion, is to engage ourselves in this huge change by operating as mediators in a process of recovery and re-writing of the past, which today has countless authors and, doing so, becoming key figures in the present society. We should do it because we aim to “bring new voices from the past into the present” and, as Noiret says, “because those pasts matter and because digital technologies are suited to communicating history via and in the web.”


Enrica Salvatori

Nata a La Spezia il 18 dicembre 1963, dopo la maturità scientifica si è laureata in Storia Medievale.
Ricercatrice in Storia Medievale presso il Dipartimento di Medievistica dell’Università di Pisa.

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