Being Part of Digital History
History has unfolded mainly in an analogue world: Consequently, the researchers studying it are typically found bustling around piles of books, papers and documents. At least this has been the common image to date. Of course, they spend a good amount of time in libraries and archives. Digital technologies, however, are increasingly making their way into the field and are changing the way history is researched, conveyed and perceived.
“In the future, it will be a matter of digitally measuring historical worlds and analogously interpreting them.”
For us, digital technology is a powerful engine to collect and share communal knowledge. With transcriptiones.ch, we created an online database were everybody can upload their transcriptions – no matter if you are a historian, a student or a citizen scientist – making them openly accessible and editable. This reduces the labour input, optimises the workflow and improves the sustainability of transcriptions. As the transcriptions are not tied to particular specifications or the existence of digital versions, the content of the database reflects the broad interests of the users. The content is generated by the community for the community – a principle that may sound familiar to you as it has mainly been popularised by Wikipedia, the best-known example for successful crowdsourcing.
From Vision to Mission
During our time as fellows of the ETH Library Lab, we enjoyed a lot of freedom regarding the concrete means of technical and conceptual implementation to achieve our project goal. But with freedom comes choice. One fundamental decision we had to make was: will we work with a tight content management system or a loose framework?
If you do something new there is no “Via Regia”, no charted course of the path to achieving your goal successfully. However, there are some guiding principles that are applicable when aiming to develop novel approaches. On the one hand, it is crucial to take enough time to evaluate different concepts alongside experts while rigorously putting the needs of potential future users at the centre of all decision-making. On the other hand, it is at least as important to leave your comfort zone every now and then and dare to learn new things.
The Programming Historian
We opted for Django – an open-source Python Web framework – because it allowed for more flexibility to implement identified requirements and requests. But this decision also called for extensive programming skills. As historians, we had already worked with various digital tools and methods, but still were anxious to step out of the field best known to us. At this point, ETH Library Lab encouraged us to accept the challenge. With their support, we sought help and advice from coding experts, took a leap of faith into different programming languages and after some weeks and months ended up as programming historians.
This step gave us a whole new perspective on the fundamental challenges of using digital tools: the historian point of view blended into our technological mindset. Of course, it is impossible to become a “coding professional” in this short period of time but we managed to learn many different techniques and concepts, which previously had been completely alien to us. Certainly, it can be frustrating to realise that something that is easy to understand for humans, might be rather complex to teach to a machine. However, the process of thinking of a solution, trying, failing, succeeding partially, rethinking everything, trying again and – eventually – succeeding fully was extremely instructive. And above all, it was great fun!
Our ETH Library Lab Innovator Fellowship has come to an end by now, but our journey continues. Currently, we are applying for additional funding for the final development of transcriptions.ch. In addition, we are also negotiating institutional ties between our project and the Department of History at the University of Basel.
Set the Sails
History is our primary academic discipline. We are familiar with its methods and its workflows, its challenges and its quirks. Deliberately leaving this very familiar environment was probably the most beneficial experience of our Fellowship at ETH Library Lab. Daring to roam the unknown, resulted in merits that were worth all the exhausting and complicated moments we encountered along the way. So, in this spirit, we challenge you to step out of your comfort zone! – Work interdisciplinarily! – Be brave!
 Koller, Guido: Geschichte digital. Historische Welten neu vermessen, Stuttgart 2016, S. 7.