The first roundtable event of the Digital History seminar had some teething problems behind the scenes. One of the original presenters, Alastair Dunning (The European Library) wasn’t able to make it but was quickly replaced by Adam Farquhar (British Library). Then much closer to the event Andrew Prescott (KCL) broke his leg and had to pull out. Torsten Reimer stepped up to the challenge whilst Tim Hitchcock agreed to read out a short statement from Andrew. The suggestion was also made that Lorna Hughes (University of Wales) might be able to offer a ‘first response’ presentation. In the end the event was perhaps stronger for the larger mix of presentations with much food for thought.
The topic was the future and present state of digital history. It is interesting that as an historical focus, digital history was, not all that long ago considered somewhat obscure as a disciplinary focus. There was great uncertainty about what should be digital, what that meant, and how research could benefit from such tools and approaches. I think all speakers agreed that we are well past that point, but there were concerns that we have not yet figured out what ‘digital’ can and should actually do for us. Digital should be able to transform what we do, yet so far this has not happened. The extensive and highly important transcription work carried out in the nineteenth and early twentieth century by historians was a nice comparison. The publication of masses of historical documents alongside analytical and explanatory commentaries revolutionised what historians could achieve and made it possible for us to diversify into other areas such as gender, cultural, and psycho-analytical methodologies. The same expansion or transformation of History is yet to occur due to digital techniques, yet the tantalising possibility that it can do remains.
The roundtable began with a statement written by Andrew Prescott but read out by Tim Hitchcock (this statement can be found on Andrew’s blog Digital Riffs. This was then followed by presentations by Melissa Terras, Adam Farquhar and Torsten Reimer providing insights from the point of view of the scholar, librarian, and funding body in that order. Lorna Hughes then made first response which was then followed by various questions and answers.
As per usual the session was streamed live with Andrew Prescott and seminar conveners Peter Webster (IHR) and Seth Denbo (Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities), joining the 20 strong online listeners. Although the first 30 minutes was affected by an odd echo on the microphone the stream worked well. The edited version presented on History SPOT combines some of the slide show presentations and cuts out the bits between presentations where possible. It also (thankfully) cuts out one piece where I appeared on screen to sort out a slide show that at first refused to work.