1. Introduction

Digital history comes at the intersection between digital technology and the “ancient practice of history” (Rosenzweig 738). In fact, historians have been working with computers since the late 1980s and early 1990s (see Denley and Hopkin; Denley et al for UK example; and Rowland and Orlandi in Italy), through the various phases of the development of personal computers, the Internet, the Web to the so called Web 2.0 (Kleinrock). The resulting field of studies and practices used to be called “history and computing” and it now known as “digital history” (Cohen et al).

This study aims to shed light on an aspect of digital history that is rarely considered, i.e. the digital historians themselves. In particular, it studies digital historians in Italy and in the United Kingdom, in a comparative perspective.

Italy is an interesting case from various points of view. The history of historiography in Italy is characterised, as Porciani and Moretti explain, by two elements. The “institutional panorama” for historiography is “many-layered, multifarious and geographically ramified” (Porciani and Moretti 122).

An element of comparison will also be introduced with history and digital history in the United Kingdom. Even from a cursory exploration of the literature on digital history and digital humanities and a general overview of number and relevance of digital history projects in the UK, especially as compared to the same in Italy, it seems clear that we are facing a situation of scarcity versus abundance, in terms of the digital projects, the research output and the people involved.

As a reflective practitioner of digital history, I am interested in knowing more about other digital historians and how they have, in the present and in the recent past, addressed the “digital revolution sweeping through our culture” (Mills Kelly ix) and to hear their reflections and considerations on this topic. Defining what it means to be a digital historian has implications not only for those who work with digital history but also for the profession as a whole.

My research question reflects this objective and asks: What does it mean to be a digital historian in Italy and in the UK?

The differences and similarities emerging from the comparison will reinforce the analysis by illustrating and critically comparing some aspects of the “digital history” cultures of the two countries. The research methodology is based on Classical Grounded Theory (Glaser and Strauss) and is therefore aimed at building a theory, rather than a qualitative description of the issues at hand.

2. A Note on Theory

This study aims at delineating a theoretical framework, a theory, about the work and experiences of digital historians in Italy and the UK. A theory of digital history would be a part of describing and defining the discipline. Terras addressed this issue very clearly with regard to “Humanities Computing” by referring to “Educational Theory to provide a means to analyse, measure, and define the field” (Terras 229).

In Italy the establishment of a proper recognised discipline for the equivalent field, “Informatica Umanistica” has been advocated by several experts, chiefly Tito Orlandi, as well as Roncaglia: they maintain that defining a field and a discipline has very practical consequences, in terms of funding, status in academia and education and training of future scholars.

With regards to digital history more specifically, the argument for “doing theory” has been supported mainy by German digital historian Manfred Thaller, one of the early pioneers; he recognised several decades ago that without a conceptual and theoretical base, we risk pursuing the acquisition of teaching skills that are either useless or superfluous in their real world or are not informed by historical science. Without a theoretical framework, there can be no innovation in teaching.

Also, a theory of digital history, according to Thaller, strengthens the issue of employability because it addresses the aspects of the historical mind that have more impact on the present, i.e. “those abilities which somehow come as a windfall profit from the classical historical education”(Thaller 9).

3. Data Analysis

My analysis is based on questionnaires and interviews over the phone or in writing, with 18 Italian digital historians and humanists interviewed between January 2011 and March 2013. For comparative purposes, a further 10 interviews were conducted with historians and humanists in the UK.

The sampling procedure was guided by theoretical sampling (Keen; Breckenridge and Jones) as defined by Glaser and Strauss, “the process of data collection for generating theory whereby the analyst jointly collects, codes and analyses his data and decides what data to collect next and where to find them, in order to develop his theory as it emerges” (45). This method was also supported by “snowball” sampling, whereby interviewees were asked to indicate other digital historians or humanists who might be interested in responding to the interviews.

All interviewees are trained historians and work in Italy or the UK, either in academia or outside of academia and they were all directly involved in digital history projects, mostly as initiators of the projects themselves; the difference in their career stage (early stage versus senior academic position) or in the context of their professional activity (academia versus independent research and publishing versus librarianship) was not an element of the sampling strategy, but rather a consequence of their inclusion in the sample on the basis of the purposive and theoretical sampling based on the criteria mentioned above.

All interview data are reported anonymously. Illustrative quotes from the interviews are included in the text in English, with the original in Italian in the footnotes when applicable.

Table 1: Interviewees in Italy.

Code

Role

Type of data

IT-AA

Senior academic historian

Questionnaire

IT-BB

Early career academic historian

Questionnaire

IT-CC

Independent historian; journal editor

Email inter.

IT-DD

Independent historian; writer

Email inter.

IT-A

Early career academic historian

Interview

IT-B

Senior academic historian

Interview

IT-C

Early career non-academic historian; librarian; amateur

Interview

IT-D

Researcher; digital humanist

Interview

IT-E

Early career historian; librarian

Interview

IT-F

Senior academic historian

Interview

IT-K

Independent historian; journalist

Interview

IT-L

Senior academic historian

Interview

IT-M

Senior academic historian

Interview

IT-N

Senior academic historian

Interview

IT-O

Senior academic historian

Interview

IT-P

Senior academic historian

Interview

IT-Q

Librarian; senior academic historian

Interview

IT-R

Early career academic historian

Interview

Table 2: Interviewees in the UK.

Code

Role

Type of data

UK-A

Senior academic historian

Interview

UK-B

Senior academic historian

Interview

UK-C

Senior academic historian

Interview

UK-D

Senior academic historian

Interview

UK-E

Early career academic historian

Interview

UK-F

Senior academic (humanities)

Interview

UK-G

PHD student

Interview

UK-H

Senior academic historian

Interview

UK-I

PHD student; IT specialist

Interview

UK-J

historian; library specialist

Interview

3.1. Initial Findings

In the initial findings, several elements have emerged that clearly differentiate between the situation for Italian digital historians and digital historians in the UK, with some common aspects as well. They concern mainly the identification with the “label” of digital historian, the motivation for doing digital history, the professional environment and education and training for new generations of historians.

3.2. Being a Digital Historian?

All the participants have been defined a priori as digital historians for the purposes of the research. The association with this term from their responses has both positive and negative aspects.

In Italy, most interviewees very reluctant to adhere to this as such. There was a range of reactions: at one end of the range, three interviewees (IT-BB, IT-L and IT-N) explicitly question it. In fact, IT-N says that the overall definition of digital historian “is a little too ambitious as a definition for Italy”,1 and also, from a personal perspective “in my case, digital historian is somewhat overstated”2 while IT-BB states clearly that “it is still a matter of limited expert and specialist. I am not among those”, despite being actively involved in digital history projects. IT-O and IT-R, who have a mentor/pupil relationship in this field, are also an interesting case because IT-O, while he does not refute the definition for himself, explains that IT-R is, in fact, “a true digital historian”,3 because he has created a specific digital tool for historical research. On the other hand, IT-R makes it clear that, while they both – and others – belong to a “group that is not a group”4 of Italian digital historians, IT-O is certainly “the most influential member”5 of that same group. Finally, at the opposite end of the spectrum, IT-Q accepts the label in toto, making it clear that he has abandoned his field of research as an academic in contemporary history to dedicate himself completely to digital history.6

Various reasons are given for the responses:

  1. The activities related to digital history do not constitute the main professional activity of the interviewees. IT-F and IT-R, in particular, explain that this exclusion applies to all academic historians in Italy, therefore it appears unsuitable to accept this identity label in the professional field; two interviewees (IT-C and IT-F) use the word “hobby” to describe what they do in the field of digital history.
  2. Despite the existence of “pioneers” (IT-M) in the field of digital history, they at best constitute “a group that is not a group”7 (IT-R) and therefore cannot be treated as a group with a common definition; IT-A explains that they cannot identify with an institution or a structure, but at most they represent “individual biographies of mavericks”8 with very feeble ties among themselves and with others around them.
  3. A sense of humility towards the technical aspects and skills involved in digital projects and a perception that one has to master all aspects of those in order to be called a digital historian (IT-BB and IT-L).

What is notable is that, instead of simply applying a certain definition to themselves and their work, they were able to elaborate on it and problematise the description in various areas.

The situation is different in the UK, where interviewees tend to have a significantly more positive identification with the label “digital historian”. The reason for this is not that they perceive a necessity to define themselves as such, but because of their clear professional ties with the field, exemplified for instance by their membership in the Association for History Computing (UK-A, UK-C, UK-D, UK-H) or by their affiliation with digital history/humanities centres (UK-B, UK-E, UK-F, UK-G, UK-J).

Also, all digital historians interviewed in the UK are members of the academic world and the reason for this is not a priori research design, but is a direct consequence of the relative abundance of academic historians involved in digital history. Both snowball sampling and theoretical sampling in this case pointed to academic historians rather than non-academic historians. This very positive situation for digital history as such also has a negative effect, because digital historians in the UK are numerically speaking more than in Italy, but they also stand out less, “they don’t appear anywhere”, because “the base level is much higher” (UK-A): it is in fact “more difficult to find the real pioneers and innovators”, especially now that the Association for History and Computing is not so active any longer. This can be compensated by looking for them within the field of digital humanities, which is very strong and highly developed in the UK, but this implies that more research is needed on the relationship between digital humanities and digital history. Some of the interviewees have in fact discussed this issue quite at length.

3.3. Motivation

Motivation is an important element highlighted by Italian interviewees, precisely because they are aware of doing something that is not completely integrated in their normal or expected line of work. They use words such as "passion" (IT-A), "passion for ITC" (IT-F), "desire to learn" (IT-AA), "curiosity" (IT-R, IT-O), "doing something fun" (IT-E), “something that makes my work more interesting”9 (IT-E), “appetite” for creating something new (IT-B), "something that did not exist in Italy" (IT-A), "desire to innovate" (IT-R) or even simply to “see what happens” (IT-E).

On the other hand, they also connect their motivation with a perceived unavoidability of change (IT-C, IT-DD) and the belief that learning more about this change, brought about by the digital world, was “the right thing to do”10 and the consequent professional/epistemological necessity for historians to confront the issue: IT-R, for example, explains that “we cannot exempt ourselves because this is the direction the world is taking”.11

Also, my interviewees in Italy highlight the idea of independent initiative and ideas and also the practical ability to accomplish it without dependence on others, also thanks to the affordances of web 2.0 technologies. This concept undoubtedly has a prevailing positive attribute: however it also shows a negative one, in particular because the very personal nature of these initiatives and of the web results in a sense of isolation and the difficulty in transporting the use of these tools into the institutions and also a very serious danger of impermanence. If and when the initiators cease to support and feed into the project, this will most certainly disappear. As IT-B explains, these projects are inordinately dependent on the individuals who create them.12

From the point of view of their personal experience, interviewees in the UK, in any case, mention, as the Italian ones do, personal traits and tendencies that have guided them towards this field. They mention a personal interest and openness to discovery, as well as a propensity to take some risk, as part of why they decided to engage with the digital. UK-A, who has also received an award for teaching innovation, thanks to her use of technology, describes herself as “always interested in technology” and “interested in trying different things”; UK-E also says the same: “for me, it was just something that I happened to always be interested in”. But, overall, their attitude is better exemplified by how UK-J presents his own reason for becoming a digital historian: “being involved as a member of staff in various digital projects within the universities in the UK”. This is why UK interviewees tend to talk a lot less about their personal experience as something that needs to be highlighted as a special effort, somewhat outside of the norm. For them, their professional duty as digital historians does not so much relate to innovating and taking risk against the current.

In this sense, while interviewees from both Italy and the UK have mentioned the unavoidability of change, especially in the medium/long run (UK-A and IT-AA in particular highlight this aspect), the value judgement associated with this consideration varies considerably between the two countries. UK interviewees use the term mainstream (UK-A, UK-D, UK-J) to refer to the fact that some digital tools, such as personal computers – associated with web browsing and email communication for instance – are present on each and every historian’s desk, while “serious computational work” (UK-D) is only done by a few. The main element in the timeframe for digital history in the UK is the creation and work of the Association for History and Computing. The Association was therefore created mainly as a “support network” (UK-C), to “try and first of all bring people together” (UK-D) and give them a “voice” and an “identity”.

3.4. Professional Environment

As explained above, digital historians in Italy often feel isolated/marginalised with respect to the majority of historians in the country. Four interviewees, IT-B, IT-C, IT-DD and IT-F connect this to the fact that historians tend to work alone. In this respect, then, digital historians should not perceive a difficulty per se; they share this trait with the majority, regardless of what specific projects they undertake. However, as IT-B also points out, “online you cannot think of working alone. It is unimaginable”,13 so in fact they face the challenge of having to promote collaboration in a field that is resistant to it.

Moreover, the specific marginalisation digital historians perceive strictly related to the general hesitation, scepticism (IT-B) if not outright mistrust on the part of the “other” historians. On this issue, however, not all interviewees agree on how far this attitude goes. There are several pessimistic views on the interest and willingness of non-digital historians to engage or even discover more about the topic. IT-C says, for instance, “I would not want to seem too defeatist, but my impression is that they do not have a lot of familiarity or interest for digital tools. This is, I believe, particularly an Italian issue”.14 Overall, only IT-R and IT-M are fairly optimistic on the amount of change that has already occurred among Italian historians: IT-M, while highlighting the difficulties still present in many respects, says that “the phase of diffidence has now passed”.15 IT-O exemplifies this clearly by saying that, while “we are still very much behind”, it is also “clear that that kind of suspicion, snigger, smugness or even refusal that was present 15 years ago”16 is no longer there. The majority of the interviewees, however, agree with what IT-F calls a “cultural delay in addressing digital issues”.17

This evolution is attributed, beside the simple passage of time and the ubiquity of digital tools in everyday life, to one major element: the availability of online primary and secondary sources for historians to access and use. According to IT-Q, this amounts to a true “revolution in the profession”.18 All historians benefit from finding primary and secondary sources online that they would have had to travel long distances for or gain access to through lengthy bureaucratic procedures. This is, however, warns IT-N, mainly a practical innovation, related to “convenience”, to something that is “convenient” and “very useful”19 to use but that does not, in fact, appear to “be able to modify the traditional paradigm, the working methods”.20 This works as a justification for not developing any interest in the topic of digital history itself and the issues it involves from a methodological and epistemological point of view. IT-AA even says that “in a few decades everyone will be a digital historian because our work will only be possible by commanding the tools and the issues of the digital world”;21 she is if fact referring to the development of everyday tools, rather than innovative methods.

The professional environment is the area where differences between the situation in Italy and the UK are the most striking.

It is at the discipline level as well as the national level that digital historians in the UK find themselves in an institutional and scientific framework where their work can be positively and productively located and even effectively advance the field itself.

UK interviewees have a much lower, in any at all, perception of marginalisation within their professional environment; they also do not present a situation where their efforts and projects are de-contextualised and lack disciplinary level support and recognition.

Still, UK-A and UK-D, UK-B, in particular, still advocate a cultural change, as their do Italian counterparts, but only after having declared the use of most of the “basic” digital tools, including digital primary sources, as within mainstream historical practice. This is when the two situations seem to start diverging, since there is no mention in any of my Italian interviews of the concept of mainstream digital work or any comparable idea.

There is widespread concern in both countries regarding the training of future historians as well as the “bringing on board” of sceptical colleagues, to enable the discipline to take full advantage of the opportunities offered by new technologies and tools.

Digital historians in Italy are more isolated and do not work generally within a field of reference like Digital Humanities in the UK. However, digital historians in the UK still believe there are playing an innovative role in trying to bring new technologies into a very traditional discipline, with the curiosity and risk-taking, but also with a very firm view that the core professional values and standards of what it means to be a historians cannot be put aside even for a moment.

In the UK, stakeholders at various levels are engaged with promoting, or at least talking about, technology in the humanities, in both teaching and research, while in Italy the initiative is left to a limited number of committed individuals, often working in niche areas, who are unable to claim any clear benefit, even if only from a rhetorical point of view, against their accomplishment in the digital world.

On the contrary, UK historians tend to point to a relatively long tradition of dealing with the digital in a collective and professional way, notably, until very recently, through the Association for History Computing (UK-A, UK-B, UK-C). Even though the Association is presently in a “state of abeyance” (UK-A), its existence and its work, for instance the conferences and publications on history and computing in the 1980s and 1990s (mentioned in particular by UK-C), have influenced the general way of thinking in terms of the viability and possible impact of the use of computers in history.

Historians and humanists in the UK point frequently to the fact that, even though on the one hand the discipline remains a very traditional one, “remarkably conservative discipline”, says UK-B and on the other hand rewards for “going digital” are not “embedded” in the system (UK-A), there is indeed pressure from both within academic institutions and on a more general political level to try and develop digital tools and opportunities for digital humanities in general and digital history in particular. In fact, most respondents point to the fact that the mainstream aspect of digital history that we have mentioned above, is not only referred to the widespread availability of (now) basic digital equipment and software, but also to the fact that digital history is part of the highly developed – at least in the UK – field of Digital Humanities (UK-F and UK-E, as digital humanists, highlight the importance of keeping a strong connection between Digital Humanities and Digital History), and this has promoted digital history in the UK to a stage of maturity, where scepticism is largely reserved for projects “at the edge of the spectrum” (UK-A) even for digital scholars.

3.5. Education and Training

Education and training of course are the basis for the continuation of a discipline over time and also a large component of the professional life of scholars, including historians, especially those based in academia. Two areas are particularly important: digital history at undergraduate/postgraduate level and digital history for PhD students and researchers in training.

Interviewees in Italy, first of all, mention a generational gap between the scholars and administrators and the younger scholars as well as the students. One interviewee (IT-B) describes the feeling of disquiet and even fear to some extent that one senior scholar experienced when faced, year after year, with students belonging to no less than the third generation after him. Reinforcing this sense of distance is the use of technology in everyday life; IT-F says that “99% of those who are not involved in digital scholarship were raised [and trained] in a completely different environment”.22 Of course, there is widespread acknowledgement that the students today belong to a generation used to living with the digital world, even though not all interviewees use the controversial term “digital natives” (IT-R, IT-M use it; IT-N, IT-E, IT-F, IT-C refer to the technical skills of the younger generations but do not use the term) and none of them discusses it in a critical manner; it is clear, nevertheless, that in most cases the students “know far more about IT than the staff that are teaching them” (IT-B).

Still, IT-F points out that, however technology savvy these young student and researchers may be, they do not necessarily show “sensitivity”23 to the issues related to online content and they do not show a strong set of critical thinking skills and certainly do not receive a specific training on how to use Internet and web technologies in a scientifically sound manner. There is simply no one to teach them. There is obviously a lack of skills as well as structures, overall a “lack of digital culture, of a culture of experimentation and innovation”,24 as IT-O explains it.

The most notable exception to the lack of formal training opportunities is the University of Pisa, mentioned by three of the interviewees (IT-D and IT-AA, who are directly involved in the programme and IT-O, IT-Q and IT-R, who are aware of its existence and some of the main aspects) because of its degree course in Informatica Umanistica (humanities computing), which includes digital history as well. As IT-AA explains, the apparent triviality of the difference between humanities computing and digital humanities is contradicted in the Italian language, where the order of words is generally the opposite to their English equivalent, and therefore Informatica Umanistica tends to highlight the fact that the graduates of this degree will be essentially IT specialists who will be able to deliver on a wide range of projects and skills applicable to the Humanities and to the cultural sector in general. In fact, graduates of this programme do around 50% in each area, rather than being humanists with certain IT skills25 (IT-D).

The main difference overall, in fact, between Italy and the UK in this area, is the availability of full programmes, especially at postgraduate level, in digital history and even more digital humanities. In fact, UK-A trained in one such course as early as 1986 and other interviewees, such as UK-E and UK-F teach in such courses.

UK-A illustrates the situation in the UK with two main considerations:

  1. University students expect as well as demand as much technology as possible in their academic world, provided it affords them some advantages or makes their lives easier. This is also brought about, explains UK-A, by a competition among universities to appear innovative to attract students.
  2. University students may well be digital natives from a chronological point of view, but their use of technology is not necessarily sophisticated enough for academic purposes.

As far as the first element is concerned, the difference with Italy is striking: none of the interviewees in Italy has mentioned any sort of demand or even expect any technological innovation from the academic environment. Also, on the other hand, competition among universities to attract students is not an issue that was brought up in any of the interviews.

Still, interviewees in the UK use the term “digital natives” more widely than their Italian counterparts, but while they do not necessarily subscribe to any particular view of the consequence of their age on their educational needs or the way they learn, they agree that they are not “trained” to use the web and associated technology for learning at university level. As UK-F puts it, “they think they know it all but they have absolutely no clue”.

As far as training of novice researchers or aspiring researchers, especially PhD students, in the tools and methodologies of the web is concerned, most respondents in Italy believe that this is a necessary step towards a wider and better use of these tools and methodologies in academia, but the situation is described at the worst as having no training provided at all and at best as extremely variable from institution to institution, which, by the way, appears to be true for all aspects of the training of future scholars at PhD and Postdoctoral level (IT-D). IT-L, who is involved in the training of high school teachers of history, goes as far as saying that the whole cycle of the education system, involving teachers who train in universities where there is no room for digital tools and methodologies, and then work in schools where they are unable and unprepared to bring about any change, and therefore do not prepare their own students to expect or even less demand technology in their own university education.26

This is a combination of circumstances but also depends on the attitude of the students. As IT-M explains, while they might be open to the use of new technologies, but they are not necessarily prepared to direct their research towards digital history for “fear of defining themselves as historians of a different kind”, they demonstrate some sort of “psychological obstacle” to differentiate themselves too much from tradition, in case that meant increased difficulties in being accepted by the “corporation”.27 IT-R describes exactly this situation when he recounts his own decisions regarding the topic of his doctoral degree: after having addressed a digital history topic in his undergraduate thesis, in fact, he decided to choose a traditional topic for his PhD, with the view of starting an academic career, because “digital history was not a recognised discipline [...] and therefore I would not have shown my future examiners that I had a credible training as a professional historian”.28

Also in the UK, as explained very clearly by UK-A, finding new career paths and increasing employability is one of the key factors in favour of the introduction of more training in digital tools for historians, particularly at graduate level and for PhD students. Naturally, the main desired career path for a PhD student is the academic career. In this field, UK-G stresses an element that is common with the view held by Italian interviewees, namely that not all PhD students are particularly tempted by innovation and prefer to be “cautious”. What this means, in very similar terms to what was highlighted for Italy, is that students tend to want to “emulate what they think worked for people in the past and they think that if they do exactly the same as their supervisor did, they will end up like their supervisor.”

4. Conclusions

This inquiry into the different aspects of the identity and points of view of digital historians in Italy and the UK attempts to fills a gap in the literature on digital history and provides a personal and professional perspective that helps to shed light on various areas of the historians’ work.

The conclusions that can be drawn from initial findings concern mainly that the institutional as well as national educational level are crucial to the development and sustainability of digital history projects and especially to the dissemination of technology in teaching and research among scholars and students. The history of digital history so far in Italy and the UK shows that organisations, institutions, courses and structures help not only define an identity for those historians wishing to pursue digital work, but also create new opportunities for innovation and further training of new digital historians.

The research overall aims at defining a complete theory of being a digital historian by further exploring the components of the digital historians’ experience, their views and their ideas concerning the academic and educational environment and their relationship with the interested public.

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