Digital in practice: survey of Russian historians' research practices

paper, specified "short paper"
  1. 1. Andrei Volodin

    Moscow State University

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Realm of Digital history

“Digital history” became a professional realm, because new ways to store, process, and study information entered the everyday historical research practices in Russia (Rosenzweig, 2010). Obviously, the “digitization” introduces new approach to the craft of the historian, when digitization became the indispensable stage of many studies (Volodin, 2015). Interdisciplinary framework of “digital history” is often placed in the context of a broader movement of the “digital humanities” (Schreibman et al., 2004; Schreibman et al., 2016). However, it should be emphasized that historical research has lots of specific features, and “digital turn” makes a significant impact on the research practices (Weller, 2013).

Historical research is a kind of reconstruction of the past on the basis of the extant monuments and documents, “remains” and “legends”. This reconstruction is based on three pillars: heuristics, criticism and interpretation. These basic practices today meet the challenges of the “digital age”. It's important to mention that
the “digital turn” in the profession of historical research was one of the four main themes of the International Congress of Historical Sciences in 2015. It seems that time has come to investigate the specificity of research practices and digital tools for professional historians.

Survey of “digital” in practice

The research is based on questionnaires and interviews of historians in Russia in 2015 and 2016 (178 respondents). In questionnaires and interviews I tried to ask not only “geeks” among historians, but also “pure” historians whom “digital turn” also touched (cf.: DARIAH Survey, 2015; Schreibman and Hanlon, 2010; Trinkle, 1999). First questions ask respondents to name main “digital practices” that they consider important. Such start helps to create “folksonomy” of practices and tools that historians define for themselves as “digital” (e.g. it’s not obvious whether text-editing is considered as digital practice, or email as research tool?). Then I started to ask questions about different fields of digital practices as we hypothetically classified in several groups: access, digitization, editing, mark-up, visualization, modeling/simulation, and others. Each group (or type of practice) includes different techniques and tools. We define techniques as more general term to call research procedure, when tools are linked to particular software or platform.

History in the “digital turn”

The instancy of the research is associated with a new stage in the development of information and digital technologies in history. “Digitizing” is not just a technical procedure now, but it becomes a preparation for further computerized analysis of historical sources, using different tools for visualization and analysis of historical information.

The “digital turn” in history requires a monographic study as well as a full systematization of historians’ research practices. We don’t know any systematic attempt to generalize the results achieved by “digital history”. This research project is designed to systematize the research practices (both visualization and analysis of historical data). This study tries to “catch” the development of contemporary digital practices, and we hope to make classification that will summarize achievement
in the field of “digital history”. Summarizing the answers, it’s possible to draw several valid observations: one insight and three dichotomies.

Insight: Digital is “Invisible”

It looks that a prediction which was vividly pronounced in
“A New Companion to the Digital Humanities”
that “a decade or two from now, the modifier “digital” will have come to seem pleonastic when applied to the humanities” is much closer. Most of answers were concerned with some concrete experience of usage of digital tools, mentioning that they are so “natural” or “spontaneous”. The time has come when historians are really in the majority of cases are so-called “digital natives” (even if not in age, but at heart).

The usual remark on state-of-art in historical digital practices was that so-called new ICT (Information and communications technology) became usual, familiar, and mostly routine ICT. The increase of computing power broadens digital practices form tables and databases to full-text search in enormous online collections, and then to visualizations from GIS to 3D (cf.: Gregory, 2014).

Heuristics dichotomy: Analog versus Digital

Digital in Russian literally means numeric (like chiffre or numerique in French, or Zíffern in German) without any link to fingers, but strongly connected to quantitative research and computing. That’s why for main historians “digital history” strongly refers to quantitative history or cliometrics. History as one of "traditionally print-based disciplines" (Hayles, 2012, 1) is deeply connected to studies of analog primary sources. This dichotomy has two implications: on the one hand, historians usually see no principle differences between analog original and digital copy, but, on the other hands, they mainly prefer to study analog archives, because it shows their professional skills of access to rare documents.

Criticism dichotomy: Capta versus Data

The “digitization” became the usual and common practice of collecting information. But it's important to mention that for many respondents digitization is almost the same practice as “writing out” or “making notes”, not planning the future possibilities of processing this “capta”.

Distinction between “capta” and “data” in digital history became indicative. If capta is “taken” actively while data is assumed to be a “given” (Drucker, 2011), in digital history capta explains the “catch” of the researcher in terms of his/her sampling of primary sources as well as a critical attitude to the choice of the sources.

Interpretation dichotomy: Close versus Distant

The distinction between “close reading” and “distant reading” came to digital history from computer linguistics (Moretti). This dichotomy explains the conscious choice between brains or processors in solving different research problems. And main present question (or prospect) is that to what extent main practices of history can be robotized? This vision of the future is usually mixed with vague hope that at least interpretation will remain in the researches’ hands and heads. It also brings up an issue of possibilities of digital infrastructure for analytical level.

The aim of the lasting research of digital practices is to create a list of solutions and techniques developed in real research practice, and thus to disseminate such solutions among historians and researchers of the past. The classifier of digital methods and tools will help to choose the most appropriate solution for particular research aims.


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Drucker J. (2011) “Humanities Approaches to Graphical Display” in DHQ. 5.1.

Gregory I. (2014) Challenges and opportunities for digital history. Front. Digit. Humanit. 1:1. 10.3389/fdigh.2014.00001

Hayles N.K. (2012) How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. University of Chicago Press.

Moretti F. (2013) Distant Reading. Verso.

Rosenzweig R., Grafton A. (2010) Clio Wired: The Future of the Past in the Digital Age. Columbia University Press.

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Schreibman S., Siemens R., Unsworth J. (2016) A Companion to Digital Humanities. Wiley-Blackwell.

Schreibman S., Hanlon A.M. (2010) “Determining Value for Digital Humanities Tools: Report on a Survey of Tool Developers" in DHQ (4/2). URL:

Trinkle D.A. (1999) “History and the Computer Revolutions A Survey of Current Practices” in Journal of the Association for History and Computing.

Volodin A. (2015) «Cifrovaja istorija»: remeslo istorika v cifrovuju epokhu [Digital history: the craft of historian in the digital age] // Elektronnyj nauchno-obrazovatel'nyj zhurnal «Istorija», 2015. № 8 (41). 10.18254/S0001228-9-1

Weller T. (2013) History in the digital age. London; New York: Routledge, 2013.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2016
"Digital Identities: the Past and the Future"

Hosted at Jagiellonian University, Pedagogical University of Krakow

Kraków, Poland

July 11, 2016 - July 16, 2016

454 works by 1072 authors indexed

Conference website:

Series: ADHO (11)

Organizers: ADHO