Editors’ Choice: The Future of the Past Roundup

Posted on March 30, 2012

Anne Welsh, The Future of the Past Recap

The IHR’s roundtable session, The Future of the Past discussed the future of history and how digital resources affect the way historians preserve history.

The panel included Dr Melissa Terras (Co-Director of UCLDH), Dr. Adam Farquhar (Head of Digital Scholarship at the British Library), Dr. Torsten Reimer (Project Manager at JISC) and Prof. Tim Hitchcock (University of Hertfordshire), the latter reading a paper by Prof. Andrew Prescott (Head of the Department of Digital Humanities, King’s College London) who could not attend in person due to an injury. The talk was wrapped up by Prof. Lorna Hughes’ (University of Wales) response summarising the main points and discussing her views on the topic.

Matt Phillpott, Digital History: The Future of the Past roundtable

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 The publication of masses of historical documents alongside analytical and explanatory commentaries revolutionised what historians could achieve and made it possible for us to diversify into other areas such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.

Andrew Prescott, The Future of the Past Talk

We imagine we live in a time of great change in our relationship to the study of the past. Yet it is only 120 years since A. W. Pollard , the founder of the Institute of Historical Research, graduated with first class honours at Oxford and was told that there was no possibility of an academic career for him as a historian at Oxford. This must have been a dismaying prospect, as there were at the time few alternatives for an aspiring historian. Consider the state of historical provision at the time that Pollard graduated. The English Historical Review, the first recognizably modern academic journal for English historians, was only five years old. Many of the learned societies which were to publish primary sources on a large scale, such as the Selden Society and Pipe Roll Society, had likewise only recently been founded Photographic facsimiles of manuscripts were just starting to appear under the auspices of bodies such as the New Palaeographical Society. Opportunities for historians to meet and discuss were limited to such small and restricted groups as the Royal Historical Society and the Society of Antiquaries. The only library of any size in London was the British Museum. The search rooms of the Public Record Office had opened in 1866, but much of the material remained uncatalogued and difficult to access.

Listen to Podcast of Roundtable Here