How to deal with digital sources as a history student – workshop report part 1

Many graduate history students will be familiar with the moment (or phase) in their studies when they have to make a decision about the topic of their final thesis. Some students may already know the topic early on. Others may take a few productive detours on their way to developing their final thesis topic. I am a history student from Germany who is working on the final thesis and in the latter category. With this blog contribution, I would like to share insights into the perspective of me as a historian at the end of my graduate academic education, whose final thesis research also marked my first foray into the field of digital history.

Digital surrogate: Internet Archive.

At the beginning of my Master’s degree program at Bielefeld University, Germany, I was sure that I wanted to do research on a different topic than my Bachelor thesis. World War I, albeit an exceptionally cruel war, has always been fascinating to me. I was especially interested in researching the fate of soldiers with neurotic/ psychiatric symptoms during or after their military service (today it would be called PTSD) Therefore, my general topic was clear. What was less clear was my exact research question and, related to this, the accessibility of sources. At first, I wanted to get to know how soldiers interpreted their own conditions. But soon it seemed clear that it would be difficult to get access to this very specific sources. By chance, I explored the series of medical journals called “Berliner klinische Wochenschrift”[i] that was published between 1864 and 1921. It seemed clear to me that I would have to examine it more closely. After reading secondary literature I realized that no one has ever researched the concrete medical phrases used to describe the “shell shock“ phenomena. So far, researchers only concentrated on the contemporary medical discourses but did not pay attention to the way how the doctors exactly phrased the symptoms of the soldiers in their publications. Therefore, the question “How did medical doctors describe the neurotic/ psychiatric symptoms of soldiers that have serviced in the war?” came into my mind. A warm welcome to my question!

But, how to get access to the journal? Unfortunately, the library catalogue was unable to provide me with answers. Then, I got the hint from my thesis supervisor that I should ask Google – it has been too obvious and easy. No sooner said than done, I found the digitized journal on[ii] Immediately, I began to save the files of the volumes from 1914 until 1919. Since then, I have saved more than 8.000 digitized pages of medical articles by German doctors. What’s next?

On the one hand, it is nice to have digitized historical articles. On the other hand, working with these accurately requires more than just the normal screening of texts with a human eye. After some time, I realized that I’ll have to venture into the field of digital history to develop better strategies. People might think that digital history is just a field for lazy historians, but it can be so much more. Dealing with digital sources does not mean that the historian is obsolete.[iii] In my specific case it means the possibility to widen my period of research and quantify my sources of research, meaning that I can develop new and different ways of dealing with words than I was used to. Tables of words (“Wortlisten“[iv]), enumerations and charts as presentation options can do more for you than just examine specific words closely: Digital tools help with investigating relations between words in documents, for example: In which context or combination of medical terms appears the word “war neurosis?“

Here are some of my findings based on my initial explorations of the field of digital history:

First, I had to clarify the kind of questions I have and define what exactly I would like to know. Is it really necessary to bring digital methods to the thesis? What outcome would I like to achieve? Which disadvantages could arise when I work with digital tools? The level of (self-) reflections seems to be indispensable. Only when these questions can be answered, either on your own or in discussion with your supervisors, it makes sense to combine traditional hermeneutical methods with digital ones.

In addition, thankfully the text corpus of the “Berliner klinische Wochenschrift“ is already digitized, published by the same source, and homogenous in its layout. Following Silke Schwandt’s advice, sources of digital history need to be readable for machines. Applied to my example, that could be that each page has the same two-column structure and the font type is set uniformely in Antiqua style. Based on these criteria, my historical sources fulfill the first requirements.

Third, I still need to find the right software to support my work. If you are using handwritten documents, you will need to transcribe and digitalize them. In that case, a helpful tool could be „Transkribus“.[v] As I have written above, I do not need this type of program for my current work. At least, so much is clear. But the question which software may aid my research and help with analyzing the medical terms that doctors used to describe medical symptoms remains important. I can certainly rely on my supervisor’s experience. Because the variety of computational or DH tools is wide, I assume and hope that professionals who have used digital tools for a longer time than I have will be able to help me with advice. As you can see, my exploration is ongoing. At this stage, I have paused my thesis work to explore potential digital tools. Only when I know what tool I will be working with I can resume my foray into the field of digital history and start writing my thesis.

Nevertheless, I’ll continue my work as I follow these steps:

  • Input of digital sources in program
  • Analysis and evaluation of the output/ results of the computational  process
  • Set the results in context
  • Writing the thesis

How I’ll cope with this challenges you’ll see in future. I‘ll keep you updated!

[i] Deutsche digitale Bibliothek, Berliner klinische Wochenschrift: Organ für praktische Ärzte, (access 3/23/2020 4.40 pm).

[ii] Internet Archive, Advanced search, (access 3/23/2020 3.09 pm).

[iii] Silke Schwandt, „Digitale Methoden für die Historische Semantik. Auf den Spuren von Begriffen in digitalen Korpora,“ Geschichte und Gesellschaft. Zeitschrift für Historische Sozialwissenschaft 44, no. 1 (2018): 107-134. The assumptions in this article refer to the work of Silke Schwandt.

[iv] Schwandt, „Digitale Methoden für die Historische Semantik,“ 122.

[v] Transkribus, Scholars, (access 3/23/2020 3.50 pm).

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Laura Maria Niewöhner (April 8, 2020). How to deal with digital sources as a history student – workshop report part 1. h r e f. Retrieved July 17, 2024 from