Monthly Archives: April 2020

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).

LeMo Lebendiges Museum Online – A reliable source for an introduction to modern German History

As a German high school or college student, you will be familiar with the scenario: A homework assignment requires you to locate reliable information about William II, the Emperor of the German Empire, and the deadline is tomorrow.  It’s late in the evening, every library is closed, and the only tool left is the World Wide Web.  If this sounds familiar to you, don’t panic. Take a moment and let me take you on a digital journey to Berlin, Germany!

The Deutsches Historisches Museum (DHM), physically located in Berlin, Stiftung Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (HdG) and the German federal archives, the Bundesarchiv,  provide a virtual museum called LeMo, Lebendiges Museum Online. [i] It represents a historically reliable introduction in modern German History and is the biggest virtual museum in the digital landscape in German speaking countries.

LeMo addresses everyone who is interested in German History beginning in 1800 until the present day. It is a virtual museum for everyone – K-12 students, college and university students, adults, including senior citizens.  You as a virtual visitor can access the museum easily from home and are invited to explore the website. The appealing presentation design combined with fascinating objects invite you to browse the site and get trapped in the web of history.

This virtual museum provides introductory texts, images of ancient objects, historical photographs and videos, audio files, biographical stories, pedagogical material and more materials on eleven epochs and topics of modern German history. Each historical period has three levels of telling history:

First, there is an introduction that provides an overview of the content.  So, if you need information about William II. you can click on the topic “Kaiserreich”. There you will find an overview with the most important information to the German Empire in written texts and historical media like paintings and filmclips. This presentation of historical media evokes imaginations and impressions of that specific past and makes it easier to access it. In addition, the texts and side information on the presented objects provide keywords that lead you to further information.

Second, every general topic has a table of content to explore more information on each period of time. If you have additional interest in the foreign affairs of William II. and especially in his colonial policy, the website can assist you. Once you’ve clicked on it indicating that you are interested in gaining deeper knowledge of foreign policies, LeMo provides new subject areas and historical events related to that topic. Then, you can click on “Kolonialpolitik”, colonial policy, to access more information on the colonial beliefs of William II.

Furthermore, the museum provides an overview of historical events of each year, so if you need information on a specific historical event, you can choose this tool of doing research as well. This way, digital visitors get the impression to take a much closer look on a virtual exhibition of a German museum. In addition, if you still cannot find the item you are looking for at first glance, you may take advantage of the search function tailored to support specialized research topics.

The portal was first established in 1997. Its initial goal was to experiment with new technologies and the World Wide Web, still emerging at the time. Therefore, with its early efforts to represent a historical museum online in Germany, LeMo was a pioneer in that time. Since then, the virtual museum has enjoyed ever-increasing popularity and attracts visits from all over the world. Would you have expected that the highest number of visits with more than 100.000 per year comes from the USA? Digital paths of telling history have been and continue to be useful for many people from all over the world. LeMo is free, the only requirement is the ability to read German language.

Whether you are working on a homework assignment that’s due tomorrow, or are just interested in learning about German history, please visit LeMo. Even to me, who is quite familiar with German History, it is every time exciting to visit this virtual museum. I always find new information and get fascinated by the historical media presented on the screen.

Well, are you interested and need assistance? Here we go:

[i] Ina Frodermann, Oliver Schweinoch, Email with brochure “LeMo – Lebendiges Museum Online“, February 27, 2020.