Historical research data

There is an ever-growing amount of digital data being produced by those fields who work on historical topics, raising questions of how this data can be most effectively, managed, archived, catalogued, made available and analysed.

While many of these questions are not unique to historical data, data that is produced through historical research poses complexities that are distinct. Compared to other fields, the historically engaged disciplines face to a particular degree of variety in the formats of the data with which they work and variation in their underlying data models. Under the broad label of “data” one finds texts (handwritten or printed), images, objects, statistical databases, maps, and films, among others, each with their own specificities and challenges. Different types of data and different research methods require modular and flexible solutions that currently only exist in limited contexts. Up to now, many researchers have had to find their own answers, and several islands of project-oriented solutions have been the rule rather than the exception.

There is little interoperability among these different collections of research data. With a few promising exceptions, there is still no commonly established consensus within historically engaged disciplines about on what historical “research data” actually means, and discussions are continuing on how such data should be generated, standardized, integrated, stored, re-used, and published. Historically engaged disciplines thus have to reach more agreement on interoperable standards for the data that they create, analyse, exchange and present to both specialist and general publics. 4Memory aims to constructively and systematically advance the methodological and epistemological reflections on historical research data management and also to offer concrete, user-oriented solutions.

Cross-disciplinary authority data and vocabularies are also crucial, involving both a careful consideration of how existing, well established standards can be applied to new forms of data and of how new standards can be developed to meet new needs. There is a great need for agreed upon methods, procedures, and tools for data retrieval and analysis.

Beyond such more clearly technical questions, historical data also brings with it a distinct set of issues and problems related to the need for historical contextualisation. Historical data is not only extremely heterogeneous with regard to where, how and in what format it was produced but also, of course, in terms of when it was produced and by whom. All of these factors need to be transparent and re-traceable in the presentation of historical data; moreover, the specificities of the historical contexts in which data was first created in the past and then collected in the (ever advancing) present have to be kept in mind. Those working within the historically engaged fields have developed extensive strategies of source criticism that have long been effectively applied in the realm of analogue data: we are, however, still very much at the beginning of creating new and much needed forms of “digital source criticism” for the vastly increasing amount of electronic historical data.

Finally, developing clarity with regard to legal issues related to the generation, use and storage of historical data is extraordinarily important, as is also the development of university curricula and training opportunities to enable those who work with historical data – from students to scholars – to make use of newly developing standards, procedures, and tools.