La storia in digitale. Teorie e metodologie

a cura di Deborah Paci
Milano, Unicopli, 2019, pp. 366
€ 29,00 (copertina flessibile)

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In the rather desolate landscape of Italian publications dedicated to digital history, a volume published in 2019 entitled La storia in digitale. Teorie e metodologie edited by Deborah Paci stands out. Researcher and lecturer in digital history at Ca’ Foscari University, Paci is a contemporary historian who, during her academic training, has studied with particular attention the epistemological foundations and research methodologies of digital history. It is precisely around this theme, expressed in its various forms, that the contributions that make up the book revolve. Paci has succeeded in bringing together a number of scholars of digital humanities with international origins to create a collective volume of digital history, an unprecedented operation in the Italian context. In fact, although the first discussions on the encounter between history and the digital world are now more than twenty years old, there is still a lot of resistance and misunderstanding in part of the community of historians. This results in opposition to those who deal with these issues. Therefore, La storia in digitale intends to engage the Italian public to provide clarifications, explanations and indications on present and past research directions. Given the specialized nature of the essays, those in the field will clearly benefit from them, whether they are researchers interested in a digital approach to research or history students who wish to acquire greater awareness of the subject.

Themes

The structure of the text makes the directions in which the various chapters of the essay tend towards immediately identifiable. The first part, which collects the contributions of Mateus Pereira and Valdei Araujo, Anaclet Pons and Deborah Paci, has an eminently theoretical character and reflects on the epistemological status of digital history, considered as a research field capable of responding in an innovative way to the questions of historians, but which also allows us to formulate unthinkable questions – consider the analysis of big data – before the digital turn. The second part, instead, focuses on the potential offered by GIS digital cartographic elaboration tools; the authors, Arturo Gallia and Tiago Luís Gil, aim to demonstrate how Geographic Information Systems can represent the starting point for further studies and research. In the third part there are the articles by Federico Mazzini, Alexander Maxwell and Francesco Maccelli, dedicated to the transformations of archiving, the preservation of documents born digital and the ways in which it is possible to reconstruct the history of the web. The fourth part focuses on the analysis of literary texts in digital form. In particular, Nasreen Iqbal Kasana and Amitabh Vikram Dwivedi dwell on the disadvantages in terms of cognitive overload due to intertextuality in digital reading, while Corinne Manchio reports a case of use of the text mining technique, a research methodology that has opened new interpretative perspectives in philological studies: it allows, for example, to create structured statistics on the frequency and context of use of one or more terms by an author. The last part, finally, collects the contributions of Mario Prades Vilar, Saverio Almini and Gregorio Taccola, Jacopo Bassi, whose fil rouge is the vexata quaestio of the communication of history by experts in the digital world and in schools, with a focus on science blogs, the historical reconstruction of a museum collection through digital systems and some observations on digital school manuals.

At the end of the actual articles there is a section called “Bussole” [“Compasses”], which presents writings of a few pages on different topics: digital archiving, digital (hi)storytelling and text analysis. Despite their brevity, these articles are of great interest because, in addition to presenting an essential bibliography on the topics covered, they provide an idea of the research paths currently underway in the field of digital history. The heterogeneity of the interests and points of view of the authors, sometimes even conflicting, does not prevent the reader from identifying some common bases – although these are not explicit – that give a unitary direction to the text. First of all, digital history is considered by all to be a well-established methodological approach, with its own history, research groups and precise objectives, beyond the inexperienced and uninformed opinions that one might have on the subject. Moreover, the authors, from the most enthusiastic to the most critical, show in a more or less conscious way how history today has to deal with the digital revolution, both in terms of the technical potential of big data, software, websites and blogs, and as an object of study. As Serge Noiret points out in the preface to the volume, 21st century historians cannot neglect or do without digital. However, it is a field in continuous expansion, hence the “open” character of this publication, which establishes some fixed points, while emphasizing in all its essays the fact that there are still many paths that can be traced in the territory of digital history.

Logo of Internet Archive, one of the main archiving systems of born digital documentation

Some notes

La storia in digitale, as we said, exposes a fairly wide range of problems, presented in a scientific and professional way: this is certainly an advantage for professionals, but it can be a stumbling block for those who approach the text – students, enthusiasts and so on – without a basic training in the field of digital humanities. The volume in question, let it be clear, is not a manual: the general conclusions must be extrapolated from sometimes very specific and circumscribed interventions, concerning specialized issues that are not at all immediately comprehensible. In any case, the discussion proceeds fairly smoothly, taking into account the fact that six of the essays in the volume were translated from other languages. With regard to the bibliography, both the one contained at the end of the “Bussole” and the general one, quite extensive, it must be said that it constitutes an added value, a useful tool to unravel the jungle of publications on digital humanities and identify the most significant and influential works; despite the lack of an index of names, unfortunately, reading the text in its entirety you can understand what the essays and scholars of reference are today.

The volume edited by Paci reports some research results, but it is above all a proactive work, which aims to create a different sensibility towards the union between a humanistic discipline like history and a technical discipline like computer science. From a historiographical point of view, La storia in digitale has the merit of pointing the spotlight on the theoretical novelties connected to the digital revolution, such as the possibility of having access to and being able to elaborate immense databases. In fact, many of the authors underline how quantitative research methods based on big data, while not a replacement of qualitative methods, allow to elaborate complex questions, such as discovering long-term trends in economic history, as never before possible. Another issue of great importance, I would say urgent, proposed several times in the volume is that of scientific communication on the web: from scientific blogs involving web users to debunking actions of distorted or denialist historical reconstructions, the digital world poses to the historian a series of unavoidable ethical and deontological questions, as the editor underlines in a webinar organized by Zanichelli.

Conclusions

Having to give an overall idea of the volume edited by Deborah Paci, one of the characteristics for which it can certainly be appreciated is the balance that unites the different interventions: there are no swordplay defences on the discipline under examination nor final judgments on anything; the general tendency is to emphasize more the advantages, tilting the judgment towards an optimistic vision of digital history. The high level of specialization of the essays is an advantage for a reader interested in a specific subject, but it is also a factor of difficulty for those who want to try to get a general idea. Finally, a great merit is that of having brought together experts from different backgrounds, who bring diverse contributions according to their cultural and academic influences. The hope is that digital history will manage to ripple the surface of the Italian debate on digital history and provoke a good wave of reactions, leading to a collective reflection capable of highlighting the fundamental points and at the same time the limits to be overcome, in order to provide constructive guidelines for historiography.

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