Finding a Common Language

Digital Hermeneutics at DH Benelux 2019

DTU-DHH offered three contributions at last week’s Digital Humanities Benelux conference in Liège (11-13 September), setting out to discuss interpretations of oral history video testimonies, digital humanities curricula, and overcoming OCR problems in distant reading techniques.

On the first day, doctoral researcher Jakub Bronec conducted the workshop “Making sense of digital oral history” in collaboration with Jakub Mlynář, his colleague from Prague. Using historical narrative perspectives, the lecturers critically introduced a variety of narrators from Jewish survivors to liberators stored in the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive as one of the largest online video collections, whose testimonies offer a wide range of possible historical reconstructions. The lecturers placed emphasis on memory as a reconstructive process that can be influenced by many factors and might be distorted by one’s social environment and current political situation. The workshop confronted international studies that imply oral historians would show less insight into the epistemological principles of history. 1 The theoretical part dealt with errors in conduct made by interviewers and interviewees, and examined what the effects were when using the testimonies for a critical analysis. Often the phenomenon occurs that narrators who gave an uncritical account of past events make them so credible that researchers who interact with them will find it hard to build up the distance needed to critically approach their accounts. 2

During the hands-on part of the workshop participants were asked to look up certain accounts with the help of searching tools such as Index Search and Experience Groups Search with the aim of discussing the different ways of recording testimonies. For example, watching accounts designed for a documentary offered different content than the tapes recorded during the Sudan genocide.

The workshop concluded by discussing persistent issues and topics related to the educational and research use of digital oral history today. Given that educators and scholars often rely exclusively on archived video recordings of oral histories to access and present the narrated experiences of Holocaust survivors, these considerations seemed important.


A gloomy day at the university of Liège situated at the shore of the river Meuse

In his paper “Digital History as Trading Zone? Reflections from a Doctoral Training Unit“ post-doctoral researcher Tim van der Heijden proposed the idea of a “trading zone” to apply as a conceptual framework of the DTU-DHH as a four-year interdisciplinary training and research programme. For this, he focused especially on contact points in terms of ‘locality’ and ‘interdisciplinary collaboration’ within the first year of the programme. The feedback from the audience after Tim’s short paper addressed the general debate of when to establish skill trainings in the humanities in the academic curriculum and the sustainability and learning effects of such a programme by continuing it on a long-term basis.

Tim van der Heijden proposing the DTU-DHH as a ‘Trading Zone’


Doctoral researcher Eva Andersen presented her collaborative work with Lars Wieneke and Maria Biryukov, both C2DH, in the short paper “Making sense of non-sense. Tracing topics in a historical corpus on psychiatry facing low OCR quality”. When analyzing the transnational expert discourse in psychiatric journals of the 19th century by topic modelling the team came across the problem a very diverse structure and text genres within the scanned volumes that only provided a very limited OCR quality. By proposing different solution to these problems and Eva could identify new aspects within the discourse that would not have visible without the experiment, such as  the underestimated German influence on the British discourse.


Eva Andersen presents her research on psychiatric discourses


  1. Havekes, H., Arno-Coppen, P., Luttenberg, J., van Boxtel, C. 2012. Knowing and doing history: A conceptual framework and pedagogy for teaching historical contextualization. International Journal of Historical Learning, Teaching and Research, 11(1): 72–93
  2. Bertram, Ch., Wagner W., Trautwein U., 2017. “Learning Historical Thinking With Oral History Interviews: A Cluster Randomized Controlled Intervention Study of Oral History Interviews in History Lessons: A Cluster Randomized Controlled Intervention Study of Oral History Interviews in History Lessons.” American Educational Research Journal. American Educational Research Association, 54(3): 444-484

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