History and Computing: A Learned Society and a European Perspective

Peter Denley and Deian Hopkin | Jan 1, 1995

The development of computing in the humanities has been considerably advanced by the evolution of new mechanisms and institutions, which both increased awareness and provided a link between technology and the humanities subjects. While in Europe much of this development was promoted by the policies of governments, most of the impetus, especially in terms of integrating scholarship and educational development, has necessarily been provided by self-help and cooperation between scholars and educationalists. It has come primarily from within the disciplines themselves as the pedagogical and research potential of information technology has increasingly struck pioneers in various subjects.

Across the range of humanities disciplines, an important means of furthering computing in the humanities has been the specialist scholarly association. History has been a comparative newcomer in this respect; the Association for History and Computing (AHC) was formed in 1986. Although the AHC evolved in a European context, it is rapidly developing in many other countries and beginning to speak authoritatively for the profession. The purpose of this article is to introduce the association to an American audience. It explores the background and genesis of the body and identifies the prospects and problems it has had to face.

Historical Computing: The Background

It is doubtful if there has ever been a time when technology has impinged so obviously on the world of scholarship. What has been particularly fascinating has been the degree to which historians have become aware of the implications of technological change for their subject. This is, of course, as it should be. Historians reflect their own age in seeking to understand previous ages. So a shift in the gear of contemporary society inevitably affects the way historians make their journey.

Thirty years ago, there were a few isolated European historians who sought to use developing computer technology. The results of their world in the fields of quantification, nominal record linkage, and, occasionally, text analysis, sometimes captured the attention of the historical mainstream; their methods and tools largely did not. Gradually, however, as the technology itself advanced, more historians carne to recognize the utilitarian value of computers, notably as word processors, so that by the late 1980s the use of computers among European historians became commonplace. Yet the application of computers to other historical tasks was still, as late as the mid-1980s, the province of individual historians or small research teams such as the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure and the Edinburgh Census Project Conferences were held from time to time, for example, at Hull, in Paris, and in Germany and Austria. What was missing from the equation, however, was a forum in which historians of all kinds, regardless of subject interest or institutional affiliation, might participate.

The Association for History and Computing

Among humanists who used computers and shared their ideas on the subject, historians were conspicuously absent. The literary and linguistic computing community had formed themselves into the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing (ALLC) in 1973. Literary, linguistic, and, to a lesser extent, musical interests predominated in the early life of an even older body, the Association for Computers in the Humanities (ACH), founded in the United States in 1966 and the first to launch a humanities computing journal, Computers and the Humanities. At the conferences and in the publications of these and other groups, historians made only sporadic appearances. A mistaken belief arose that the use of computers was less developed in history than in other humanities disciplines as did a suspicion that historians were more reluctant to participate in multi- or interdisciplinary conferences. For whatever reason, the level of ignorance about historical computing remained high and there were few opportunities to publicize, campaign, and act as a pressure group within the discipline for better software and better funding.

These were the considerations that moved the present writers, in 1985, to float the idea of a tory and Computing" conference that might lead to the formation of an association for history and computing. The response to a call for papers exceeded all expectations and, from March 21- 23, 1986, 300 people from 19 countries attended the conference at Westfield College, University of London. Everyone present agreed that something unique had taken place at that first Westfield Conference. It had brought together a large number of practitioners in the field from many nations and areas of the subject with different degrees of eminence and experience to a bazaar of topics, papers, and demonstrations. What made the event so memorable was the throwing together of a galaxy of contact-starved historians who were able to discover colleagues working in other areas but with similar methodological and practical problems. The fact that these colleagues might be working on subjects as diverse as regional settlement structures in ancient Greece, the Domesday Book, the Huguenot exodus, Scandinavian demographic history, 18thcentory poll book analysis, the prosopography of 13th-century French craftsmen, the political caste of l5th-century Ragusa, the mapping of property records for an Italian Renaissance town, or record linkage in a 19th-century Portuguese community had a strong liberating effect on debate. Those present did not have to prove themselves in scholarly terms to their expert peers; they had come together to discuss methodological issues that cut across their respective territories. This conference was the first of several at which, it has often been remarked, a noticeable spirit of excitement and cooperation not often seen at academic conferences prevailed. In addition, the internationality of the occasion introduced historians to the advanced state of computing that existed within nations but was little known outside national b01D1daries. For example, Manfred Thaller's sophisticated history-specific package, KLEIO, had been used in over 30 major German historical computing projects over the previous eight years without having become known at all in the United Kingdom.

At the end of the conference, when the question was put about where to go next, the answer was unequivocal. The need for an association had been demonstrated by the size and work of the conference itself, and the non-British participants were insistent that its basis should be international, though it should be run initially from the United Kingdom, where the initiative had originated. A steering committee was formed, and, with the financial assistance of the Nuffield Foundation and the European Science Foundation, it prepared the constitution, aims, and structure of the association. These were put to the second Westfield Conference, in March 1987, at which the Association for History and Computing formally came into being. The Association and Its Branches

The constitution that was approved in March 1987 envisaged a nominally hierarchical structure of branches and subgroups that would be members of the association as a whole. The purpose was to encourage national, regional, or linguistic groups to form branches at levels most appropriate to the activities they wished to pursue. On matters to do with the teaching of history, for example, the most appropriate level was the country; national barriers between educational systems, as well as linguistic differences, made it unrealistic to expect amajorpart of activity in this area to take place at an international level. At the same time, the international aspect of the association was envisaged as encouraging the maximum exchange of information between countries even where their particular needs varied. The AHC was planned to operate on two tiers, the national and the international. We tried to build into its constitution and organization the maximum flexibility between these two levels.

The association's branches have arguably been the most vigorous element The Austrian branch, the first, and the United Kingdom branch, the largest, were founded on the same day as the organization. French and Portuguese branches quickly followed as did Swiss and Nordic branches. An Italian branch was formed in 1989, and Spanish and Canadian branches were added in 1990. At the time of writing the association has an overall membership of about 1,000, drawn from 25 countries. The activities of these branches have been multifarious. Most have held conferences or workshops and some are publishing the proceedings of these events. The Austrian branch has incorporated into its activities the highly successful Salzberg Summer School on quantitative methods. The Portuguese, Swiss, Italian, French, and Austrians have inaugurated bulletins, in each case extremely well produced, stimulating, and varied in content The United Kingdom branch has perhaps gone the furthest in its activities, which include an annual conference; summer schools; special subgroups for research, education, and archives; and a host of specific initiatives. The most recent development has been the foundation of branches in Eastern Europe—in the CIS, Estonia, Hungary, and Poland-and major initiatives, including summer schools and the provision of equipment, software, and books for historians in eastern Europe. Historical computing associations in Latin America are also springing up, and discussions about their relationship with the AHC are in hand.

The energy and achievements of local associations has gradually led to a rethinking of the role, and specifically of the constitution, of the association. A catalyst in this process was the development of historical computing in the Low Countries. A Low Countries Association for History and Computing, the Vereniging voor Geschiedenis en Informatica (VGI), was formed in the wake of the second Westfield Conference, but for political and institutional reasons it was felt inappropriate that this should not happen under the AHC umbrella as it then stood. For the Low Countries the decision was clearly the right one. The astonishing achievements of this group—rapid recruitment of over 300 members, the establishment of a highly professional journal, a historical data archive, and a vigorous program of conferences, education meetings, and publications-were the envy of many colleagues. From the beginning it was a matter of mutual regret that the VGI and the AHC evolved in parallel rather than in conjunction, but relations have been good from the start and there has been much discussion about ways of coming together. These discussions have finally resulted in a substantial constitutional reform of the AHC. From 1993 onward a new constitution has given the association a more explicitly federal structure; it has become an international umbrella organization, comprising member associations, individuals, and associate organizations whose interests coincide with ours without their being primarily dedicated to the furtherance of historical computing.

International Activities

The role of the association as international pressure group is another feature that stands out among its activities. The role is played on many levels. The most prominent is that of conferences. The association's own annual conference, its principal moment of reunion, is the most obvious vehicle for publicity. Although AHC returned to Westfield once after its initial meeting, it was agreed that the annual venues the conference should vary and that conferences should be undertaken in collaboration with host groups or branches. Thus in 1988 the third annual conference was held in Cologne, West Germany, as part of a much larger conference, Cologne Computer Conference, which was organized jointly with the International Conference on Data Bases in the Humanities and Social Sciences and the International Federation of Data Organizations in the Social Sciences, two much older organizations. Since then, conferences have been held in Bordeaux, France (19E Montpellier, France (1990); Odense, Denmark (1991); Bologna, Italy (1992); Graz, Austria (1993); and Nijmegen, Holland (1994). Future venues are Montreal (1995), Moscow (1996), Stockholm (1997), and Toledo (1998).

Collaboration with other organizations has been a high priority for the association. AHC organized sessions have been held at conferences of the ALLC/ACH, the International Congress of Historical Sciences, and the International Economic History Association. There have been reciprocal subscriptions arrangements with QUANTUM and INTERQUANT, and the as citation has participated in international projects such as the Text Encoding Initiative. In the last several years, the association has also developed an extensive program of international research workshops. Those on image processing, curriculum development, and software for highly structured historical sources have already report others currently active are concerned with OCR, archives, bibliography, historical benchmarks, mapping, and intellectual property. Equally important, the association has proven successful seeming funding from international agencies, institutions. This has hastened the proc whereby the association speaks to national and international research councils and government agencies on behalf of the profession on computing matters.


A final area in which the association has sought to be active is publication. From beginning it was agreed that, on an international level, the exchange of information in writing was bound to he the cheapest form of communication. The main product to date has been a new journal History and Computing, which evolved from earlier newsletter, Computers and History Today. The journal might best be described as a hybrid of journal and magazine. It contains conventional scholarly articles and book views, but it also includes discussion papers; an education section; reviews of software, hardware, and courseware; introductory features on aspects of historical computing; an extensive news section: and opportunities for reply, comment, and criticism.


In the mid-l990s, certain question marks remain. The continuous process of educational change that characterized the 1980s has left much of the profession bewildered, even exhausted. In practice, computing has remained surprisingly peripheral to the central historiographical and methodological concerns of historians in general. It remains to be seen how far and how soon the arrival of database management systems and other software tools will enable historians to change their research and teaching practices. The emergence of the Internet raises similar questions. The degree to which government or commercial support of humanities computing continues is also questionable.

Such developments have rendered the work of organizations such as the Association for History and Computing even more important Computing historians tend to be intellectually gregarious. Their common focus is not exclusive, and the skills they employ are historically ubiquitous. They tend to appreciate the benefits of cooperative work or team effort because the logistics of their activity often require resources and investment in time and equipment greater than the individual historian can either command or justify. They also feel themselves to be at a frontier, though whether they have crossed it or are still seeking an acceptable passport is a matter for debate. They are capable, moreover, of being genuinely international in that no chronological, geographic, or thematic boundaries stand obviously in their way. What can he a formula for success, however, can so easily be a recipe for failure. The lack of obvious historiographical focus can lead to superficiality or myopia. A machine, after all, is a means to an end, and computers in this sense are no more and no less than machines. The debate about the nature and purpose of the ends is as important to computing historians as it is to historians more generally.

For further information about the Association for History and Computing and its publications, contact the Secretary-General, Dr. Leon Breure, Computer & Letteren, Rijksuniversiteit te Utrecht, Achter de Dom 22-24, 3512 JP Utrecht, The Netherlands. E-mail: leen.breure@let.ruu.nl (Internet). The journal History and Computing is edited by Prof. R. J. Morris, Dept. of Economic and Social History, Univ. of Edinburgh, William Robertson Bldg., George Square, Edinburgh EH8 9JY, United Kingdom.

Efforts are also underway to establish an American branch of the ARC. Interested historians should contact Janice Reiff, Department of History, 405 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90025-1473. E-Mail: reiff@nicco.sscnet.ucla.edu.

Peter Denley teaches history at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University at London, and can be reached through the Internet at p.r.denley@ qmw.ac.uk. Deian Hopkin teaches at London Guildhall University, and can be reached at DR_Hopkin@tvax.clp.ac.uk.


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