Reflecting on “Epistemologies of Digitisation”. A Workshop of Research and Collection Holding Institutions in Gotha

On January 18th, 2022, the team of the digitisation project Cartographies of Africa and Asia (KarAfAs) hosted a panel under the title “Epistemologien der Digitalisierung. Digitale Repositorien und ihre Folgen für Wissenschaft und Forschung” to discuss epistemologies of digitisation and to reflect critically on the impact of digitisation projects on ongoing historiographic research. The panellists reflected on shared experiences at the Gotha Research Campus, which has been involved with various digitisation projects in the last years. This involvement is mainly due to its exceptional abundance of historical collections under the auspices of the Gotha Research Library and Stiftung Schloss Friedenstein the competence and experience of its staff, and the long-standing partnerships with the Thuringian University and State Library (ThULB) Jena. The discussion was part of the lecture series “Tuesday Talks” at the Gotha Centre for Transcultural Studies.

Speakers were Dr. Hendrikje Carius (Gotha Research Library), apl. Prof. Dr. Robert Gramsch-Stehfest (Friedrich Schiller University Jena), Dr. Feras Krimsti (Gotha Research Library), Manuel Vojtech (Stiftung Schloss Friedenstein Gotha), and Dr. Petra Weigel (Gotha Research Library/KarAfAs). Claudia Berger (KarAfAs) moderated the event.


The panel’s premise was the need to reflect on research with digitised items to identify challenges and chances connected to digitisation projects in light of established research practices. This need has also been identified by the consortium 4Memory NFDI, an initiative by German historians promoting a national data infrastructure. Participants of this network include the Centre for Transcultural Studies and the Gotha Research Library. While digitisation projects are often viewed from the perspective of digitising institutions, the question of what happens to the online material in research is rarely discussed. Digitised materials are genuinely different research objects than the objects they embody. The workshop discussion reflected on changes in research practices by using digitised materials. During the first round of questions, all participants were invited to present their opinions on the epistemologically most promising and most challenging aspects of digitisation projects.

Based on the premise that digitisation of historical materials has to be understood as part of the research process, Hendrikje Carius pointed out the necessity to approach the concept of digitisation with a nuanced understanding of the different levels and practices of cataloguing and digitisation. These create different knowledge and appropriation possibilities for dealing with digitised sources, which also require epistemological reflection. As a result, researching digitised sources depends upon digital source criticism and a critique of digital practices regarding search, analysis, presentation of historical knowledge and research infrastructures. On the one hand, Carius considers one of the greatest challenges to be the negotiation of technology-based development of generic digital infrastructures in keeping with specific, diversified research requirements and questions. In addition to the influence of technological and creative framework conditions on research perspectives, corpus building is based on pre-selective processes, which might shape the direction of research perspectives, as well. On the other hand, with standardisation (FAIR-Principles), the digital space also offers new opportunities for analysis, visualisation, contextualisation, and networking. On digitisation and an associated digital epistemology, the involved actors from the historically oriented disciplines and digital humanities, the GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums) institutions, computer science, communication sciences, and design disciplines ideally are connecting more closely and entering into new interdisciplinary cooperations. Carius considers the mutual dialogue on the epistemological shifts caused by the new forms of generating knowledge to be fundamental for shaping digitisation processes and building research infrastructures.

Feras Krimsti underlined the researcher’s perspective on digitisation projects when he reflected on changes in the use of digitised objects. As researchers can design questions and plan projects on knowledge about worldwide collections, they greatly profit from the availability of digitised items. Digitised collections greatly facilitate efforts to research globally in a systematically coherent way. Krimsti also diagnosed that a behaviour change accompanied this facilitation of research: He referred to this attitude as an ‘epistemic break’, which, from some researchers’ perspective, often reduces libraries to mere presenters of the digitised source material. This is mirrored in the fact that most users of digitised collections rarely consult the additional competencies of librarians and archivists when accessing digital collections. Additionally, users often omit the place of the collection and its embeddedness into a wider collection context. Collection platforms deal with this problem in a variety of ways – but in most cases, researchers cannot readily access the information of the wider collection context online.

Manuel Vojtech stressed the pressures of digitisation projects to handle large amounts of documents and objects, which often pose challenges to the individual data infrastructure and resource planning. Data quality, metadata infrastructure, and further information are essential to research and, considering the limitations of funding and the vastness of some collections, may need to be adjusted. In addition, digitisation infrastructures for online collections are mostly too standardised to address specific issues of the source material. Data is handled in objectified ways, which often do no justice to historiographic research practices and need to be critically reflected by the user. But Vojtech also stressed the potential of connecting multiple research environments and linking research material in unforeseen ways. As a variation of Krimsti’s more critical approach on the disassociation of the collection from its actual location, Vojtech reminded the audience that wider collection contexts might only become visible due to digitisation. Highly dependent on the presentation of digital repositories, platforms, such as the Digital Historical Library Erfurt-Gotha, visualise connections, which are often difficult to find while researching the local collections without digital assistance.

Petra Weigel addressed metadata, which she described as the core element of granting epistemologically meaningful access to digitised material to avoid “deserted landscapes of digitised items” devoid of sustainable research value. One of the main challenges of digitisation projects is to provide sets of metadata, which are optimised for more dynamic research perspectives while also being rooted in the differing standards of GLAM institutions. Referring to KarAfAs, the project currently funded by the BMBF to digitise the approximately 35,000 maps of Africa and Asia in the Perthes Collection of the Gotha Research Library, Weigel argued for open digital infrastructures. These could potentially serve to integrate research data and the results of citizen science projects to enrich the data offered by GLAM institutions, which she mentioned as one of the most promising aspects of digitisation. At the same time, she highlighted the benefit of the digitisation of cartographic materials. Maps are often perceived (not least because of their format) as illustrative by-products of text-based media. Digitisation can serve to enable users to interact with maps more independently from these text-based environments and underline the value of cartographic material as a genre in its own right.

Robert Gramsch-Stehfest first answered Hendrikje Carius’ remarks on the need for digitisation projects to consider diverse research agendas. He advised associating digitisation projects as closely as possible with research projects and overarching research questions, as he saw little value in digitisation without an embedded research interest. Gramsch-Stehfest then commented on the danger of information loss connected to digitisation as well as the issue of digital collections’ sustainability. Digital infrastructures implement a normative superstructure to a unique text or artefact. They impose their structure on the source material and more nuanced criteria or information; information that does not fit into the predefined categories will almost inevitably get lost in digitisation. Additionally, digital repositories and archives need regular care and curation, as data formats and security regimes change constantly. This makes digitised items rather unsustainable, at least compared to print media, as Robert Gramsch-Stehfest emphatically stated: “The most sustainable format might still be the book.” Despite these reservations, he argued for a proactive approach to the possibilities of digitised source material and repositories, stressing the heightened accessibility of collections due to digitisation. Also, more thorough digitisation of collections combined with an advanced methodology might lead to a deeper understanding of the collections and their epistemological potential, making shifts in scholarship more meaningful by basing research decisions on larger amounts of data and expanding the boundaries of current research. He briefly hinted at the potential of digital humanities furthering the research of AI engines.

In the discussion, the participants stressed issues such as the availability of the collection in the context of neoliberalism and the impact of digitisation projects on the “decolonial project”. In the following, only a few examples shed light on a very fruitful and lively debate. While it was attested that Pay-for-Access-models played a role in certain digitisation projects and thereby might further the already negative effects of the digital divide along with a socio-economic divide, a strong case was made for the Open Access Policy of Erfurt University, which is committed to further Open Access publishing, too. Also, new copyright law restricts the usage of Creative Commons licenses for digitised contents, which were initially situated in the public domain and which have to remain in the public domain – a strengthening of users’ rights, which are now being implemented by collection-holding institutions. Another impulse raised the question of how the “epistemic break” of which Feras Krimsti spoke could be prevented – and put forward digital critical editions as a possible solution, an active curation and commenting of digitised contents.

While digitisation projects mostly refer to the heightened availability of source material, it was criticised that developing the norms of digitisation was mostly a project of the Global North, which does not inherently prioritise the needs of the Global South, where access to digital resources tends to be more difficult. Digitisation in these cases often leads to the opening up of access to users associated with financially affluent research infrastructures and institutions. During the emerging debate, all participants shared this criticism. All participants stressed the need for heightened attention to these power mechanics, especially for persons conducting digitisation programs. Apart from hinting at more cautious attitudes towards digitisation in parts of the Global South in general, there was also the perspective that, despite its flaws, there were chances for digitisation projects to be more inclusive if consciously planned to be so.

Another focus in the debate was the metadata created by digitisation projects. The participants stressed how the accompanying metadata shaped the digitised artefacts and their perception in possibly ahistorical terms, changing the digital copy, the categories used in its research, and its availability in ways different from the original artefact. These descriptions could also narrow the research on certain artefacts due to imposing ahistorical norms on the subject, possibly leading to a “fading” or even “vanishing” of the actual object through the embedding in the metadata.

In the end, the event reached its aim to find a common ground between key players of digitization projects at the Gotha Research campus, hinting at epistemological chances and challenges for ongoing and future research projects as well as for future digitisation endeavours. All in all, the lively and inspiring debate fostered and inspired new questions on the research of digitised material, articulating a cautious, but after all optimistic, stance.

Cite this article as: Claudia Berger, "Reflecting on “Epistemologies of Digitisation”. A Workshop of Research and Collection Holding Institutions in Gotha," in Mapping Africa and Asia, 28/02/2022, https://karafas.hypotheses.org/851.

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