What are some obstacles that historians face

In the introductory seminar, in addition to the introductory chapters of Peter Haber's “Digital Past”, we also read a text whose last sentence “l'historien de demain sera programmeur ou il ne sera plus”, quoted in the title, is often quoted, but mostly shortened and without the full context1. It is the short contribution "L’historien et l’ordinateur" by the French medievalist Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, published in 1968 in the weekly "Le Nouvel Observateur" and reprinted in an anthology by the author2. The article is far-sighted and outlines the problems and issues that are still valid today that the use of computers in historical studies brings with it. Interesting are the various quantitative research projects of the time mentioned in it that arose in the context of the Annales School: for example the project on rent development in Paris from 15-17. Century. After entering the data, the computer could not only create a single curve, as it could have been calculated by hand (albeit with some effort). Rather, it was possible to output the data in a short time in various graphics and to relate it to one another and to output rent curves in individual quarters, by type of building, by occupation of the tenant, etc. Le Roy Ladurie also had the idea of ​​creating archives from the research data and letting other research groups reuse them: in other words, openness and cooperation, the two basic values ​​that Lisa Spiro proposes3.

His plea for the use of computers in historical studies is based not least on the fear that France could otherwise be overtaken by the USA in the area of ​​quantitative social history. And he closes with a forecast: “En France aussi, un pronostic s'impose, en ce qui concerne l'histoire quantitative telle qu'elle sera pratiquée dans les années 1980: dans ce domaine au moins, l'historien de demain sera programmeur ou il ne sera plus ". His prognosis for historical research in the 1980s relates only to quantitative historical research, not to historical studies in general. It did not come because Le Roy Ladurie could not foresee the developments of the 1970s and 1980s and the emergence of ready-to-use software that does not require any programming knowledge to be used.

In the digital age, however, this question arises anew: What skills, including programming skills, are necessary for a digital historian? Is it enough to be able to use web applications and to be at least sensitive to programming and markup languages, or do you have to master XML-TEI, gephi and other things yourself? In France, the quote from Le Roy Ladurie is part of the basic training of students of digital history, and there is also an in-depth discussion of it4.

At the University of Vienna, statistics and quantification are compulsory subjects for students of history in their Bachelor's degree. Of course, there is no programming, but evaluations are carried out using Excel, for example, and the methodological implications of quantitative history are taught. We disagree as to whether the contrast that emerged in the 1950s between quantitatively working and text-based historians is being extended today in the dualism of digital and analog historical studies.


This article was published by Mareike König in the introductory seminar "Introduction to digital history". Keywords: Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie.

About Mareike König

Dr. Mareike König is Deputy Director at the German Historical Institute in Paris. She works on Franco-German relations in the 19th century and digital history. She is also the editor of the German-language blog portal for the humanities de.hypotheses.org.

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