The virtual conference “The Digital Shift in Academic Communication: Challenges for the Research and Presentation of the History of Eastern Europe” was held on 12 November 2021 to mark the launch of the online portal Copernico. Historians, researchers working in the digital humanities, and experts from the museum sector were invited to speak about opportunities and challenges for academic communication in digital spaces. In the breaks between the sessions, attendees could enjoy listening to the Sounds of Bukovina, a music project that has been published on the Copernico portal.
Peter Haslinger welcomed the attendees. He talked about the value created by pooling the expertise of the many institutions involved in the network, and about the project funding awarded by the Federal Commissioner for Culture and the Media (BKM). Maria Bering spoke on behalf of the BKM. She emphasized the importance of the historical links between Eastern Europe and Germany, which the lingering aftereffects of the Iron Curtain and the rise of populist forces are threatening to obscure. Alluding to Goethe’s “four epochs of science,” she described our current age as a fifth, digital epoch.
The first of three keynotes, “Sourceless times? The transformative power of digital research infrastructures,” was given by Stefan Schmunk. He used the example of the Voyager probe, the data from which can only be understood by scientists who are now retired, to illustrate the importance of long-term machine-readability. The 21st century is becoming a “dark age” due to the transient nature of digital data, which will be lost to, or at least unreadable by, future historians. We are in a period of transition. In an age of born-digital sources, the provenance principle is no longer enough; in order to be preserved for posterity, data needs to be structured and described using metadata. And this data itself is only one of the many levels at which such sources are embodied; researchers also need to consider programming, interfaces, and output devices.
The second keynote, “Digital history? The opportunities, possibilities, and limits of digital methods for historians,” was given by Katja Wezel. She drew attention to the difference between digitization and digitalization. While the former refers to converting a source into digital form, for instance by scanning it, the latter refers to the social process of digital transformation and all that it entails. Wezel also explained Johanna Drucker’s reconceptualization of “data” as “capta,” and argued that the Droysenian distinction between tradition and remains (Überrest) cannot be applied to digital sources.
The third keynote, “How is the digital transformation changing academic communication?” was given by Martina Franzen. She talked about how the rise in digital connectivity is also shifting the directionality of academic communication, with a linear model being replaced by two-way communication with the public.
Peter Haslinger gave a talk on “Quellenkritik and the documentation of cultural heritage as a challenge for digital scholarship.” He described digitality as a “game-changer,” which has given rise to a host of new ethical challenges; one example is the danger of an “algorithmization” of history unaccompanied by critical reflection. Drawing on actor-network theory, Haslinger also spoke about the intrinsic entanglement of hardware and software. In his view, the concept of an “original” no longer makes sense in the digital age; instead, we should ask about sources’ authenticity and integrity. Another challenge is that on the Internet we act not as citizens but as consumers. Finally, fake news and deep fakes present pitfalls for anyone doing historical research online. Uncritical reviews of ultra-nationalistic museums and the like also abound on the Web. The challenge is to consider quality as well as quantity, and focus on online content that meets acceptable research standards. What we need, Haslinger believes, is a digital culture and politics of memory, a digital mnemonics.
Frédéric Döhl presented the German government white paper “Cultures in Digital Change,” which explores how digital technology can be used to strengthen the public cultural sphere in six key areas – cooperation, reliability, availability, capability, communication, and connectivity. He praised the Copernico portal for its contribution to these areas: it communicates knowledge in a readily accessible way, makes high-quality research tools and cultural assets available, sets data standards for key stakeholders and the partner network, and promotes cooperation and long-term technical interoperability.
The main event at the conference was a presentation on the project by Antje Johanning-Radžienė, Barbara Fichtl, Felix Köther, and Heidi Hein-Kircher.
Project presentations
Five short presentations were given over the course of the next hour. Firstly, Markus Winkler talked about Measuring Ghettos, a digital project on the Holocaust in Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova. School and university students, supervised by project teams, independently completed microprojects in a variety of formats. The results of these microprojects were then published on the site in six different languages. Juhan Kreem presented the ongoing project Digital Livonia, which plans to create an online platform for digital collections of medieval Livonian sources, including searchable databases. The project was initiated by academic researchers but in future hopes to reach a wider audience. Frauke Hagemann talked about Europe – Our History, a textbook intended for German and Polish schools, and the potential offered by digital learning media for historical education. She explained that this involves more than just converting a printed text into an e-book; it also requires innovative teaching methods and flexible multimedia modules that bridge the divide between printed textbook and the digital world. In his presentation “Vision and reality,” Joachim Mähnert talked about the Ostpreußisches Landesmuseum’s use of social media. He noted the differences between the formats and audiences on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. The museum began making more use of YouTube in particular during the coronavirus pandemic, and has been able to reach people who are not already subscribed to its channel thanks to the site’s recommended videos function. Gudrun Wirtz discussed the digital publishing of egodocuments on sites such as Such documents, alongside unpublished information from government records, are potential sources of research data. Wirtz gave the example of, a project by students on the Elite Graduate Programme for East European Studies at LMU Munich and the University of Regensburg.
Panel discussion
The presentations were followed by a panel on “Current tendencies and future prospects for the research and presentation of the history of Eastern Europe,” with Iwona Dadej, Juhan Kreem, Hans-Christian Petersen, and Maren Röger. The panel was chaired by Christian Lotz. Martin Röger noted that even 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the general public still has a shocking lack of basic knowledge about Eastern Europe. A combination of textbooks and online content aimed at a general audience is needed to address the problem, as well as comparative and interrelational approaches that more emphatically highlight Eastern Europe’s place in European and global history. Hans-Christian Petersen discussed the debates about a “post-migrant” or “post-East” society that are raging online. He stressed that researchers can and must engage in dialogue with the public, though this process brings new challenges with it. Juhan Kreem talked about the importance of data durability, the hidden work that goes into producing metadata and transcriptions, and the role of dramaturgy when history is being presented as one entertainment product among many. Iwona Dadej observed that the same paradigm shifts do not take place everywhere at the same time. Researchers should, she argued, take a comparative, multiperspectival approach, focusing on historical interrelations. Juhan Kreem brought an international perspective to the question of whether history is still an “old man’s game” or is being propelled forward by a younger generation, pointing out that not every country shares Germany’s tradition of highly abstruse academic writing. Iwona Dadej called for a synthesis of media expertise and historical knowledge, so that for instance films can be made that possess both style and substance; Kreem added that the same goes for exhibitions. Lotz’s next question concerned the notion of a “saddle period” (Sattelzeit) and data as digital “remains,” whereby the relation between past, present, and future is reconceived. Petersen, Röger, and Dadej talked about (post-)migrant communities’ understandings of history and redefinitions of concepts, as well as the challenges posed by private interpretations of history. This was followed by a discussion of language(s) and (automated) translations. Röger stressed the importance of considering which languages we are using to talk about which spaces, and what audience we are addressing. Dadej noted that in many cases a bad translation is still better than none at all. Kreem added that different audiences do not just differ in terms of language; he also writes differently for Estonians than he does for Germans.
Summary and Future Prospects
Peter Haslinger brought the conference to a close by summarizing some of the themes. We need, he said, to move past binary ways of thinking if we wish to make progress; the digital world is a space of ambivalent possibilities. As “latecomers,” we must rethink the academic career system, for instance the length of doctorates and research projects. There also needs to be more attention to knowledge transfer as a topic of research, with detailed documentation of creative solutions and studies on their impact. The digital realm is a space of reassurance that at the same time moulds social reality. Another area where research is needed is translation. Haslinger regards the stark divide between historians committed to conserving the analogue and those who wax lyrical about the digital as unhealthy. He also warned that the younger generation often engage with historical topics through media products, such as computer games, that do not take a rigorous approach to historical sources, though these products do also pique young people’s interest in actually learning more about the past. Finally, he spoke about how exciting it is to be thinking in new ways about historical sources as a phenomenon. What, technically speaking, can be understood as a source? Are we actually entering “sourceless times,” or are we drowning in material? More content is available than we can ever hope to work through; the task now is to create collaborative arrangements, to pool expertise in networks, and to develop innovative communication formats.