Introduction: EGO | European History Online – Aims and Implementation. An Interim Review

von by Joachim Berger (IEG Mainz) Original in German, angezeigt indisplayed in EnglischEnglish

Dr Joachim Berger
Dr Joachim Berger, Research Coordinator, Leibniz Institute of European History (IEG), Mainz. Idea, outline and coordination of the implementation of "EGO | European History Online".

In the almost three-year period between "EGO | European History Online" going live (3/12/2010) and this symposium (4/11/2013), the website http://www.ieg-ego.eu has registered over half a million visits, with 1.4 million individual page views. For a highly-specialized, academic multi-author work, this level of interest is more than satisfactory. But what about the qualitative results – what if anything can we infer from these user figures about the academic "benefit" of the project? Since the website has gone live, the editors have received feedback on European History Online in various forms: the chief editors have received feedback from the editorial board and the authors, research fellows and visiting scholars from around the world working at the IEG have given their input, feedback has come from external users via email, online comments and blog posts, and through conventional academic forums in the form of reviews.1 As is to be expected with a work consisting of over 200 articles which cover a broad spectrum thematically, geographically and temporally, this feedback is informed by a wide variety of specialist, national and personal perspectives. We were therefore keen to bring together these diverse evaluations and to organize an exchange of opinions regarding European History Online. Now seemed an appropriate time to do this given that the idea and the basic design of EGO were developed quite a few years ago (between 2004 and 2007), and the discipline of history has witnessed a number of "turns" since then. The aim of the symposium being described here was to evaluate the implementation – and thus also the premises and the concept – of European History Online.

"EGO | European History Online" is a history of Europe covering the central aspects of human society and human activity which focuses on communication and transfer.2 It is based on a concept of "Europe" as a communicative space, the borders, centres and peripheries of which vary depending on the temporal and thematic context. This "Europe of fluid borders" is intended to counteract static depictions of Europe, which claim to represent the "essence", or the inexorable or inevitable development of Europe. The aim of EGO is to avoid writing the history of Europe from the perspective of an individual discipline or from a particular national point of view. Instead, it aims to make the interconnections between places, actors and the topics which occupied them visible by means of links and the multiple assignments of articles.

For EGO, the multi-perspective approach is programmatic. A collaboration which more than 200 authors spanning national and disciplinary boundaries have participated in cannot offer a straightforward, thesis-driven interpretation of European history. And, in contrast to a printed work, European History Online has no beginning and no end. Neither is EGO a handbook or an encyclopaedia which presents "canonized" knowledge on the history of Europe while avoiding the formulation of new theses. On the contrary, the fruits of new research are incorporated into the EGO articles, which are based on the specific research perspective of communication and transfer. This perspective is intended to provide focus to the articles and to relate them to each other. Focus is also provided by the grouping of articles into ten thematic threads, which deal with the bases of communication and transfer, and the intermediaries, agents and media of transfer, as well as more complex systems of transfer. The thematic threads are designed to be transdisciplinary and multi-thematic. They are also designed in a diachronic way, that is, they deal with phenomena that – notwithstanding periods of more rapid development and densification – can be observed throughout modern European history.

At the same time, certain perspectives are privileged in this multi-perspective approach. The symposium here was guided by the question, how is the multi-perspective approach of European History Online implemented in practice? There are three main dimensions of perspectivity: (1) The disciplinary backgrounds of the specialist editors and authors, (2) the degree to which they are embedded in research traditions which are specific to a particular country or language, and (3) the possibilities and challenges which the medium of the internet presents for an "interconnected", multimedia history of Europe.

The three thematic sections are each introduced by a commentary by a member of the EGO  editorial board. This means they each have responsibility for a particular topic area, and are thus – on the one hand – among the "makers" of European History Online. On the other hand, their area of responsibility is limited to a particular discipline, time period and geographical area, and they are thus in a position to switch between the internal and the external perspective and to raise critical questions. This applies even more so to the external commentators, who were deliberately chosen on the basis that they have no institutional connection to the "Leibniz Institute of European History". These commentators subsequently discuss the central questions with other specialist editors, and with authors and users of European History Online.

Section 1: (Multi-/Inter-/Trans-) Disciplinarity

Those who suspect that the short title European History Online implies the supremacy of historical studies are mistaken. "History" as used in EGO is the sum of its constituent areas – both in the historical subject matter and as regards the disciplines researching this subject matter. EGO seeks to offer significant "transcultural" excerpts of European religious, political, social, scientific, legal, artistic, musical, literary, economic, technological and military history. It is intended that the various disciplinary perspectives be fully respected, but that they be brought together under the overarching perspective of communication and transfer. In their articles, all EGO authors are therefore instructed

a) to take account of the perspective of the historical actors, that is, to discuss the intermediaries and agents in transfer processes who transport and change the transferred content,
b) to reflect the mediality (media-bound nature) of transfer processes and
c) to discuss the historical actors, as well as the systems of origin and target systems in their spatial contexts.

Methodologically, the concept of transferts culturels, which was developed in comparative literary studies, plays a leading role. This concept is applied to the "subject matter" in various disciplines. For example, it has been standard practice for decades in art history and technological history to investigate exchange, differentiation, appropriation and resistance to change across linguistic, political, economic and religious borders. Depending on the disciplinary context, there will be more of an emphasis on the transferred content (for example, in the case of religious and legal history), on the historical actors (for example, in migration history) or on the structural conditions (for example, in economic history). The first section is therefore guided by the question, how have the authors responded to this overarching aim, and what specific perspectives of their own disciplines have they brought to EGO?

In his introductory note, Helmuth Trischler (Munich) defines EGO as more of a multi-disciplinary than an interdisciplinary project, and one which mobilizes the specific perspectives of the disciplines which are relevant to historical research on Europe. He takes the disciplinary backgrounds of the specialist editors, who cover the broad spectrum of disciplines which study history, as one indicator and notes that historical studies with its various subdisciplines is – as is to be expected – predominant. He views the fact that the perspectives and results of the disciplines represented in EGO are aggregated rather than integrated as understandable in view of the scale of the project. The limits of EGO become particularly apparent – Trischler notes – when one applies the criteria of the broader concept of transdisciplinarity to EGO – transdisciplinarity as the principle of integrative research which connects academia with society, and academic knowledge with practical everyday knowledge. Trischler concedes here that it would require an (excessively – my addition) large investment of resources to create the interactive dialogic spaces required to facilitate such a two-way osmosis. This scepticism is shared by some other participants in the discussion, particularly in view of the fact that EGO – as Andreas Gestrich (London) points out – was not designed as a "public history", but for the academic space, and the interest in an interactive and participatory debate among this comparatively small and specialized target group is limited.

For Immacolata Amodeo (Loveno di Menaggio), European History Online stands for the elevation of comparative and transfer-history approaches, which replace national historical perspectives in EGO. In contrast to Trischler, she identifies an extension beyond the disciplinary boundaries of historical studies, which dominate EGO, particularly into economics and political science approaches. Overall – Amodeo concludes – the various historical disciplines which participate in EGO are subsumed into a general cultural history. She argues that "transdisciplinarity" can be understood as an approach which is "beyond the disciplines", and which requires the study of "Europe" to be treated as a task that cuts across the academic disciplines. She also points out that particular topics in EGO – such as European migration – require research which crosses disciplinary boundaries. While acknowledging the cross-disciplinary and cross-border implementation of EGO, Amodeo identifies – from the perspective of her own area of research – a number of limitations with regard to topics significant in the context of transfer history, such as music, (musical) theatre and literature. Fridrun Rinner (Aix-en-Provence), EGO editor for the history of literature, explains during the discussion that these deficiencies are not a result of the conceptual design of the project but of the failure to find authors in these subject areas. Responding to the question of EGO chief editor Irene Dingel (IEG Mainz) as to whether one could specify a particular matrix of questions (historical actors, media and geographical context) for a broad spectrum of different disciplines, Trischler argues that, where a conflict arises between the multi-perspective approach and the coherence of the project, this conflict should be resolved in favour of coherence. Amodeo adds that encyclopaedic works are more suitable for covering the entire spectrum of topics and disciplines.

Section 2: (Multi-/Inter-/Trans-) Nationality

European History Online aims to decentralize the viewpoint on European history through cooperation between authors and specialist editors from diverse academic and national backgrounds. Additionally, the "Leibniz Institute of European History", as the institution responsible for the publication of EGO, decided at an early stage (for reasons of academic politics) to give the German language equal status in EGO with the globally established academic language of English. As a result, the specialist editors had to be able to evaluate articles submitted in German also, so as not to restrict themselves to authors who write in English. Consequently, the Editorial Board consists predominantly of German-speaking academics who had an input into the choice of topics. Naturally, the fact that EGO was designed in a German institution – albeit one with a "European" focus – has also left its mark on the project. What kind of European history has emerged from the project? What different emphases would have resulted from an Scandinavian, a Latin American or an East Asian team of authors? How do the English translations of dialects of German academic prose "function" when read by English native speakers and academics of other nationalities who use English as a lingua franca? Could the desired decentring have been achieved by means of a concept which placed multiple articles on the same topic by authors from different linguistic backgrounds side by side? These questions sketch out the topic boundaries of the second section.

As an introduction, László Kontler (Budapest) gives a statistical overview of the countries and regions of origin of the Editorial Board, as well as of the geographical distribution of the authors (their institutional affiliations). The EGO specialist editors recruited authors from 16 countries (on three continents). The specialist editors themselves are working in eight different European countries. Overall, Kontler identifies a predominance of German-speaking academics, who are responsible for three quarters of all of the articles published thus far. Furthermore, the specialist editors recruited over 60 per cent of the authors from their own country (of residence), and thus from their own national academic culture. Kontler immediately qualifies this quantitative evidence of a limited internationality by stating that one cannot object on principle to editors contacting colleagues in their own country or even at their own university, if these colleagues are proven experts on the topic involved. Ultimately, Kontler concludes, the substance of the articles and the interlinking of the content of the articles are decisive. For future generations of students who wish to think outside of the borders of their own country and language, the seminal EGO articles on the theories and methods of a transcultural history of Europe are – in Kontler’s view – particularly valuable, regardless of the degree of formal institutional internationality or transnationality involved in their production. Additionally, Kontler points out, the academic training and experience of the authors would have to be examined to ascertain the degree of international experience and influence. During the discussion, Wolfgang Schmale (Vienna) reiterates this point by stating that most of the EGO authors have worked in a number of countries, speak multiple languages, and therefore do not approach their topic with a particularly national perspective. Claudine Moulin (Trier) states that the international perspective of the authors is also demonstrated by the bibliographies of the articles, which usually contain works in multiple languages. The assumption that non-German(-speaking) authors would inherently adopt a more international or transnational perspective must thus be questioned, according to Jürgen Wilke (Mainz) and Immacolata Amodeo. They point to the variety of geographical locations dealt with in the articles to illustrate this point.3

Neither does Marco Jorio (Bern) in his commentary view the nationality or the native language of the authors as being in itself an obstacle to a pan-European perspective on the respective subject matter. In practice, the "national lens" does of course often affect the depiction of events, Jorio concedes. His commentary focuses on the challenge of "interculturality" which a multilingual academic publication presents. Here Jorio takes up a point made by Kontler, who sees the "programmatic bilingualism" of EGO articles as being primarily pragmatic – research which has the ambition of being received globally must be globally accessible, and this – Kontler points out – is only possible in English. However, Kontler finds that the decision to also publish most of the EGO articles in German has a programmatic signal effect, as the maintenance of non-English-speaking academic discourses and cultures is indispensable for the maintenance of global communication. Jorio explores the question of interculturality more deeply with examples from his many years of experience as the chief editor of the trilingual (and partially quadrilingual) Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz.4 He describes how the different cultural, economic, political and legal structures of the various linguistic regions of Switzerland present at times insurmountable obstacles to describing a subject matter adequately in three or four languages. Jorio lists a number of solutions. These "language specific" differences can be (1) addressed in an article, (2) they can be presented in multiple articles for the purpose of comparison, or (3) the various perspectives can be integrated into a single article (through co-authorship). Jorio argues that, when choosing authors, preference should be given to experts who can research "across linguistic boundaries"; and the articles should be evaluated by experts on the different linguistic regions. Jorio also states that the translations often give rise to improvements to the original entries – the entries of the HLS are translated in nine different directions. It would be unrealistic, Jorio concedes, to demand that European History Online with its pan-European scope be similarly comprehensive. However, subsequent editions of EGO articles could, Jorio suggests, be evaluated by specialists from particular linguistic regions and their commentaries appended to the articles. During the discussion, these suggestions are developed in various directions (for example through the suggestions that selected articles could be offered in French or that various didactic levels of user reference could be inserted).

Section 3: (Multi-/Inter-/Trans-) Mediality

European History Online was very much designed with the hypertextuality and multimediality offered by the internet, or the World Wide Web, in mind. It is based on the premise that the format of an online system of publication enables the appropriate representation of the complexity and dynamism of European relationships of communication and transfer processes. The question arises if the thematic focuses in the thematic threads and the links between the articles really reflect this dynamism. The design of EGO was guided by the hope that in particular the linking of various elements and topics would enable external researchers and users to recognise these "nodes" in the history of Europe, which had not been identified in the past. If one looks at the implementation of the EGO project, the question arises: do the links – which are inserted by the editors – really throw light on "nodes" in European history which were previously difficult to discern, or do they demonstrate yet again that many things have a connection with many other things? It must also be borne in mind that the internal EGO links are the result of the preferences, the previous knowledge and the pragmatic memory aids of the two chief editors. Furthermore, whether the VIAF personal name data and geographical data which all EGO articles have been systematically linked with facilitate the reconstruction of human and geographical clusters and networks in a way that corrects the existing perceptions of history, or whether they mainly display the "mental maps" of the EGO authors remains an open question.

EGO has set itself the aim of "fully utilizing" the multimedia potential of the internet by linking text articles with images, source texts, statistics, maps, as well as audio and video clips. But how do the academic texts actually work with the visual and audio elements? Where do the multimedia elements prove to be mainly illustrative in nature, and where do they further develop the argument in the text? Do the authors write their articles with one eye on the hypertext and multimedia options? Does EGO give rise to different texts from those in printed survey works, or is it only possible to communicate academic knowledge – regardless of the aims regarding hypertext – in the form of linear texts? The commentaries and discussion of the third section of the symposium deal with these issues.

In his introductory note, Jürgen Wilke (Mainz) differentiates between two dimensions of mediality in European History Online – a mediality with regard to the content, which understands the media as a factor in historical processes, and an instrumental mediality which focuses on the multimedia capabilities of the internet, by means of which these historical processes are to be made accessible. Wilke also differentiates between a narrower and a broader concept of media; most of the articles in European History Online are based on the broader concept. Wilke states that "mediality", i.e. the question of the channels through which certain content (ideas, technologies, practices) are transferred and thus changed, is more relevant to some EGO articles than to others. Consequently, some EGO articles discuss media intensively while media are only peripherally relevant to other EGO articles. Wilke argues that EGO articles are essentially discursive academic treatises in a text format which is pre-structured in terms of its content. The multimedia elements complement the texts without dominating them, in Wilke’s view. The multimedia elements also vary from article to article in terms of their quantity and variety, Wilke notes. Usually taken from "traditional" historical sources, they primarily perform – according to Wilke’s impression of what he concedes is a continuously developing project – an illustrative function. There are however articles – Wilke notes – in which the multimedia elements take up the progression of thought of the text and develop it further. The visualization strategies are – according to Wilke – primarily dependent on the disciplinary background of the authors. How these strategies affect the readers’ perceptions of the articles remains an open question.

Alexander Badenoch (Paris/Utrecht) develops Wilke’s observations on multimediality further. He points out that the core unit of EGO comes from "print culture": the academic essay with a linear, text-based argumentation, with quotations and endnotes, as well as an external process of evaluation. Due in particular to its origin in "print culture", a website like EGO is in a position – according to Badenoch – to fully utilize the bewildering array of digitally prepared and presented academic resources in an interpretative framework by (re)constructing contexts of meaning and creating new ones. Badenoch evaluates the multimedia implementation in EGO by means of a typology of the functions of digital historical objects, which can appear as artefacts of social processes and relationships, as representations, as the objects in historical collections and, in particular, as sources in historical narratives. Badenoch states that they cannot perform the function of sources if they are mainly used illustratively "outside the text". For the future, Badenoch calls for the relationships between the text, the image and the image caption to be strengthened, for the objects to be introduced more clearly as representations with different strategies of reception, for greater cognisance of the contexts in which the objects emerged and were collected, and for the multimedia elements to be linked to one another. To this end, the authors could – Badenoch suggests – be given greater involvement in the process of the selection of multimedia content, ideally in a collaborative process between authors from different disciplines, and – subsequent to initial publication – in a dialogue with the users.

In the discussion, Jürgen Wilke notes that publishing on the internet in general creates a pressure to provide visual images, while most of the authors would not have had (audio-) visual representation in mind while writing their articles. Irene Dingel confirms that the multimedia elements are often added by the two managing editors in the IEG. However, it is not possible for them – Dingel explains – to engage equally intensively with the very diverse subject matter of all of the 200 articles; and only the authors themselves can establish an interplay between the multimedia elements and the texts in the development of the argument. Joachim Berger explains that the chief editors often opt for copperplate engravings and other contemporary reproductions which are in the public domain because the licences offered by museums and stock photo agencies for paintings are often expensive and only for a limited time period. As reproductions of reproductions, these objects are particularly leaning towards illustration. Marco Jorio suggests that the fact that most of the EGO authors are from a history background may explain a certain "iconographical late development" on their part, particularly compared to disciplines which work intensively with images, such as art history and archaeology. Wolfgang Schmale views this contention as surprising, given the long-running discussion about the cultural sciences as "image sciences". Giving their perspectives as authors and users of EGO, the historian Thomas Weller (IEG Mainz) and the theologian Britta Müller-Schauenburg (Frankfurt/Main) state that their search for images and the integration of VIAF personal name data and other external links did indeed have a very informative effect on their respective processes of researching and writing. Weller and Dingel both stress that being able to look at images that illustrate the text gives the user a more varied and enriching experience, as long as they are not overused. Wolfgang Schmale views the associative – interpretatively not too strongly guided – use of images as a real opportunity for the online mode of publishing.

Résumé

From the perspective of the organizers, the commentaries and discussions of the symposium have yielded a range of valuable suggestions which will be relevant to the operation of European History Online during the third-party-funded project phase and beyond. Given the financial constraints of the regular operations phase, during which the maintenance and updating of the existing content will be the main priority, the scope for implementing some of the suggestions is limited. Some ideas are not possible given the conceptual design of EGO, and thus remain suggestions for future projects. Additionally, all participants were aware from the start that this symposium – due to the nature of the project itself – can only be a snapshot evaluation. As EGO is designed as a "living document" which not only permits changes but demands them, we are optimistic that we will be able to take on board – and implement, as far as possible – further suggestions over time.

Joachim Berger5

Appendix

  1. ^ Cf. Choice 48/12 (2011), 2286f.; Church History 81 (2012), 977–979.
  2. ^ On the design, cf. Berger, Joachim / Willenberg, Jennifer / Landes, Lisa: EGO | European History Online: A Transcultural History of Europe on the Internet, in: European History Online (EGO), published by the Institute of European History (IEG), Mainz 2010-12-03. URL: http://www.ieg-ego.eu/introduction-2010-en URN: urn:nbn:de:0159-20101025234.
  3. ^ For each EGO article, these geographical emphases can be immediately identified by means of a register of places which includes a map.
  4. ^ http://www.hls-dhs-dss.ch.
  5. ^ Dr Joachim Berger, Research Coordinator, Leibniz Institute of European History (IEG), Mainz, Germany (berger@ieg-mainz.de). Idea, basic design and coordination of the implementation of "EGO | European History Online".

Translated by: Niall Williams
Copy Editor: Claudia Falk

Citation

Berger, Joachim: Introduction: EGO | European History Online – Aims and Implementation. An Interim Review, in: Idem (ed.), EGO | European History Online – Aims and Implementation, Mainz 2013-12-15. URL: http://www.ieg-ego.eu/bergerj-2013-en URN: urn:nbn:de:0159-20140217100 [YYYY-MM-DD].

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