Dr Alexander Badenoch, Lecturer, Department of Media and Cultural Studies, University of Utrecht.
First of all, I must express gratitude to the organizers not only for the opportunity to explore such an ambitious project which opens up new transnational perspectives on European history to a broad audience, but also for admitting a French spy into your midst – albeit one who has just incompetently blown his cover. As we move forward with the online encyclopaedia of the LabEx Ecrire une nouvelle histoire de l'Europe, EGO will continue to be an important benchmark, and, I hope, a dialogue partner and collaborator in the future. I would also like to thank Jürgen Wilke for his thorough commentary, which in many points has summed up my own experience in exploring EGO. In my remarks here, I will take up some of his points to explore more deeply the ways in which the multi-media aspects of EGO might be utilized to make the most of the possibilities of an online history. In so doing, I will draw in part on my experiences as the editor of "Inventing Europe", which Helmuth Trischler also mentioned in his remarks.
I would like to take up the dual purpose of the media in EGO. On the one hand there is the so-called "content" dimension, where "media" refer to historical processes of mediation and transfer that EGO seeks to highlight, and on the other, the "instrumental" dimension, that refers to how EGO makes use of the multimedia aspects of the World Wide Web to explore these processes. I propose, however, to collapse these two once more and read the latter in terms of the former. EGO is – like many other online projects of European history – embedded in the same sort of transnational processes of cultural circulation and transfer that it seeks to explore.1 In other words, we can analyze EGO, too, as formed within an ensemble of transnational actors, practices, networks, and media. Don't worry; I will suppress the urge to use my commentary as a kind of participant observation in an ethnographic study of European historians. The goal, of course, is exactly the opposite: to use what we already know about our community of practice in order to explore the possibilities and limits it faces with regard to media.
In this light, when looking at EGO’s approach to the medium-specific characteristics of the World Wide Web, which Jürgen Wilke has identified (dissolution of borders, multimediality and media convergence, interactivity and updateability), it is important to consider what Bolter and Grusin have called "remediation" – that is, the extent to which new media take up characteristics, logics and habits from older media, and mobilize or transform them.2 As a project EGO was "born digital" but bears a strong family resemblance to its print forebears. The misnomer that will not die, the term "encyclopaedia" (although not applied to EGO by the editors themselves), already points to the book genre, albeit one with web-like characteristics such as thematic (and thus non-chronological) orientation, as well as a series of internal references (the "no beginning or end" cited in the introduction to EGO thus has its print predecessors). But the core unit is not the encyclopaedia lemma of variable size; instead it draws very strongly on another genre of the print era: the academic essay. This form not only has stylistic characteristics of print (static pictures, linear, textual, rather than visual, argumentation, footnotes, etc.) but is also bound up in an existing culture of production: single author, invited peer review (with deadline!), sources are cited rather than linked, etc. This well-known mode of production is probably one of the reasons why the discussion forum (restricted to authors and editors) is seldom used: it is not part of our known production processes. But as I have suggested already, the academic essay form also has consequences for the usage of media when it is translated into the environment of the World Wide Web.
Before I comment on these practices, I want to stress that these remarks should not be taken as an argument against the academic essay on the Web. On a practical level, the peer-reviewed, fully referenced article remains the form of output most valued by research assessment panels and university recruiters – while at the same time, impact and open access are equally important buzzwords. Besides these internal considerations, however, there are aspects of this print culture in the humanities in general, and of historiography specifically, that have something to offer in the emerging digital environment. The new media theorist Lev Manovich argued over a decade ago that the proliferation of databases seems to bring about an increasing need for narrative in the digital sphere.3 Precisely at a moment when more and more numbers of primary sources are available online and circulate in portals such as Gallica, Europeana, but also European History Primary Sources, a site like EGO plays an important role by offering frames for understanding the proliferation of data and connections in the digital heritage sphere. But it can only fulfil this role to the extent that it enters into a dialogue with the digital use cultures. Here I would wonder, in fact, about the possibility for making use of tools such as Europeana's API in order to explore this sphere. And on that note, we enter into the realm of EGO’s character as a multimedia network.
Before commenting on the media on the site, I want to offer some words of praise for the site’s visual design and navigation. The sleek design with links and illustrative material in a sidebar is visually appealing – reminds one somewhat of medieval illuminated manuscripts, where the marginalia carry on their own visual narrative. Drawing on such possibilities when we were designing "Inventing Europe", we opted for a design in which the chosen digital objects would be the visual focus of the narrative. EGO’s design clearly privileges the text, as befits the scope of its entries, but also suggests two possible modes of engagement which easily allow readers to switch between a linear, textual mode of reading and a non-linear, hypertextual mode of reading in which the readers forge their own path along the themes and links they are interested in.
But how does the chosen multimedia material support this non-linear mode of web reading? In my discussion I will focus primarily on historical source material, both because it forms the most common sort of multimedia addition to the site and, as I mentioned, because it is the kind of material that, as noted above, is increasingly entering digital circulation. The question asked in the introduction to this section – "when is multimedia material merely illustrative and where does it lead further in an argument?" is particularly pertinent to the way we look at these materials in the online environment. If such materials are to lead further, they need to be thought of not so much as destinations, but rather as "connections". The extent to which such objects offer opportunities to make connections is the measure of their effectiveness. In taking up this point, it should be clear that I am operating from the broader conception of "media" coming from the cultural studies tradition. This is less a definition aimed at capturing what something "is", but more an analytical term, focusing attention on the way that something "does" or "achieves" something else. And of course this is what is at issue.
As such, it bears thinking about how multimedia material can make connections within the online environment. Compellingly, digital historical objects can be framed alternately or simultaneously in a number of overlapping contexts: as "artefacts" of social processes and relations, as "representations" at various levels, as "collected objects" related to collecting institutions and other collected objects, and finally, of course, as "sources" in historical narratives.4 They make connections best when they are presented in ways that open up one, and ideally more, of these contexts for the reader.
Jürgen Wilke has pointed out that links about people – specifically in the VIAF files – are the most common kind of external link to be found, as they are included as a standard feature. In a visual parallel to this, it is clear that portraits of individuals – and groups – make up a large part of the visual material. A search for the term "portrait" came up with 209 hits.
Examining a sampling of these results leads to some observations, some of which can be applied more generally. Here is one example that can stand in for a number of items: http://www.ieg-ego.eu/de/mediainfo/georg-kastriota-bekannt-als-skanderbeg-ca.-140520131468
- Mostly, as Jürgen Wilke notes, these are illustrative, and not directly related to any event or process described in the text, not least because they are added not by the author, but by the EGO copy editors. Given their origin outside the text, they of course cannot appear as a "source" within the narrative.
- The main aspect of the material that serves to broaden the scope of the main text is not the image itself, but rather the caption beneath it, which is often used as a brief biographical note. This does, of course offer us some connection to the text, but there is little relation between the caption and the image.
- There is nothing that addresses the image as an "artefact": not who took the photo and why, where it ended up, how it circulated, etc. An example of how this can work comes in the photo (and caption) of Giuseppe Mazzini: http://www.ieg-ego.eu/en/mediainfo/giuseppe-mazzini-180520131872, or the Luther portraits (influenced) by Cranach http://www.ieg-ego.eu/en/mediainfo/luther-portraits-influenced-by-cranach.
- There is nothing that addresses the image as a "representation". Take this interesting image of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton: http://www.ieg-ego.eu/illustrationen/transnationale-organisationen-der-frauenbewegung-bilderordner/Elizabeth-Cady-Stanton-and-Susan-B-Anthony.jpg. Why are the two women posed the way they are? What is the significance of them reading a letter together? What might this have signaled to contemporary audiences? In how far did this image represent the women’s movement as a whole? There are several image descriptions that actually integrate such aspects, but the ratio is notably uneven. Some of the paintings in the The Dutch Century are accompanied by excellent discussions of representational matters while other descriptions mostly treat the painting as an artefact.
- The metadata for the image do not just contain general information, but also offer links that allow a reader to visit the collection as well as to see the image in a different context. But apart from the small link at the bottom, there is little information that encourages the reader to consider a painting’s status as part of a collection. The fact that many of these objects come from large general collections makes links to them somewhat less fruitful.
- Currently, the site does not employ multimedia material as points of internal linkage. As such, the potential to discover new points of connection is somewhat diminished. The photo of Count Richard Coudenhouve-Kalergi, for example, appears in no fewer than five entries – as an example of a pioneer of Europeanism – but also as a freemason. One only discovers this upon searching under his name.
In discussions surrounding this commentary, it came to the fore that many EGO authors, probably representative of a substantial subset of the whole, did not feel they possessed the competence in the visual sphere (in short: "we don’t do pictures"). While the analysis of images and representations may not be part of the core competences of many authors – and I militate equally against the notion prevalent among many historians that media and cultural analysis is somehow easier than historical research, or is some kind of ahistorical fluff on top of the facts – contextualization and source criticism are our core business, and really it is engagement on that level that I am advocating here.5
Finally, I have a few observations on the question we were asked as to which disciplines and themes might profit (potentially) the most from EGO's multimedia possibilities. As a media scholar, I am of course generally of the opinion that almost all of them can. Even some of the theoretical entries, such as Post-Colonialism, which discusses the radical critique of the "Western point of view" and the theories involved, are often aimed at Western visual practices; here some examples would certainly be of use besides the biographical/bibliographical links. These could also create visual links to some of the more empirically-oriented entries in this section.
In the EGO-threads European Networks and Transnational Organizations, where developing and maintaining relationships and communication practices play important roles, I went searching for examples of the media that enable such connections. What was particularly noteworthy was the absence of letters, which are often one of the key sources in uncovering such relationships. Searching under "letter" turned up as good as no results that would actually demonstrate the forms of communication involved. This includes the entry on letter-writing, although it does quote from letters.
Generally speaking, the articles on international organizations do not cover either internal or external forms of communication or representation. The article on the International Women's Movement, while excellent, is a case in point. Although it does contain a link in the footnotes to an excellent source of published correspondence, the multimedia offerings consist almost exclusively of individual and group portraits. Of course, as in this case, it does depend on the approach each author chooses to take. The entry on Jewish Networks is filled with contemporaneous source material, while the essay on Islamic Networks is more oriented towards the methods and history of network analysis in the field.
The most effective but not always achievable usage of multimedia seems to consist of integrating a multitude of different media sources – particularly those that do not merely accompany the text but offer some element of surprise or revelation. For example, the article on Border Regions uses maps, as one would expect, but also at the end presents a graph of "German-French translations 1770–1815". This not only appears as a surprising novel fact in the text but it also makes sources and methodologies increasingly popular in the digital age accessible to the reader. The related entry on the French-German border region also shows a multiplicity of materials – ranging from propaganda posters to sculptures and streetsigns – and highlights their multiple meanings.
In closing I want to stress that the heterogeneity in EGO emphasizes its potential for harnessing the possibilities of the digital sphere and as a result making the processes of mediation and cultural transfer in European history accessible to its target audience. In order to fulfil this potential, authors should be more closely involved in the process of supplying multimedia content. This can be approached in multiple ways: by more thorough guidelines that explain the role and purpose of the multimedia aspects of the texts; by a more targeted collaborative process (with a deadline), in which scholars from different disciplines or approaches are brought into dialogue in order to produce the multimedia aspects of the site or by engaging more thoroughly with the public after the publication so that through education and exploration students and scholars might begin to find and add relevant material.
I look forward to seeing the changes and developments of EGO.