From the archival to the digital turn

Curated by Stefania Scagliola

Lesson on how the method of source criticism has been affected by the digital turn and what this means for the practice of students who study humanities disciplines and conduct research.

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about the lesson S


This lesson aims to teach students of humanities disciplines how the digital turn has affected the method of applying source criticism to a historical source that is published on the web. Besides the usual questions about the origin, authenticity and value of a source, one must ask questions that relate to how the digitisation process has led to transformations and alterations of the source. With regard to digital born sources, questions have to be asked about the software that was used to create the source.

What is the topic of the lesson and how is it organized?

watch this animation S

S Animation: From archival to digital turn

First watch this animation, then complete the quiz!

An animation on how the digital turn has affected the practice of applying source criticism to historical content. Historians need to understand how digitisation and web archives work in order to be able to take a critical approach to the sources they use.

answer this quiz S

S Animation in a quiz mode

Read this introduction before you take the quiz!

This quiz is designed to test your understanding of the topic. The animation is shown again, but this time it is interspersed with eight multiple-choice questions that appear on the screen and have to be answered before you can continue with the clip.

complete these assignments M

1 out of 7 — Muybridge's legacy: from museum to web

Eadweard Muybridge laid the basis for the development of cinematography by producing photos of a trotting horse with a series of cameras that “snapped” as soon as the horse passed through an electrical control. The silhouettes were transferred to glass plates that were rotated at great speed, simulating a continuous movement. This device was called a zoopraxiscope. Many artists, photographers and scholars were inspired by his work, but the impact and dissemination of his legacy was magnified by the introduction of digital technology and the web in the late 1990s. This assignment looks at the relationship between Muybridge’s original glass plates and what can be retrieved, viewed/read and reused on the web. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has created an animation on this subject. Watch it for a concise overview of Eadweard Muybridge and his achievements.


20 min

1.a The original technology used by Muybridge

30 min

1.b Reuse of Muybridge’s material: the father of the GIF?

1.c A new life on the web

Reading/viewing suggestions

learning outcomes

  • Learning about the relationship between reproduction technology and reuse of material in the analogue era
  • Learning to consult the Internet Archive
  • Learning how digital technology and the web influence knowledge about an artist/photographer

2 out of 7 — Muybridge's legacy: searching on the web

Finding content about Eadweard Muybridge on the web is partly determined by what is indexed by search engines. Your choice of search engine depends largely on how you have learned to use the web. This assignment will give you an idea of the possible diversity and ranking of search results. You are going to compare results of a search for Muybridge in two different search engines: Google and Yahoo.


30 min

2.a Google compared to Yahoo

20 min

2.b Change your settings

learning outcomes

  • Understanding how search engines prioritise certain search results

3 out of 7 — Transformation from Analogue to Digital

This assignment is based on the topic of a parallel lesson: From steel wire to website; the interviews of David Boder. It tells the story of the pioneering work of the Jewish Latvian-American psychologist David Boder in recording the first accounts of Holocaust survivors. In the summer of 1946 he visited several displacement camps with a wire recorder and collected 121 interviews in 8 different languages. The focus in this lesson is on the transformation of his collection from interviews recorded on steel wires in 1946 to content that has been made accessible through a public website.


3.a From steel wires to interactive website

3.b Restoration or replacement?

Reading/viewing suggestions

learning outcomes

  • Learning how sound can be copied and reproduced from an analogue to a digital carrier

4 out of 7 — Clinton's emails and Thatcher's letters

In collaboration with: Max Kemman

The practice of sending and receiving letters is decreasing considerably. While it seems to have been substituted by email correspondence, there are significant differences with regard to the technologies that are applied and the conventions on how the message should be worded. Letters and emails from people in positions of political power are of special interest to the general public, as they reveal what goes on behind the scenes. In this assignment you will compare the emails by Hillary Clinton, which she was forced to disclose, with the digitised correspondence of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, which was published to honour her political legacy. Since both politicians operated in the field of international relations, their correspondence can play a key part in writing the history of their era. But as you will see, the context and options for communication in 1980 were quite different from those in 2008.


4.a Comparing emails to letters: the creation of a source

4.b Comparing emails to letters: the preservation of a source and its digital representation online

4.c Preservation in the future

4.d Intended and unintended audiences

Reading/viewing suggestions

learning outcomes

  • Understanding the difference between a letter and an email
  • Understanding how to define an email as an object

5 out of 7 — Western European Union; analysing the digital documents of the “sleeping beauty”

In collaboration with: Florentina Armaselu

When institutions cease to exist, they often hand over their papers to an archive to preserve the history of their existence. This was the case with Western European Union (WEU), an organisation for military cooperation within Europe, set up in 1954 with the goal of creating a framework for European defence that would incorporate Germany, a condition that was seen as crucial to preventing the outbreak of a future war. WEU existed alongside the more powerful North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), which was spearheaded by the US. Its role in international military operations was therefore modest, as summed up by its nickname “sleeping beauty”. WEU’s documents were handed over to the Luxembourg National Archives and digitised with a view to online publication. They form the basis for this assignment, which demonstrates how a paper collection of institutional documents in French can be turned into machine readable content that you can consult through your screen.


180 min

5.a Exploring diplomatic documents of Western European Union online and in the archive

180 min

5.b From natural language to computer language

180 min

5.c Digging a layer deeper

240 min

5.d Consult the documents from the list you have created on site at the Luxembourg National Archives

Reading/viewing suggestions

learning outcomes

  • Understanding and conceptualising the differences/similarities and the factors at play in the transformation process from print to digital historical sources

6 out of 7 — The digitisation of newspapers: how to turn a page

In collaboration with: Estelle Bunout, Marten Düring

Newspapers have become an important medium since the 19th century. They offer valuable information about events and opinions in past and present societies. The large-scale digitisation of newspapers that is currently taking place in many (national) libraries holds the promise of a bonanza of data for historical research. However, in the process of creating online access to digitised newspapers, choices are made and changes occur that affect the informational and artefactual value of a source, and historians should be able to identify and understand these changes. What appears on your screen at home is quite different from what you can hold in your hands at an archive. Moreover, national libraries have to deal with all kinds of financial, legal and technical constraints, which, together with their own institutional history, determine their digitisation policy. Some libraries outsource the work of processing and exploiting data through public-private partnerships with companies. This assignment covers two approaches: 1. You are asked to consider the choices made and the technologies used for the digitisation and online publication of various newspapers; 2. You will explore the diversity of news coverage and exploit the opportunities of online access to newspapers by conducting comparative research.



6.a Who digitises, with what purpose and how is access arranged?

6.b The newspaper as a historical source

6.c Newspapers and websites as sources of knowledge

Reading/viewing suggestions

learning outcomes

  • Understanding how the process of selection, digitisation and online publishing of newspapers works
  • Understanding what changes occur when newspapers are transformed from print to digital files
  • Understanding the merits of online access to large volumes of digitised newspapers

7 out of 7 — From glass plates to Google: digital source criticism on August Sander’s "People of the 20th Century"

In collaboration with: Juliane Tatarinov

This assignment deals with the portrait collection by the famous German photographer August Sander (1876-1964), “People of the 20th Century”. Sander’s aim was to document the entire society of his time as he perceived it. He believed that his camera would reveal universal truths about societal traits. In recent decades, many of his pictures have become accessible to the general public through the web. But when using this digitised and published material as a source of knowledge about his work, it is necessary to apply source criticism and trace the origin of what can be viewed on anyone’s computer screen. What can we consider as the original work by Sander? His glass plates? Prints made from his glass plates? The printed books about his work that made him famous long after his death, or the digital versions of Sander’s portraits that can be found on the web? The following perspectives will be considered: first you will explore the question of why Sander’s digital representations of his photos have been published online, and how they can be retrieved through search engines. The second part of the assignment brings you back to the origin of the source: the images that were shot by him at the time, his motives, and how the first publishers and curators appreciated his work.

The idea for Sander’s project “People of the 20th Century” first came about in 1925. It covers the period of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933). During his lifetime Sander published excerpts of his work and curated smaller exhibitions, but unfortunately he never managed to finalise the collection that had been originally designed to comprise 45 portfolios. When he passed away in 1964, his son Günther Sander inherited approximately 2,000 negatives and managed to publish some of these in the photo book Menschen ohne Maske in 1971. Another edition was published in 2001 by the August Sander Foundation, SK Stiftung Kultur, in Cologne. In 2010 the foundation launched a website dedicated to Sander. But the dissemination of his work was not completely in their hands.

In 2003, an early version of the foundation’s website was snapshotted by the Internet Archive. Around 2008 one of the first online photographs of August Sander appeared on the website of the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art in Sunderland (UK), to mark the exhibition “Fragile Democracy: new international photography”. The same year the internet art forum Luminous-Lint was launched with pictures of August Sander on its website. The first YouTube clip appeared in 2010, at the same time as the launch of the search tool Pinterest and the introduction of Google’s image search algorithms, which proved very successful. All these developments influenced the dissemination and reinterpretation of Sander’s work.


7.a Access to August Sander’s portraits through Google and Pinterest

7.b Associative tagging

Reading/viewing suggestions

learning outcomes

  • Training students to reflect on the search results of an online search and how this is determined by the properties of the search engine
  • Training students to distinguish between the various layers of interpretation when applying source criticism to analogue photos that have been published online
  • Making students conscious of the differences in informational and artefactual value between the analogue and digital source.
workshop L
Hands on - from Analogue to Digital Source - Learning by Doing

L Hands on - from Analogue to Digital Source - Learning by Doing

This module offers guidelines and content to organise a two-day workshop with lectures, theoretical discussions and hands-on experiences on the concept of ‘digital source criticism’. The four assignments that are offered deal with:

  1. Reviewing literature on the concept,
  2. Visualising the technology of various digitisation processes,
  3. Digitizing various data types,
  4. Tracing the genealogy of the term and how it is applied in different disciplines.
about the workshop L


This workshop was part of the Digital History and Hermeneutics PhD skill training and has been held on the 30th and 31st of October 2017 at in the Digital History Lab of the Centre for Contemporary and Digital History. The Digital History and Hermeneutics Doctoral Training Unit is a four-year interdisciplinary training programme with 13 PhDs and 1 post doc coming from very diverse disciplines whose goal is to study how the application of tools and methods from data and computer science influence historical research. Translating the classical historical method of ‘source criticism’ to a research context in which historical sources are digitized or digital data is retrieved from the web, begs for a critical reflection on which new questions have to be asked and how technology affects the changes of the informational and artefactual value of the historical source. The four assignments that were completed by 5 groups dealt with 1. Reviewing literature on the concept, 2. Visualising the technology applied in the various digitisation processes with the help of sketches and drawings, 3. Using devices and technology to digitise four data types; text, images, sound and 3d objects, 4. Tracing the genealogy of the term and how it is applied/interpreted in different disciplines.

Core issues that were discussed: authenticity, ownership, changes in artefactual and informational value of a historical source when digitised, difference between digitised and digital born, copyright and reuse, metadata, databases, digital archives. The skills training was coordinated by dr Stefania Scagliola, Andy O’Dwyer and dr. Tim van der Heijden.

This module offers the following components for the workshop:

1. Program PhD skills training on Digital Source Criticism

Skills training on digital source criticism organised for the Doctoral Training Unit Digital History and Hermeneutics on 30 + 31 October 2017 At the Digital History Lab of the Centre of Contemporary and Digital History, university of Luxembourg.

Participants: 16

Led by Prof. Andreas Fickers, Dr Stefania Scagliola, Andy O’Dwyer and Tim van der Heijden. The two-day programme combines lectures and theoretical discussions with hands-on demonstrations and group experiments. The first day focuses on literature and making sketches and drawings of how digital technologies affect the nature of a historical source. On the second day, the participants will digitise various data types and reflect on their observations of this process and the differences between data types. The last part of the training consists of a crowdsourcing experiment in which the genealogy of the term “digital source criticism” will be traced and documented.



DAY 1 Monday 30 October 2017 — Digital History Lab

DAY 2 Tuesday 31 October 2017 — Digital History Lab

Documents that can be downloaded