The Role of Archives in the Digital Age
Which competences do young Europeans need to research historical sources and information for historical projects on the internet? And how does the role of archives change in the progressing digitalisation? During this year’s EUSTORY-Network meeting, which took place from 22 - 25 March 2018 in Turin and was hosted by the Fondazione per la Scuola, the organisers from more than 20 national history competitions discussed these questions and the relevance of archives for their work. In addition, the meeting also provided space to exchange experiences from the different national perspectives.
Katja Fausser, Managing Director of the EUSTORY Network, presented some of the findings of a survey conducted among all member-competitions on the issue of the role of archives and archive collections in the various projects. The results from this comparison showed that the number of EUSTORY competition participants working in and with archives varied considerably across Europe.
Despite the national diversity of this network, all competitions are united by the fact that they use research-based project learning to foster critical thinking, to question historical sources and to promote a multi-perspective approach to history. Within this framework, however, all competitions work independently and fit their concepts to the respective national situations and project designs. In the competitions in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany and Ireland archives and their collections play a crucial role. In Ireland all participants work with archival material as the competition organisers explicitly put the cooperation between students and archives at the core of its competitions. In Bulgaria and Estonia, too, archives are considered important partners, which even award a special prize among the competition entries. In Germany and many other national competitions, archivists are particularly engaged in providing methodological support as well as in the evaluation process. In contrast to these countries, the situation for example in Belarus differs greatly. There, material from within a family or civic society, e.g. the Belarusian Oral History Archive from Minsk, which is run by the EUSTORY partner Historika, is a starting point for many of the student projects. All in all, about half of the 20 competition organisers gained comprehensive experiences in cooperating with archives over the past years.
During the EUSTORY-Network meeting, these results were discussed: The conference participants addressed the chances and obstacles for students to gain access to archives all over Europe and raised the question to what extent the access to state archives of young people can be a reliable indicator for an open civic society. A visit to the historical archive of the Fondazione 1563 and the Istoreto - Istituto piemontese per la Storia della Resistenza gave the opportunity of a change of perspective on this topic for the participants. Together with representatives from both institutions, the group reflected on experiences with archives in their competitions and cooperations with students.
The challenges posed by the increasing digitalisation for competitions alike were examined. This section was shaped by colleagues from the Fondazione, which has been running the Italian EUSTORY History Competition since 2004. They explained how they have reacted to the ongoing digitalisation in their project design. Since its relaunch in 2012, the Fondazione is focusing on promoting the digital literacy of Italian students. Together with experts like Giovanni De Luna, Enrio Manera, Valentina Colombi and Carlo Greppi, the Italian competition organisers reflected the value of (visual) sources on their current competition topic of World War One that are available online, including TV series or graphic novels.
Another highlight of the conference were the presentations of award-winning projects by Italian students and their teachers who gave insights into their research processes and the various new skills they have acquired in the course of their history competition project. As one result of the conference, methodological support for students in dealing with sources in the digital age will soon be made available on the EUSTORY portal.
Last but not least, the network's competitions reflected their own role in the preservation of historical knowledge: The competitions themselves contribute to cultural memory, since in the majority of countries the submitted entries are archived and thus historical grass-roots research is in many cases made accessible to an interested public for the first time. This raised the questions, to what extent the student works can be used as sources for previously unknown and unheard stories "from below", and are there approaches to analyse how, for example, contemporary discourses are reflected in the student works? The impulses of the annual conference will be continued in the coming months at EUSTORY.
The conference was complemented in the second half by reports by representatives from NGOs in Georgia and Moldova, who are currently busy organising pilot competition projects in their countries. They presented their experiences made up to today and discussed with the participants for example the importance and challenges of multilingual competition approaches to open their pedagogical projects for the participation of national minorities. Both competitions in Moldova and Georgia, like some other countries within the EUSTORY Network, accept students’ entries in different languages and will evaluate their experiences after they will have completed their pilot competitions – the award ceremonies will take place in May and June 2018.