Digital Archives and historical databases – are they public or private?
– Conference: Contents Business and Shared Cultural Assets in East Asia. Bonn, 3.-5. Dec. 2010
I do not know how I should feel for having the last but one word in this conference. My field of work is the history of Japan, especially the history of medieval and of ancient eras, from about the 6th to the 16th centuries. I have done some fieldwork and documents research on several regions, for example in Eastern Japan (Nitta-district in Gunma prefecture) and in Western Japan (Nishinooka-region in the southwester part of Kyoto basin). The sources of my research were written documents, maps old and new, archaeological findings, and the landscape itself including the people living in the landscape and forming it, shaping it.
As a matter of course in all my work I felt deeply dependent on well-organised collections of sources and of kind and co-operative people who guided me and gave me access to these collections. During my work I were not only collecting sources, but also a huge amount of precious experience. I learnt to appreciate the organisational work of changing sources into accessible and usable contents. I had the useful pleasure of having been slightly involved in projects of this kind of contents production (frankly speaking: I had a lot of pleasure, my colleagues had a lot of labour). When talking of contents it will be the best for me to set focus on the matter I have a concrete idea of and every scholar doing research on history subjects is confronted with.
My crucial question is: what is going on with the collections of historical sources and data, the stuff any historical research and historiography is consisting of? What is their mode of production and to whom do they belong actually? In what direction is this mode of production developing and what kind of change will accessibility of source collections undergo in the nearer future? What kind of new contents is being created?
My presentation will be concentrating mainly on the Historiographical Institute at the University of Tokyo, its source collections and its contents production, especially as its digitalisation is concerned. Since the early 1990ies for several times I was given the opportunity of doing research in this noble institution and to discuss the matters of history and its sources with staff members. So I have the feeling of commitment not only for the problematic subject itself but also for this wonderful institution. I am especially oblieged to Professor Michihisa Hotate, who, besides Professor Shigekazu Kondo, gave me answers full of commitment on my questions and provided me with sharp arguments in the discussion.
My speech will consist of four parts: At first a report of the activities of the HI, secondly of the challenges it is facing, and thirdly some perspectives for the near future of work on history.
2. Given Situation
2.1 Let me begin with some general remarks. It is currently being lamented that Japan is not possessing “archives”. This proposition may meet the target if you compare Japan with – for example – Germany. I am not a specialist of this stuff, but obviously Germany is very a special case in this point.
Germany has a long lasting tradition of Regionalism / Federalism which is continuing until nowadays. In connection with this political structure local and regional archives emerged quite early together with the regional governments. The emergence of these archives was on the other hand obviously caused by the special role of old documents (other than Japan old documents could be used to prove actual rights to a very far extent). Also several historical institutions – like free cities and Roman law based church organisation – and the tradition of absolutism might have played a role. Absolute rule was based on a well working bureaucracy, and a bureaucracy needs documentation to take its measures and needs archives to store the documents as proves.
On the other hand, in Japan the tradition of bureaucratic archives, which emerged under continental influence together with the formation of the centralised ritsuryô-state in the 6th century, was harshly interrupted at least twice: during the long medieval revolution and during the short modern Meiji revolution. Archives were going lost, and with them their traditions. Many documents are until nowadays in possession of organisations which we have to consider under the present legal conditions as private ones – so as Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, noble houses including the imperial, and so on. Of course public archives do exist, often on a Prefectural level, and some of them already began to digitalise their stock. In Japan other institutions than archives in the narrow sense play a similar role. And this role seems to become more and more important, especially enforced by the general or even global trend towards digitalisation of documents. Digital archives are the future of different document collecting institutions.
2. For example: The aforesaid Historiographical Institute can be considered as one of these quasi-archives.
The history of the Historiographical Institute itself is of a considerable length. Its prehistory can be traced back until to the late 18th century, when the scholar Hanawa Hokiichi began editing chronicles and other sources of Japanese history with the support of central state authorities. His work may be interpreted as one of the many accompaniments of early national state within the framework of “National Learning” (kokugaku). For details I would like to refer to Margaret Mehls book on the beginnings and the early history of what is now Historiographical Institute.
(Margaret Mehl (1992) Eine Vergangenheit für die japanische Nation: Die Entstehung des historischen Forschungsinstituts Tokyo Daigaku Shiryo Hensanjo (1869-1895) Frankfurt a. M.: Peter Lang)
In the early times the Historiographical Institute was strongly influenced by German Historical Science (Historism), which matched to some extent to the own tradition of text critique (kôshô 考証 kâozhèng); the traditionally vivid contact with Europe and Northern America since beginning of modern times is now more and more replaced by co-operation with East-Asian historians and relevant institutions.
Since the end of the 19th century the Historiographical Institute was institutionally integrated as an independent organisation within what is now the University of Tokyo, and it does not belong to any faculty also now. At present about 80 persons are working at the institute, 60 of them are scholars. The institute owns a considerable stock of original historical documents. Nevertheless the main goal of the Historiographical Institute is not so much to be found in collecting original documents, as archives usually do. Much more important and the very job of the institute is processing historical documents. Original documents from all over Japan are copied (by brush!), or photographed and printed in letters or – like old maps for example – as a facsimile fitted with explanatory sketches. They are compiled in different ways in huge publication series, more and more of them are existing in digitalised form.
As the Japanese name of the institute clearly indicates, we can say that publication of historical documents in one or another way is in the centre of the activities of Historiographical Institute. The institute does this job since 1901. The main series published by the institute contain the following ones:
2.1 Historiographical Institute 史料編纂所:
Main Printed Compilations of Historical Sources
Title in English
Title in Japanese
Chronological Source Books of Japanese History
Old Documents of Japan
Old Diaries of Japan
Historical Materials of the Edo Period
Historical Materials of the Meiji Restoration
Documents in Foreign Languages Relating to Japan
Collected Maps of Estate from the Ancient and Medieval Eras
Source: Historiographical Institute
Besides these series several smaller source series and helpful indices are published, but there is no space here to present the full range of products well packed as convenient contents useful to all researchers of Japanese history. Many research projects concerning the problems of source processing in a wide range from basic research to applied solutions were launched by institute members in co-operation with specialists and scholars from inside Japan and from many other countries, too.
3. Historical Databases
Digitization of sources is one field of activities of the Historiographical Institute which began in the middle of the 1980ies and which is of increasing importance, advanced by many projects on national or international scale. Since one decade or so these activities expanded into a wide range of databases, which are very useful for all scholars and freely accessible for anybody. I will show some examples. At present 31 database are on-line.
2.2 Historical Databases in the Historiographical Institute
2.3 Database of Old Photographs
2.4 Ergebnisliste Chronological Source Books of Japanese History
subject: Yoshiie; you can see the facsimile of the source texts.
Problem: you have no access to the printed version of the text, only the exact place where it is to be found in the printed book.
Anyway: This is a very powerful search engine for research of pre-modern Japanese History!
Our next example is a full text search in the Kamakura-ibun, a collection of Kamakura-era sources formerly compiled in some 30 volumes by former director of Historiographical Institute, Takeuchi Rizô. In this case you get some lines of the (con-)text your subject is appearing in.
2.5 The Kamakura Ibun Full Text Database – search results for “Yamana”
At last I want to present an example of another pictural database, copies of old maps in the possession of the Historiographical Institute. Copy means in this case really copying old plans or documents by ink and brush done by specialist at the Historiographical Institute. It’s a technique which forces the copyist to pay very delicate attention to smallest details – in such a case copy often is of clearly better quality (i.e. readability) than the original manuscript.
2.6 Copies of old maps in possession of the Historiographical Institute
- search result for “Akishino-dera”
This map is part of files of a lawsuit which took place between to Buddhist temples near the old capital of Nara.
At the very last I would like to attract your attention to a very special database. It is called Online Glossary of Japanese Historical Terms. This Online Glossary was created as a part of the COE-project titled The Japan Memory Project, designed by Professor Hotate above mentioned and managed by Professor Eiichi ISHIGAMI, a specialist of ancient Japanese history. (COE-funded in the years 2000-2004, JSPS-funded 2005-2008)
It was constructed under international participation. It is listing different translations for Japanese historical terms appearing in selected English, French and German books on pre-modern Japanese history. I do not know the actual number of entries, in 2005 there existed 25 000 entries extracted from more than 70 titles. It is planned to maintain and continue the glossary in the future.
In the following we find example for translations of nyôgo.
2.7 Online Glossary of Japanese Historical Terms – Search results for “nyôgo”
In short: From the point of view of an Historian the Historiographic Institute does a great job and offers manifold and useful processed data and information for the national and the international community of historians. All that is valuable. And it is costly.
We can consider the activities of the staff of the Historiographic Institute as a kind of a production process, and we can call their products highly professional only insofar as they fulfil certain criteria being used among the experts for qualifying scientific historical work. Up to now these products have no real prize for the users, the Japanese state meets the largest part of all costs according to the traditional understanding of public interest.
On the other hand conditions for the production of historical knowledge are currently undergoing a deep change. The "new products" (like on-line sources) I described before are as well a part as at the same time an indicator of this gradual change, too. Perhaps they could only be produced because the frame of reference of the productive work in the Historiographic Institute and elsewhere in the scientific historical community was changing.
A crucial precondition of this so-to-say increase in the variety of historical production laid in acquiring new financial resources. Firstly that meant new ways of funding by the state, and secondly more and more financial resources from elsewhere, including funding by private corporations and companies. We may interpret this development as a shift from historical production where use value is in the foreground, to historical production giving priority to the exchange value, or in other words as a step in direction to the commodification of public services.
This shift was made realisable and is at the same time symbolised by the (introduction of the) concept of "contents", or by the expansion of the concept of contents onto the field of historical production. To use the word "contents" applied to scientific historical production does not only mean to abstract from the concrete qualities of historical products – in being indifferent to it. But also means qualities of such products if they were seen from the angle of the concept of "contents" are becoming measurable as a value or exchange value like any commodity. Scientific historical production is thus becoming commodified step by step.
We can describe this process in the following steps of the development:
2.8 Phase A, stage 1
A. Phase of dominating use value in historiography / historical work
"Nation building" is the main frame of reference. The targets of the historical production / historiography are fixed by the authorities of the early national state. At the same time liberal critics against the state-dominated history policy begin to publish in the liberalising print-market (Fukuzawa Yukichi etc.) outside the direct control of the state.
2.9 Phase A, stage 2
Increasing professionalisation of historiography is creating a new ethos of historians (“historical truth” an aim of the work); new scientific methods and theories of history develop. State defined targets and professionally thinking historians get into conflict with parts of the state machinery and nationalist state-oriented circles. Autonomous scientific thought and practice is widely recognised in society; high, professional quality of their work is being appreciated by state-authorities, too. (Until the 1930ies; revival of this tendency after World War II until to the 1970ies)
B. Phase of increasing weight of exchange value in historiography / historical work
Phase B, stage 3
Historical research is now not longer carried out and assessed according to / or based on / mainly internal scientific criteria. The phenomenon of fund raising is spreading and speedily increasing from applied natural sciences also onto the field of historical science. As a new criterion for the evaluation of “research projects” – an until then not so familiar form of work in historical science – the measurement by the sheer amount of funds raised by historians from the state and, more and more, from organisations not under public control (3rd side funded projects) is introduced. Competition between scientific institutions is enforced like crazy (COE-projects). A formerly not measurable kind of work is now step by step to be measured – not only, but also – by money. Traditional professional ethos is eroding.
-- Motto: victory in competition is on the side of the better solution! (However from history we can learn the opposite: video tapes based on VHS system were technically the minor solution, but had stronger market power; Beta was the technically superior, higher-developed product, but institutionally on the market it had a weaker position, and it failed!)
The question must remain in the discussion what might be "more effective" for the users = citizens, researchers, not what might be “more effective” for markets which are not easily to be maid subject of public control.
Phase B, stage 4
This stage is not yet completely realised – future music still up in the air. The commodification process of the products of scientific historical work is getting on. Pressure groups are strongly influencing public opinion on several levels to reorganise the institutions of historical scientific work. Their products must sell, like all products have to sell. “Contents” is an ideally abstract notion to rectify and rationalise the process of commodification. As a kind of commodity, called contents, all things are equal. Privatisation and “deregulation” of public institutions are propagated as the only rational way. Establishing 国立大学法人 – national university corporation – might have been one decisive step into this direction. Big business is looking forward to a promising new market and is willing to cut off not marketable services which are costly for the public and which have to be supported mainly by state taxes.
Historical commodities or contents need “historical science” as a brand at least for some time more. In this sense professional quality work of historians does not become obsolete on the spot. But the main criteria for defining what is good work and what is a bad job are no longer scientific ones – they get externalised or “outsourced”. That means on the other hand: what does not sell that is of no need. A look at our private television will easily teach us how to sketch a possible scenario of barbarised history / historiography (BBC on European history; “Die Deutschen” in ARD and such stuff).
We must not forget that this is not an entirely new tendency in historical sciences or in the humanities (Geisteswissenschaften) in general. Much earlier we can notice an analogous development in the market of print media concerning history. Three segments are relevant there for history:
1. For the scientific / academic community: specialised periodicals, monographs, compilations etc.
2. For both academic community and an educated public: popular periodicals, marketable monographs (shinsho …) and compilations of certain quality; also “history manga” (edutainment)
3. For everybody: marketable books and other printed media of any kind
Fact is, that the market share for type “1.” is extremely small! One cannot earn living in publishing for this market without public support.
On the other hand: freedom of the markets meant for a long time and is actually still meaning a chance for publications not conforming to state authorities and to state policies or to an authoritarian academic community. In this point we may remember books of authors like Amino Yoshihiko. One of his most influencing books is an essay published at Heibonsha’s (Muen kugai raku – freedom and peace in medieval Japan), which was sharply criticised by many leading members, by the establishment of the academic community of historical sciences. But as we know the freedom of the markets is an extremely risky one and survival of independent, autonomous historical science is not possible without stabilising measures of the democratic state and its institutions representing public interest in a civil society.
4. Consequences, Reactions
Anyway, commodification of academic production is anything but an entirely new phenomenon. However, a really new phenomenon may be the change academic institutions and with them scientific historical production are now undergoing in their essence. The question how historical scientific practice will do under these changed conditions is of growingly urgent actuality. Will we be able to maintain not-applied, pure research in this discipline?
From the Hungarian philosopher Lukács György we can learn, that liberty is to be found only in following the necessity law. May be this is a fine suggestion how to do. (I think of somebody swimming in the ocean only fitted with water wings. Of course we cannot discuss here possibilities or perspectives for change of the ocean respectively of the political framework. That is another story of the respective civil societies.) Pure research is costly, and there is no perspective for developing marketable products directly. Current costs are being still funded to the largest part by the national state of Japan. New technologies are developing new media and new instruments of research are tending to cross the borders of national users. Besides that, the state is often using international collaboration in academic fields as a medium for shaping international relations, for accumulating cultural and symbolic capital, for polishing its own image. – In short: it is quite a complex field of intermingling cultural, professional and political relationships historians are doing their work in. And they are – more nolens than volens – useful for the politics. May be that is one cultural capital they can try to practice usury.
Not to look only gloomily into the future of pure historical research I would like to sketch here at the end of my presentation some ideas or suggestions of the above mentioned professor Hotate. Several times he uttered his anger that the staff of the Historiographical Institute is not only overloaded with their every days work but in addition they are planning and implementing many projects from which North American and European scholars are profiting quite a lot, but that they seem to feel no need to do something from their side in return useful for their colleagues in Japan. The moral economy of give and take has become out of balance since considerable time.
What Hotate is planning has to do with contents – of historical scientific quality – and with their containers – database and the internet. And it has to do with the large field of History of notions and concepts, a field of research Bonn is showing some promising potential for development.
For comprehensive information I recommend professor Hotates personal blog (cf. homepage of HI), I can give only some catchphrases from his suggestions. He is conceiving what he calls a "Knowledge-Base of [premodern] History" (歴史知識ベース), which has to be based on an “Ontology of History Knowledge” and of related fields. The contents to be accumulated in this knowledge base system are what Hotate calls “half products” of historical research. (“Half” means, not entire books or articles should be put in, but products of research, which easily can be searched and re-used by subsequent researchers of a similar subject.) Histories to be involved in this keen project are not especially determined by Hotate, but what in Bonn quite easily could be done is to integrate our considerable accumulation of Asia-Knowledge into such a knowledge base. In bringing in also our ancient and medieval history of Europe it should be feasible to give scientific research of a Eurasian history a new base of knowledge.
I must acknowledge I presented no definite answer to the initial question whether archives are public or private. But I hope I suggested an approach to finding one.