People have always been fascinated by history and already the earliest cultures tried to leave evidence of their existence and their work behind and to document them. This fascination has remained unbroken to this day, and the catchphrase “learning from history” is still often used. This inevitably raises the question of what history actually is or what it is composed of.
Primary sources form the basis of any historical topic, which have often been kept, organized and made accessible in archives for centuries. Archives can therefore justifiably be called the custodians of history, since they keep the documents on which history is based. Archival materials can cover a very broad spectrum and range from classic documents such as files, charters or letters, to tables and other compilations, to cartographic products such as plans and maps.
The “European Digital Treasures” project, funded by the European Commission, took precisely this fact as its starting point and tried in a variety of ways to bring original documents, i.e. archive materials, closer to a wider audience and to make them easier to use.
The intensive and conscious preoccupation with original documents brings history to life and gives laypeople a deeper understanding of the context. Interrogation protocols of the 17th century peasants by the secular and ecclesiastical authorities convey a direct and better understanding of the mass expulsions in the course of the Counter Reformation and the peasant uprisings of the 16th century become more vivid, when one looks at contemporary illustrations of the various criminal courts after the suppression.
Of course, not every original document is to be taken at face value and the extent of the objectivity of a source must always be questioned. But even if an original source obviously quite consciously wants to convey a very specific image of history, it is in any case authentic from the relevant time and thus a contemporary document.
Ultimately, one of the goals of the project mentioned is to raise awareness of what historiography is based on and to always question whether historical works have a solid source base or – as so often – are free inventions or at least untenable interpretations that do not stand up to source-based evidence. That is why the project operates in all its activities, be it exhibitions, the provision of prepared teaching materials for schools, intelligent game design or the design and production of marketing products exclusively with original documents from the treasuries of history – the archives.
Dr. Karl Heinz