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Author: Jana Borovickova
Title: Historical Computing in the Czech Republic
Publication Info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
April 2000

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Source: Historical Computing in the Czech Republic
Jana Borovickova

vol. 3, no. 1, April 2000
Article Type: Work in Progress

Jana Borovickova

I am a Ph.D. student in History at Charles University in Prague currently working on my dissertation as a visiting researcher ( A Fulbright scholar at Georgetown University) in the United States. When I visited the Matsushita Center for Electronic Learning at Pacific University in Oregon to see the publishing process of an electronic journal, I was asked by Jeffrey Barlow, the editor of JAHC, to write a few words about historical computing in my home country, the Czech Republic.

After almost a year of experience in the US I have observed that the general rate of computer literacy within Czech society is definitely comparable to the US's rate. Discounting computer professionals and scientists, for most people the computer is a very familiar working tool used for standard routing operations such as word processing, preparing presentations, working with databases and communications. There is no doubt that IT plays a significant role in managing business, industry, government, science and education. Basic computing is an essential part of both primary schools (6-14 year old children) and high schools (students between 14-18) curriculum. The Czech Internet has been developing dramatically since 1991 when the first Czechoslovak server was connected to the Net. Despite the monopolistic position of Telecom, the main telecommunication company, which makes using telephones relatively expensive, many families continue to use the Internet at home to search for useful information, shop or just to entertain.

Unfortunately, I must say that Czech historians are still lagging behind the population. The main reason for their lack for computer knowledge is probably due more to the historians themselves and to their inherently conservative character, than to the availability of technology. Although I have met many outstanding and admirable people during my history studies I believe that historians are in some ways a fairly exclusive community that can be incomprehensible to technically minded people. This often causes communication difficulties among historians and computers specialist and makes necessary cooperation a little tricky.

We can also see the problem when examining the generation gap between students and teachers. Generally speaking, it takes a considerable amount of time to become a professor at a Czech University; many people reach this desired aim near the end of their professional careers. Typical Czech history professors are old-fashioned, wise gentlemen at the beginning of their retirements. However they are still the leading personalities and the master spirits of Czech historical science. It is obvious that these people, who gain security from their pens and paper cards, have been not easily persuaded by the advantages of new technologies. Times are changing slowly, but there is a new generation of historians prepared to accept the technological challenge, and the conditions are becoming better every year.

Today it is nearly impossible to find Czech historians who do not posses basic computing skills and who are not familiar with at least simple word-processing programs. But word processing and e-mail are, for the most part, the only two ways in which they encounter the computer. Even though all universities have direct connection to the Internet freely available for every member of the academic community, historians still are not utilizing all the possibilities given to them by this powerful tool. As far as I know there are no specialized web conferencing or discussion groups in history at Czech servers. Furthermore, most globally oriented historians usually subscribe to some kind of international professional electronic forum.

I am convinced that the majority of Czech professional historians have come into contact with the WWW, but they are usually only at the initial phase of passive searching. Every Department of History, Archive, Museum and research center has its own homepage [1], but in most cases these are part of a broader web presentation of the institution (University, Academy of Science etc.) and were created by professional web developers. The content of these pages varies from very simple official information given by the webmaster to quite sophisticated pages presenting up-to-date news from history education and research. It is still unusual for historians to have a personal homepage or even to publish research papers or educational materials on-line.

The number of web pages with historical content on Czech servers is increasing every day, but these pages are being developed and maintained more by enthusiastic amateurs than by expert historians. Even though a couple of historical journals already have short presentations on the web, there is no real historically specialized electronic journal as of yet.

A great deal of work has already been done in the digitalization of library catalogs, so most of the important Czech libraries [2] are accessible through the web and their resources can be easily found on-line. The availability of world journal indexes, bibliographical databases, and CD-ROMs can also be considered sufficient in Czech libraries.

As a part of the "Memory of the World Program" initialized and sponsored by UNESCO, in 1992 the National Library in Prague launched a digitization project of the most beautiful manuscripts and old prints. The use of the new technology will facilitate access to these treasures and contribute to their better preservation. [3]

Under the auspices of The Foundation for Cultural History in Central Europe and the Institute for Classical Studies of the Czech Academy of Sciences, a similar project "Clavis Monumentum literarum" [4] was started. The authors are supposed to prepare and publish on the Net a searchable database of the incunabulums of early Czech literature as well as a database of complete scholarly publications thematically linked together with this topic.

Indisputable progress can be distinguished in the field of cataloguing archival documents. The project of the Ministry of the Interior "Unitary Archival Evidence" is meant to create standard web publishable databases of inventories, catalogues and, in the final phase, also full texts of manuscripts and other archival documents. Uniform software and rules valid for even the smallest regional or private archive have been set and now specific archives are working on the digitalization of their collections.

Developing and using project-oriented databases that are usually based on commercial software is also slowly becoming more common, especially between young historians. A few bigger database projects have been started within the last five years. For example, the project of the Institute for the Study of the history of Charles University, "Prosopography of Prague University from 14th-20th Centuries" [5] is running in cooperation with the Computer Center of Charles University. A few attempts have also been made to use the special historical software Klio developed in the Max Plank Institute for History in Germany, especially in elaboration registers, taxation, medieval calendars and family studies. [6]

Our archeologists are already profiting from GIS technology, but historical geographers still have all the difficult work of map digitalization and computerization of historical boundaries ahead. Luckily the Czech Republic is taking part in a proposed broader European cooperation in mapping Europe's historical boundaries started by the ESF (European Science Foundation) workshop being held in Florence this spring.

Multimedia CD presentations are not new among Czech friends of history and primary and high schools teachers as well, but again they are entirely the work of commercial computer firms and publishers. Nevertheless, they are often based on professional historians' writings.

A great success of the above-mentioned works and projects revealed as well the immaturity of new domain in Czech historical research that is developing with promise. We are still encountering lots of methodological weaknesses, often experimenting and making mistakes on the paths where many have already trod before us. We still do not have any basic handbooks for historical computing in Czech, or any other methodological literature. Universities do not provide specialized computing courses for history major students. A few enthusiastic initiators of historical computing projects are painfully feeling an absence of sufficient coordination and communication. There is no institution which would cover all historical computing activities; there is no Czech AHC or a similar organization, nor is there specialized journal devoted to historical computing. Despite the rising number of electronic historical data stored as a database, a digitized graphic or any other machine readable form, there is no central electronic data archive nor even any integral evidence of such projects.

The first harbingers of the changes could have been seen at the most important nation-wide meeting of the Czech historians' "Historical Congress" held last autumn. However, participants were still more interested in discussing general problems of the sense of historical science and the controversial but important challenge of the composition of the communist past than in the potentiality of new technologies. More and more voices calling especially for the improvement of inter-academic and inter-branch communication were heard. In contrast, our colleagues in Poland established a special section devoted to historical computing at the similar conference held at the same time in Wroclaw.

Historical computing cannot be understood as the simple use of computers by historians. Historical computing must be accepted above all as a new historical method, which could enrich contemporary historical research with new knowledge, perspectives and views. Certainly its wider dispersion will require new approaches and new ways of thinking. I am convinced that despite initial difficulties historical computing will find its own place among Czech historians and will help to enlarge the horizons of modern historical science.


1. The best www resources for Czech history in English can be found at the World Wide Web Virtual Library University of Kansas, <>

2. Libraries in the Czech Republic, <>

3. Project "Memory of the World", UNESCO, <>Project "Memoriae Mundi Series Bohemica", National Library of the Czech republic, <>

4. Project "Clavis monumentum Literarum", Czech Academy of Sciences, <>(in Czech)

5. Jana Borovickova, Jiri Stoces and Magida Sukkari. "Geograficky a socialni puvod studentu prazske pravnicke univerzity v letech 1372-1419." Acta Universitatis Carolinae-Historia Universitatis Carolinae Pragensis (in print).

6. Markus Cerman, Lenka Matusikova and Hermann Zeitlhofer. "Projekt Socialni struktury v Cechach: Rozbor pramenu s pouzitim pocitace." Archivni casopis 49, no. 2 (1999): 107-128. Markus Cerman, Lenka Matusikova and Hermann Zeitlhofer. "Projekt Socialni struktury v Cechach: Rozbor pramenu s pouzitim pocitace." Archivni casopis 49, no. 3 (1999): 171-190. Hana Patkova. Berni knihy Stareho Mesta prazskeho 1427-1434 : edice (Praha: Scriptorium, 1996).