Charter pragmatics and Spitalarchiv’s teaching experience: Can the whole meaning of a charter be communicated digitally?

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Dirmeier Artur, Kathrin Pindl BA (Archives of the Foundation of the hospital of St Catherine, Regensburg; University of Regensburg)

Past years´ stunning developments in information technology have not only fundamentally changed and challenged each archivist´s working environment – digitization and transparency have also enhanced the application of progressive approaches in didactic practice. From the teaching standpoint, can the whole meaning of a charter be communicated digitally to a student audience?

Our paper aims to point out some perspectives on charter pragmatics derived from immediate teaching experience, interpreting the results of a case study regarding a group of history students enrolled in the University of Regensburg who got in touch both in an analogue way and digitally with some of the Spitalarchiv´s medieval inventories in the course of an exercise seminar.

Actively integrated for years in more than a few close-knit networks within Regensburg´s historical science community – e.g. a fruitful long-term collaboration with the Chair of Regional History of Bavaria – the small but momentous Spitalarchiv has been struggling to prevail academically in a digital environment. Due to its high-profile holdings of more than 5.000 charters, 4.500 books of accounts plus a respectable number of chronicles, files, maps and pictures the institution contains valuable resources for regional and international scholars. The Spitalarchiv is slowly but gradually opening up for digitization and web 2.0. Thus, for better or worse, Regensburg´s Spitalarchiv might thoroughly be perceived as a creative precedent concerning the implementation of new didactic practice in an archival environment.

Against this background, we try to depict the relation between charters – original and digitized – as signs and their effects on the students by applying quantitative socio-scientific as well as descriptive methods.

With reference to Marshall McLuhan´s crucial tetrad of media effects, our paper shall explore four core questions: What can the medium – either the original or a digitized charter – enhance? What could be made obsolete by each? What kind of insight might be retrieved which had remained obsolesced before? Where are the limits of each medium – where would it lead with regard to young academics´ future conditioning if one alternative, “analogue” or digitized, was preferred exclusively in academic teaching?

After concisely defining all concepts and methods used, we will stress the examination of metacommunicative aspects of students´ reactions when confronted with the original charters and their digitized counterparts, emphasizing on the impact of extraverbal dynamics while working with primary sources. Focus lays on meaning conveyed through the archival context when it comes to embracing the study subject in a not least tactile and olfactory, thus sensual way. Interviews with students suggest a certain fascination, if not magic of original charters which no digital, seemingly arbitrary reproduction might ever convey.

To analyze the mechanisms behind this socially constructed myth of authenticity is the main goal of our paper. Might further discourse transform these conventional perceptions? Does a paradigm shift like that seem at all desirable, especially from a small archive´s viewpoint? Results gained from Spitalarchiv´s case study might shed some light on these and a few more questions regarding the future of diplomatics in the digital environment.

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