Children and their World

Knowledge and Interpretations of the World in Textbooks and Children's Books between 1850 and 1918

There are few periods in history that were so profoundly marked by changes in the bodies of knowledge passed down to successive generations than was the second half of the long nineteenth century. During this period, a first wave of globalisation transformed the perspectives on the world held not only by adults, but also, and perhaps particularly, by children and young people.

Processes of rapid globalisation coincided directly with the growth of nationalism, of faith in progress and fear of crisis; industrialisation and the destruction of traditional lifeworlds, an increase in poverty and the expansion of the middle classes unfolded simultaneously, impacting on people’s everyday lives and interacting to both open up new horizons and limit people’s views on the world. The book market, which at the time lived through a period of expansion, responded in diverse ways to people’s emergent and changing reading behaviour and the demand for new types of literature this engendered. While some studies on individual aspects of these developments exist, we know little about the overall landscape of images which young people of the period made of their world in an age of an increasing pace of life, advancing progress and the successive decline and loss of erstwhile traditions. In the light of this research situation, textbooks and books for children and young people represent a particularly rich corpus of sources whose exploration allows us to retrace and uncover both what we might view as quasi-official interpretations of the transformations the world lived through at this time and the ways in which people at large responded to these changes. There are few other sources which enable us to access a similarly clear picture of what was viewed during this period as information of relevance in the contemporary process of building the nation state and in the changing canon of knowledge about the world.

The sheer number of textbooks and books for children and young people which are of interest to our research presents a significant challenge to historians’ traditional methodologies; our project alone is investigating a corpus of approximately 4,500 digitalised works. Such major projects call for new research approaches and for testing and improvement procedures for existing tools used in computational linguistics and the digital humanities. To this end, a group of researchers from the Georg Eckert Institute (history), the University of Hildesheim Foundation (information sciences) and the German Institute for International Educational Research in cooperation with the TU Darmstadt (computational linguistics, software development) constituted itself in May 2014. The researchers are to be joined by project partners from the library of the University of Braunschweig, the University of Zürich, the Göttingen Centre for Digital Humanities and the Bavarian State Library. The aim of the project is to forge new, transdisciplinary paths in research on children’s images of their world in the period under investigation, routes to knowledge which may transcend the limits of the established qualitative methods currently in use and could therefore have the potential to shift the boundaries of historical research in this area.

Funded through the Leibniz Competition, the project seeks to harness the tools previously employed successfully in other areas of the digital humanities, such as topic detection and opinion mining, for the use of historians working on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We will aim, to this end, to reconstruct intertextual connections, identify and highlight thematic clusters, and cast light on semantic fields, for the purpose of both generating quantitative findings and interpreting them as we place them in their historical context. We hope that this work will open up to researchers new routes of access to two forms of “mass” sources, textbooks and children's literature, which, in their representation of patterns of the interpretation of the world typical of their time and in their capacity as components of cultural memory, both reflected and shaped that memory , but which have thus far found little resonance in research. Further, we expect the project generates hypotheses which historians will be able to examine and refine using hermeneutic exploration of selected works. Specifically, we will analyse the frequencies with which particular words occur, the use of grammatical forms, the appearance of semantic fields and the ways in which historical topics and figures are positioned in these texts. We are committed to enabling our project to bear fruit in the long term, and so will be aiming, along with presenting the approaches we develop to the research community , to make our findings available in digital form, on a permanent basis wherever possible.

 

Duration

> 2014-2017

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