KU Leuven: Digital database brings civil society history to life

As an interfaculty documentation and research center for the interaction between religion, culture and society, KADOC has been an established value at KU Leuven for decades. It is also one of the largest cultural archives in Flanders. The digital component ODIS is also being consulted more and more. KADOC director Kim Christiaens, the chairman and managing director of ODIS, sees a growing interest in everything that has to do with archives and heritage. “For example, research into socially relevant themes such as educational history or the history of migration is clearly on the rise, as is the history of healthcare institutions and their link with religious organisations. There is also more attention for everything that has to do with diversity.”

From loose thread to tapestry
The datasets in ODIS are often based on research projects, archives, heritage projects or private collections. The database already contains more than 260,000 records on organizations, individuals, magazines, archives, buildings and events. The team is also actively looking for data for some collections, says KADOC researcher Peter Heyrman. “Our growing collection on migrant communities in Flanders is a good example of this. These communities are also actively involved in the entire process: everything is done in dialogue. That is only logical.”

ODIS brings together a wealth of collections, but the database is much more than a repository for information, emphasizes Kim Christiaens. “What we do is not about collecting and preserving individual facts: we create a structure and a context in which those data are connected and given meaning. Through a system of connections and referrals, researchers and other users gain insight into a broader whole, and are also guided to the historical sources. So we help them to weave various loose threads into a whole tapestry. For us, the process is at least as important as the result.”

Peter Heyrman: “Information that used to be often hidden in reference works or archives is increasingly being brought together and made accessible to a wide audience.”
Truth vs Wikipedia?
In times of ‘alternative facts’, populism and digital disinformation, ODIS also offers something else invaluable: verifiability. All the data offered in ODIS are based on verifiable source material. A researcher can therefore count on all data being correct, and that is less obvious than it sounds, says Christiaens. “Today we all have the reflex to quickly look something up on the internet, especially on Wikipedia. Such an online encyclopedia certainly has its value, but of course you should not just believe everything it contains. Also, there is not much in it. I think that in recent years, and perhaps especially the corona crisis, there has been increased awareness that verifiability of information is extremely important.”

Wikipedia is increasingly linking to records from ODIS, adds Peter Heyrman. “That can only improve the quality of the online encyclopedia. It also ties in with our open data philosophy: we also link from ODIS to other reliable sources such as LIMO or Digital Archives Vlaanderen. Information that used to be often hidden in reference works or archives is therefore increasingly being brought together and made accessible to a wide audience.”

International allure
Today we are more aware than ever of the way in which history books are written and colored from certain perspectives and power relations, Christiaens continues. “Diversity is not new: the past is more vocal than we often think. ODIS shows that diversity: the database does not focus exclusively on big names, but mainly shows the commitment and role of ‘ordinary’ men and women, from local pastors and religious communities to migrant organizations.”

“What we do is not ‘auxiliary science’: we offer valuable expertise that is also gaining in importance internationally and pay a lot of attention to the way in which knowledge is created and shared. Just think of research on the history of Islam, healthcare or education in Flanders, or the impact of religion on local communities: ODIS is an essential research tool for such large-scale projects. It shows how local and international perspectives enrich each other. That is also the reason why many of our datasets are now being translated into English: international researchers are also increasingly able to find us.”

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