Money and Philology

It probably would have been more gentle from me to put it the other way around: Philology and Money. If money comes first and philology comes second, we are actually doomed, aren’t we?

Anna and I presented the first Chamisso letters we have online to the Berliner Klassik team this morning, with Markus Schnöpf sitting at the table too. Many of the things I have been posting about these last months were evoked, sometimes only briefly, but I was surprised to see how we managed to talk about all the central aspects and questions of digital editing in such a short time. What is today’s state of the art in terms of tools and their implementation? In what detail should or can a manuscript be edited online? How do you conceive a digital tool that can handle the conversion to a book? How is today’s digital editions’ landscape structured, who does what and how? What specific tools can be used for letters, to what extent are those tools to be considered solid, final products or still in testing? It is not possible to give a one-sided answer to all of these questions; they all are worth hours of debates. Put together, they cristallize the main problem: its takes more than traditional philological knowledge to be able to develop an adequate theoretical question and the corresponding edition principles you want to base your edition on. The digital turn is not to be undone any more.

One of the crucial points is the question of text economy. Text economy is philology and money put together. We have a certain scholarly aim, which is not pure edition for edition’s sake, but conceiving an edition to work towards the answer to a question. Reconstructing networks in the case of our edition. Sounds trendy, is trendy too, is also a potentially extremely plastic method with which you can do a lot of things. The only condition for this to actually be implemented is to have a sufficient amount of text. So here we are: text economy. If you want to reach a certain amount of text, that means that you won’t tag each and every sign in your encoding of the manuscript. You can’t encode everything. You have to decide what you want to encode and what you will not encode. Which is also anticipating not only what you want to do with your corpus, but also what others might want to do with it, and let doors open without getting lost in rendering each and every ink stain.

I am in many ways much too pragmatical (even if the debate on Geminationsstriche tended to put me on the side of some sort of philological radicalism) – I have given up on perfection long ago and believe mainly in perfectibility, which is probably why digital edition is something that I live with so well.  Plus, I don’t think I have so much time left to be able to experiment around, things will surely get serious soon enough, so I should enjoy the experimenting as long as it is possible. Anna on the other hand is a much more meticulous editor than I am and it is important to her to be satisfied by her final result in the finest details. We balance each other pretty well. Or to put it another way: we have animated debates during our digital edition work sessions.

It became clear very fast that every member of the team would bring in their own conception of editorial work, that we would never be able to all encode the same way: not only because the documents are different, but because we are different. So we have a generic common ground of editorial directions, but each project has its own way of interpreting them. While reading the assignments of our masters students this afternoon – encodings of letters from Chamisso to de La Foye, a work that has been coordinated by Anna and Sabine -, I could see how some sections of the metadata, which consist in 2 lines in my Beausobre and Tieck letters, have turned into a 30 lines-segment. There is a reason I kept it at 2 lines. I don’t think more detail is necessary. Should I let Sabine, Anna and the students write half a dissertation in the metadata for their corpus? When I think of the time that might end up being eaten  if we repeat the exercise on each and everyone  of the 100 letters, it depresses me. Instead of doing that, we could – let me think – improve the tagging to make the search more powerful, get data on the many persons evoked in the letters – and – well, obviously: encode more letters.

So I will have to break the news tomorrow: we have to find a middle gound. I can make a step forward and somewhat expand the corresponding sections of my metadata. But if we want to edit this corpus within the next six months – which we will do – we’ll have to get rid of some unnecessary overload.

Which is why money – or rather, the lack of it – is there for: force you to get rid of some editorial fat. Of course, this can be counterproductive. But on the other hand, it forces the scholar to ask himself again and again what the point of his work is, and what the community will have from it. Gives some meaning, somehow.


Anne Baillot

I studied German Studies and Philosophy in Paris where I got my PhD in 2002. I then moved to Berlin, where I have been living & doing research ever since. My areas of specialty include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history. I am currently working at the Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin as an expert in digital technologies for the humanities.

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