Patching Part Three: Standards

(the original post with the title Brave New Canon dates back Sept. 30th, 2011 – I am reading an interesting paper by Geoffrey Rockwell that addresses these issues as well in MLA Journals)

In a paper published in Digital Humanities Quarterly dating back to 2009 (“The Productive Unease of 21st-century Digital Scholarship”), Julia Flanders points out a series of problems our digital edition has to face and, more importantly, reflect upon.

One interesting point is the fact that digital editions and digitization projects give corpora a new importance. Texts that were sofar considered secondary are just as easily available as any other literature. Also, documents that were not easily accessible (mostly for preservation reasons) are now online like other more robust media.

Not so long ago, handwritten material – which  is most of the time unique -, had to be tracked down to the small archive where it is preserved and an adventurous journey had to be organized for you to be able to see and read it. You would reach the archive exhausted and utterly excited, see that it is only opened 3 days a week for 2 hours, stand by the door the very minute it opens, grab your pencil (inkpens being strictly forbidden) and feverishly start transcribing, hoping to be able to decipher each and every letter, spot, stain during the few days of your stay. Once home, you would then start thinking about the content of your transcriptions.

Nowadays, you can search online catalogs after keywords (such as the very complete German kalliope catalogue), see where the documents you are interested in are preserved, fill in an application for digitizations and have those sent home, when they are not online already.

This modifies, as Julia Flanders points out, the relationship between canonical and non-canonical literature. It is true, too, that the digital canon that is arising under our very eyes seems structured by rules that are widely independent from the traditional history of literature.

For scholars used to work on unpublished, handwritten material, it also modifies the relationship to the archives and the objects of scholar desire you can find there. In one click, you can leave behind the closed world of the egoistic discovery (you know what I mean: the manuscript you cannot really believe you actually found, and you are so happy about you almost cry or laugh by yourself in your archive room) and make it known to the whole world.

This affects deeply our relationship to archivists as well. Because they have had, more than us scholars still, to go through a radical evolution of their role as a go-between, from the rooms of a small archive visited only by crazy scholars to a world-exposed position – with probably much more crazy non-scholars.

Think big

Today Gudrun Gersmann, director of the German Historical Institute in Paris (IHA in French, DHI in German) came to us to present what I originally thought was an edition project but turned out to be more archive sorting, digitizing and setting up metadata.

The project deals with an awesome archival fund that was made in local archives in Toulon (France) (Btw there is a a French description of the project and here a German one): 7500 letters by a successful French woman writer named Constance de Salm, documenting the literary and political activity in Paris in the Revolutionary and Napoleonian era, but also retracing the singular path of a French woman who married a German nobleman and spent half of her life in France and half of her life in Germany.

Now here’s the beauty of the project: when they found the letters, they decided not to invest their money in transcribing and commenting what would have been something like a fifth of them. Their aim is to have in the end – if possible – all those letters registered properly. Each of them is being informed with sender, addressee, date, place as well as a couple of keywords (concepts, names, publications). These metadata are then fed in a repository that is in the end supposed to be merged with the kalliope database.  The information sets that will be thus constituted will be linked to the PND and to the digitization of the letters (which are based on a server at the DHI).

One could say, well, then, by the end of the project, nothing is done. No text, no commentary, no context.

But you, my beloved reader, know better than that, I am sure. Once this is done, a lot is done. First, you can have an overview of the most important correspondence partners, of the amount of letters depending on the periods of her life, etc., and thus choose to work on a part of the corpus that is actually defined by precise scholarly questions – and not as “the first bunch in box one”. Second, once you have the metadata and the information related to the persons and the publications evoked in the letter, you can gain a valid overview of the intellectual networks. You can follow the discussion of a precise publication throughout the several parts of the correspondence. You can retrace which persons are evoked in which context. So really, a lot is done.This is the kind of work the whole scholarly community should be endlessly thankful for. (I so wish we would be able to reach something similar with the Boeckh papers in Berlin in the year ahead)!

And finally, if these things are done well – in this case with the help of the FuD in Trier – we should be able, at some point, to put the information gained by the Salm project together with those of our project and those of similar projects and be able to search them all.

And this, my friend, is thinking big.
Only I am not sure which institution will be able to support something that big.

Never look back?

Some nine months ago, I gave an interview (in French!) to Maud Ingarao. She was preparing a series of papers presenting German DH projects for the French public, so I had the pleasure to come after Christof Schöch and  Torsten Schaßan (excusez du peu). I had the feeling this was a little bit premature considering how foggy the whole concept of the project was. At that point, I had not the feeling that I was managering it, more that is was managering me. But the deal was to have something about a project that was right in the starting blocks.

I was afraid to have changed radically my mind on some crucial topics in the meantime and was somewhat dreading the moment when I would have to face the transcription of the interview. Well, here it is (I added a couple of hyperlinks in the interview text, linking to some relevant blog posts I wrote in between). In many ways, the questions that I considered important then are still important now, even if my answers might now be slightly different – and a few new questions have come on my radar too.

First, there is the question of the relation between paper edition and digital edition. So early in the process of getting digital as March 2011, I still saw as my primary aim to produce books, paper editions. In fact, I think that I did not envision back then how powerful markup can be to sort out larger corpora. Once I started seeing the way we could link the different subcorpora of our digital edition together, I also considered the digital edition on a completely new scale. I still am the boss of a small project. But a small project with an evolving potential to becoming a middle-sized one. (note to self: need to move on seriously on the indexing)

Second, I was baffled when I realized that I did not mention Long Time Archiving at all during the whole interview. It is true, too, that the importance of that aspect of project development only became clear to me during the TEI-conference in Würzburg in October. But then, it revealed immediately its splendor as a long-time malediction – only making me more eager to find a solution involving not only me in my pretty unstable institutional situation, but partners that would still be here when I would be long gone. And here I must say that the recent developments of the cooperation with Michael Seadle and, most of all, with Jutta Weber and the kalliope team, worked out faster than I first thought. We are getting closer to a more than satisfactory solution.

And a third thing that might be worth mentioning here: project management in DH seems to be very different in France and in Germany. So few project managers know about their own TEI schema, understand the logic of the encoding decisions made for their own project in France, while I see a lot of people working on both the technical and the let’s-name-them-philosophical issues in Germany. The two digital cultures that develop in parallel look very different. The reasons for that are probably historical, but I find it worrying when it comes to working out common projects. I already have more and more the feeling to be considered like a technician by the elder generation in my scientific community, probably the younger one will start harvesting a similar feeling soon – as for France, I guess I will pass for a decent ingénieur soon.

Again: you can find our actual project guidelines as an attachment here, probably the best way to know where we stand!

Good news, everyone!

On November, 17th, something great happened. And by that, I do not mean my paper at the Boeckh conference, which left mostly some unease in the room – due, I guess, to the fundamentals it contained: interdisciplinary work, an edition that selects its elements after precise scientific questions and not after the origin of the documents, and digital on top of it all. Once I had past through the surprise of my flop, I found it an interesting (non-)reaction.

No, the really brilliant moment of that day was the meeting between Jutta Weber, Laurent and me in the morning. It was a peculiar situation to sit beneath two great librarian minds who were talking preservation structures – they lost me in technicalities at some point, I must admit. I was fascinated by the vision they developed within this hour and half.

To me, it was a dream getting a little bit closer to coming true. Those of you who know me (and especially those of you who experienced me at the DFG meeting for Emmy Noether junior research group leaders in July 2011 or within the circle of Berlin der Begegnung in February 2011, which were the two occasions where I talked about it as a project particularly dear to my heart) will probably remember that my ideal aim as a scholar is to bring people closer to archives. To give people (more people than actually do know about it as is) a feeling for what an archive is: the place, the reality of the documents, the carnal relationship to the piece of paper. And I am deeply convinced, as paradoxical as it may seem at first, that online editions displaying digitizations are THE way to reach that aim. People who see manuscripts online are more likely to want to see them for real. To wonder where they are, how they landed there, with what other documents they are surrounded, who is interested in them. To get in touch with our paper history.

So the big plan we started to work on on Thursday morning is a structure where we would synchronize our metadata with those of the Staatsbibliothek (and Kalliope at large), in both directions. The Library would be the warrant for archiving a mass of information with an everlasting valid identification number that would make it possible to have for each document a totally stable reference. The users would be able to benefit from the most up to date input given by the researchers. Isn’t it just the best starting point ever??

I will keep you posted on the developments. Actually, there probably is more to say about it already, but, hey, I”m already in my pajamas!