Encoding time depends on…

Yesterday was a big pedagogical day. Around noon, Selma and I coached a group of soon-to be teachers in the subtleties of salon culture and women writing habits in Prussia around 1800. In the evening, Toni Bernhart and I had the pleasure to be hosted by Jutta Weber to present our work on archival material to our colleagues from Berlin der Begegnung in the Prussian State Library.

In both cases, I got asked the exact same question: how much time does it take to encode, say, one letter? The answer was obvious and unsatisfactory: it depends. It depends on how long the letter is, on how hard/easy it is to read. But it depends mostly whether you are at the beginning or in the middle of a corpus. My experience is that, when encoding the first 2-3 letters of a correspondence, you feel like you will be dead before reaching the next letter. But once the people and the books the two correspondents are talking about have an ID, once you have the general idea of the writing habits you have to deal with (and once you have developed a strategy to deal with them:  Tieck’s incessant switching between Latin and German handwriting, mixed with a maniac underlining of every other word, has been driving me crazy for a while), you can easily encode up to 3 letters a day. But really: who gets the chance to just encode one day long? Certainly not me. Encoding time depends mostly on time being what it is, that is shared between so many things – you don’t want to know how many, really, especially since I have been dealing with new people coming to the group and funding renewal during the past months. An administrative hell – not over yet, alas.

I thought about the representation which those people that are not in our field, but still able to get what we do, have of our daily work. The contrast with what it really is is striking. I have come to the point where I mostly envy my PhD candidates for having the possibility to spend days on one thing and get to the bottom of it. The sad part is, of course, that they certainly can’t imagine that this situation could in any way be desirable. I remember, back in the time – 15 years or so ago – arriving at the library at 9AM and leaving it at 6PM and wondering what had happened to that day, which was, all of a sudden, just gone, and yet do the exact same the next day, and so forth.

The reason why I really want to write the second book is that the academic situation I have acquired allows me to understand, and more importantly, to savor more, the moments of sheer learnedness when they happen: sitting in the library, gathering and arranging ideas. Those moments now have a sweetness I had never before suspected they could have. A sweetness which is, inevitably, tempered by the bitterness of the struggle to conquer them – or increased by it?

Concentrated time to think comes in unexpected shapes. One thing I like about spring is rediscovering what thinking time is while sitting on the playground an hour and half on a Friday afternoon watching the kids ride their bikes, cover the sidewalk with chalk drawings, get mad at each other for nothing, meet a friend, get a toy entangled in the bushes, grab it back, hop on further, and laugh in the sun. So do my ideas in the meantime.

And then I enjoy putting the hand on a serious book in the evening, too (been reading Herméneutique critique lately).

Intellectual MP3?

For the last time this term, we had a session of our doctoral seminar  this afternoon. We have had a lot of guests lately but will catch up on our own presentations next term with me presenting my book project and Sabine and Selma talking about their respective dissertations.

But for today, Toni Bernhart came to talk to us about audio-edition. Although it does not have much to do with our preoccupations, the questions he raises put our digital edition in an interesting perspective. His main thesis is that there is such a thing as audio edition, considering you can define edition as a”presentation of artefact” and from there extend the notion of artefact from the traditional text to any kind of medium. The discussion would certainly not have been so lively if we had not had Kristin Schulz as a guest too. She told us about “Mueller MP3“, an audiobook she realized and recently received the German Audiobook Award for. This edition consists in 36 hours of recordings of Heiner Müller, presented in 4 CDs with a commentary in form of a leaflet containing explanatory texts, pictures, facsimiles.

Trying to transfer all the tortures from preparing a paper edition to those of preparing an audio edition, I asked Kristin Schulz about how hard it must have been to select the passages she wanted to edit and to keep the commentary not too long. Strangely enough, she said she mostly suffered from having to take care of publishing rights, to find heirs of people speaking on the recordings, to settle on an arrangement with every one of them, etc. This made me put Memoranda of Understanding with archives into perspective…

In fact, dealing with contemporary materials forces to face problems we people dealing with 18th-19th century can happily ignore. Audio archives are a recent discovery, and tempted by a conservatory totalitarism which will have to admit its own limits at some point. We have to accept that we lost a lot of papers from the 18th-19th century and we will have to admit that not every radio recording is worth keeping – but for that, as Toni Bernhart said, it has to somehow become history. Somehow you have to accept loss as hermeneutical premises. As much as the burning of the Anna Amalia Library in Weimar can have been a shocking event, what does this loss mean compared to the fact that we only have access to, or use, not even 10 % of what is kept in archives? I insisted on the fact that you seldom find nothing in archives: if you have enough background knowledge, almost every piece of information you get adds to the puzzle, makes it less blurry. So, just like Kristin Schulz preparing her Heiner Müller edition, we have to find texts that are representative and present those to the public. Which is why every edition is an interpretation: representativeness is only generated with an epistemologically pre-defined background and with a specific public in mind.

What I find so cool about the definition “presentation of an artefact” is that it does not suppose that the presentation form and the artefact are of the same medial nature. For instance, audio edition (either in the form Kristin Schulz implemented or in other existing ways) does not really do without the text. There is the leaflet, the printed commentary: this mainly for scholars, who expect more than just the material. But if the people you want to make interested in your material needed in fact a completely different kind of guiding? What if, for instance, I could interest people in the letters I edit by having them be read aloud, recorded detached from their now weird spelling, and made lively by the voice interpretation? I had been fantasizing about a historical movie, but the feasibility of the audio version of the letters seems more appealing.

I will have to consider this from the technical side, but would it not be great if we had a “recording of the day” changing regularly on our edition page? (I cannot believe I am getting so enthusiastic about such futilities, but hey, it cannot all be about Silesian war maneuvers…)

Materiality on a Scooter (@ Ribaltone’s with Toni Bernhart)

When I was 12, I discovered in an old family house (which used to be, in the 18th century or so, a post house) a whole bunch of papers – pictures, household accounts, letters – retracing the family history. I put it all in a trunk and thought I should either bring it to the local archive (but was afraid they would not take it because it was not so old and not so interesting) or at least protect them from decay, cold, heat, rain, fire… When I next considered actually taking care of it a few years later, dormice had brought their food and loot in the trunk and pretty much  everywhere in the room under the roof I had left the trunk in. My mother had thrown everything away months before – imagine stinking rotten eggs left in a closed room for months, with the summer’s heat warming the roof…

Deep inside of me, I am still convinced that my mother could have saved some of the material, if she had really wanted to. Part of me refuses to accept that the connection to our direct family history (though I honestly have little in common with those 19th century peasants and their struggles to sell their probably not so good wine) is now abstract, where it could have been palpable. What does materiality really mean, when it comes to archives? Should it be a purely individual, emotional access to the old piece of paper, or should it be made part of some kind of general interest? Should you be able to borrow old manuscripts from archives and bring them home on your scooter, or should they be left in their sanctuary?

Toni Bernhart and I discussed this yesterday when we started talking about the August Boeckh papers. I told him how difficult (and, in the end, expensive) it had turned out to be to spot and list the Boeckh papers (even only the ones that are in Berlin). My initial idea to take Boeckh as an exemplary corpus and to reconstruct the totality of his Nachlass in order to make it an actually tillable field for generations of scholars to come – well, it is not working  as smoothly as I had figured first. It is confronted to the fact that a random, but probably not irrelevant part of this corpus is private property. On the one hand, I understand the Boeckh family for not wanting to give away their precious treasures. On the other hand, they only want the materiality of it, and this is not really what I am looking for in the first place: I don’t want the book, I want its content – I want to see, for instance, which handwritten commentaries the margins contain (ah! the margins! I will tell you about encoding those at some point!). So I was all in all pretty happy when I discussed with Mrs. Angela Boeckh the possibility of digitizing some of it (and here goes another funding application…). But Toni Bernhart felt about that much stronger than me, saying that, especially when it comes to preserving the materiality, the only place valuables should be is a big archive like the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. He had a good point really. Of course, there could be a world war and it could all be destroyed. But it would actually take a world war – and not dormice.

The Osteria Ribaltone is an awesome restaurant, on the Viktoria-Luise-Platz in Berlin-Schöneberg. So appreciated that you really have to make a reservation if you want to be sure to get a table!