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For scholars used to work on unpublished, handwritten material, it also modifies the relationship to the archives and the objects of scholar desire you can find there.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.

Patching Part Two: Script Types

Here are 2 other posts that belong to the prehistory of my blogging:

#1: Latin Salsa

Dated Sept. 26th, 2011

As you can see in this letter written by Lessing around 1750, it requires a particular training to just be able to read the kind of script used in Germany in the 18th-19th century (this letter is indeed a pretty nice and clean example – it usually gets far worse)

The texts we publish in our digital edition are mostly – but not exclusively – written in this kind of script, called german old script (“alte deutsche Schrift” in German, also known as “Kurrentschrift”). The problem we were confronted with was that of a change in the script occurring very often, especially between latin and german old script. The importance of those changes of script is obvious in terms of the materiality of the document, but also as a way to describe the literary practice of the different authors. In traditional German editions of texts of that period, it is standard to render the script differences optically, most of the time by changing font or font size.

But we couldn’t find the german old script in the ISO standards (which we use in our encoding). So we (that is in this case Laurent) bravely sent a request to have an ISO number attributed to it.

Here is the answer we received from the ISO committee:

“After submitting your email to the experts, it seems to me that Kurrent is just old German handwriting which uses the Latin script.”

Of course, the idea that this would be “just another” Latin script is irritating for us who spend hours trying to figure out what these characters are. But the real problem is that it is precisely the difference from latin script we want to make noticeable.

So the little salsa with the ISO committee might last a little bit, since we certainly will try to have Kurrent considered, if not a non-latin, at least a defined sub-class of latin script.


#2: Paso Doble

Dated Sept. 30th, 2011

I might have to revise my judgement on wikipedia. I have always considered it only helpful when you already have a substantial amount of background knowledge on the topic you are looking into. In the follow-up of my ISO related worries, I had to admit that I gained some interesting insight through wikipedia.

Laurent told me about the kind of Paso Doble ISO and Unicode have been dancing for some years before starting working hand in hand. After he had explained to me the historical meaning of the ISO Latin script, I was somewhat more inclined to consider German Old script/Kurrent as related to it indeed, Latin being a very wide family of scripts. So much for the soothing of my hermeneutic irritation.

This didn’t help much, though, concerning our encoding: we still had to differentiate between two types of handwritings. As Laurent explained to me, ISO standards were primarily conceived for printed characters, not for handwritten ones. So it only seemed logical to use the ISO standard for the Fraktur script, in which the texts written in German Old Script were actually printed in the 18th-19th century, to mark the difference from the non-German latin script.

But the story doesn’t end there. The first problem is that Fraktur was not only used as a printed version of German Old script, but also as a printed version of Sütterlin, a very much simplified version of the German Old script used mostly in the 20th century. That would be in terms of ISO 15924: Latf, 217. But it is pretty insatisfactory to stay at such a general level that basically German Old Script/Kurrent and Sütterlin would be considered the same. The deeper problem is probably that working with handwritten material is not really compatible with a system based on the differentiation between scripts and fonts (what is a script and what is “only” a font).

And why does (according to wikipedia) Fraktur have a unicode number attributed to it and neither Kurrent nor Sütterlin do?

For those who are deeply bored by these considerations and would like to actually get more than far-fetched metaphors, I recommend watching Strictly Ballroom.



Patching Part One: This Edition

While migrating my blog to, I seem to have lost some of my original posts  in the meanders of the world wide web. Here are two of them explaining the big idea of this edition:

#1: What’s in there for you?

Dated Oct. 5th, 2011

I intended to present each corpus of the edition in detail, but I have decided to start with an overview.

The digital edition reflects only partly the four big orientations of the project itself. Those four questions are:

1) To what extent did the creation of the University contribute to the representation and understanding the teachers and professors developed of themselves as Intellectuals?

2) To what extent did this self-consciousness of Prussian intellectuals construct itself as a reaction to the French presence in Prussia? (what is meant by that is of course not only the military presence of Napoleonian troops, but also the scholarly and literary domination of Berlin by the French since Frederick II.)

3) Which strategies were developed to establish oneself as a writer? (trying to differentiate here between male and female strategies)

4) How can you gain a political statement from a scholarly or literary work?

I conceived those four focus points before I even hired my team. They brought their own interests and research history: Anna Busch has already written her dissertation on the publisher Julius Eduard Hitzig (see her blog), Selma Jahnke is working on a dissertation on Helmina von Chézy (yes, this is a wikipedia link – in German though) and Sabine Seifert is also working on a dissertation on August Boeckh (and here I am very sorry to have to put the English wikipedia link since it is not accurate: his name is NOT Philipp August, but just August – Sabine will explain that at some point) and Friedrich von Raumer. And there are other people on the team, working on smaller subcorpora for their Bachelor or Master thesis…

Then the digital edition came along, not as a small byproduct, but as our common project. We have divided it in the following subcorpora (which I will present in more detail in further posts):

1) The French in Berlin: this corpus is destined to contain several subcorpora that will (hopefully) shed light on the different aspects of this presence. The first one (planned for the first deliverables) will be an important part of the passive correspondance of Louis de Beausobre which I found at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin-PK (since I can’t seem to find a wikipedia link on Louis de Beausobre, I will post on him soon, promise).

2) Science and politics: this is Sabine’s corpus, dealing with the way University professors and Academy members took part in politics on an Academical level.

3) Romantic texts: this is Anna’s corpus, mainly work manuscripts she found at the Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin in the Hitzig papers. At least one of the texts will be published in March 2012.

4) Friday Society: this corpus contains the correspondence of this literary and scholarly society that met in Berlin between 1802 and 1849.

5) Tieckiana: this subproject contains various works and letters by the Romantic writer Ludwig Tieck that were not published so far or published only in a shortened/censored version. We will publish the youth drama Roxane and the correspondence with his friend Friedrich von Raumer in March 2012, both coming from the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin-PK.

New corpora are intended to be added in a later step: Classics Lecture Notes (lectures given by F.A. Wolf and Solger in the summer 1818 will come first) and unpublished texts and letters by the Romantic writer Adelbert von Chamisso are the ones that should be added next.

You can learn more about those corpora and about the way we connect them to our teaching if you come by our poster (I will be there together with my TEI expert Sabine) at the TEI MM and annual conference in Würzburg next week!


#2: Digital Edition “Das intellektuelle Berlin um 1800”

Dated Sept. 23rd, 2011

The Digital Edition of the junior research group is a work in progress. It is probably bound to stay a work in progress for a long time, but we hope to go online with a first set of texts by the beginning of 2012.

This edition has two main aims. The first one is to make texts available that have not been published so far or have only been partially published. The second aim is to use the newly published corpus to develop methods that can help describe the intellectual networks in Berlin at the beginning of the 19th century in a more accurate way.

The picture on this page shows a screenshot of what the front-end of the edition should roughly look like: the darker orange upper border lists the different corpora; the lighter orange one allows different types of access to the queries. The main window is composed of a digitization of the manuscript on the left side and its transcription on the right side. The transcription can be visualized either in a form that is totally adequate to the manuscript (“diplomatisch”) or in a commented form (“kritisch”) or in the form of the originary XML-file.

I will be posting our specific encoding guidelines soon. They reflect our restless efforts to respect the TEI-Guidelines without getting lost in details…

Corpus Part One: School Exercises and Princess of Persia

A while ago (here), I had promised to present the several corpora of our edition. I will begin today with one of the first we will go online with in the spring: the work manuscript of Ludwig Tieck‘s Roxane.

Although he is one of the major romantic authors in German Literature (he was even crowned “king of romantic”), Ludwig Tieck never benefited from the usual treatment reserved to major literary celebrities: unlike Goethe, Schiller, Friedrich Schlegel and co, he was never granted such a thing as a Ludwig Tieck Historisch-Kritische Ausgabe.

It would be preposterous to track this back to only one cause, but it is sure that the state in which his leftover papers are to be found at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin-PK does not invite to any kind of systematical and exhaustive approach. A peek in the inventory realized by Lothar Busch shows how all of Tieck’s activities are thrown together. The poet, the drama author, the tale writer, the literary critique, the Shakespeare scholar are likely to be found in all sorts of texts, fragments, letters, sketches… Also, he was the depository of many of his dead friends’ papers (among which Kleist for instance, which he published after his death). Not everything in there is new, not everything is groundbreaking. But we already digged up two treasures.

Treasure number one is the manuscript of a drama called Roxane, which Johanna Preusse is preparing for our edition. It is a youth drama, and although it is undated, it seems to have been written around 1789. By that time, Ludwig Tieck was still a 16-year old schoolboy, and it seems likely that the drama was written as an extension of a school exercise on the theme “Write a variation on the fable of Ino” (on the fable of Ino, see Hygini Fabvlae, fab. II: Ino).

Other thematic influences are perceptible. The most important one is Felix Weiße’s tragedy Mustapha and Zeangir (1763). Especially the place chosen for the plot – an oriental setting in the wake of Montesquieu’s Persian Letters – as well as the main idea of the plot itself show Weiße’s wide influence. I will not tell you here about where Tieck differs from Weiße, because Johanna is about to write a great paper about it. Let me just tell you this: Roxane, the Sultan’s wife, is really mean!

The manuscript itself shows several peculiarities too. The first act is missing, so the reader has to jump in the midst of the action. But obviously, we are not the first ones to read it. There is more than just Tieck’s handwriting to be found on the pages. You can find traces of Rudolf Köpke‘s posthumous work on Tieck’s papers. And closer to the moment when the text was written yet, the margins also contain remarks in another hand. Lothar Busch and others assume it is the one of his youth friend Wackenroder, commenting on the plot, the protagonists, the writing,…

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.