More persons, more data, more persons – more data?

Sabine has been working too much on copyediting and layouting her Boeckh volume (heading to the press by the end of the week by the way). While we were sitting next to each other at the workshop “More persons – more data – more repositories” at the Academy of Sciences this morning, she pointed out to me a typo on the workshop flyer. The paragraph describing the workshop contained not the real title (“more persons – more data – more repositories”), but an obviously wrong one: “more persons –  more data – more persons”.

I don’t think it is a simple typo though. It reflects pretty well my general feeling while hearing the presentations. More and more people coming at us, wanting to be tagged or mapped, wanting to be noticed by us in some form. Coming from the Middle Ages, the Modern Era, the 19th century, coming from all imaginable times, they only have one thing in common: they are relevant for the German speaking area. And they don’t want to go unnoticed.

Most of the projects that were presented dealt with the situation of an existing documentation mass regarding persons relevant to an edition or a database that needed to be turned from a book object to a digital object. I was particularly impressed by the quantity of data as well as the elegance in the Germania Sacra project for instance, and it gives a good illustration of what I mean. The digital version of the person repository compiles data from tens of existing books. Not all of the persons from all of these books can be tagged properly since there would be too many minor clerics involved whom nobody knows much about and who have not been of any noticeable influence, so they settled on rich datasets concerning the persons that are more relevant to the project and to that particular field of history. But for all of its elegance and professionalism, the part of the project that is dedicated to the digital database of these most relevant persons is still small compared to the whole project it is embedded in. And so, the workflow has not massively been modified in order for the information relevant for the concerned persons from the volumes that are yet to come to be more easily transferred into the digital database.

This is a big part of the paradox that emerged from the situation of almost all projects:  yes, they are moving to a digital format and a digital way of thinking, but in many ways, only the technicians behind the projects have gone that step, while the others – the researchers – still work in Word or in Excel, even if it is hidden behind some XML  – more makeup than markup in this case. Do we really have more repositories? For the time being, my feeling would be, we don’t have so much more repositories than we have more persons and more data.

It was only justified that the organizers insisted on the value of tool they have developed to try and solve that problem: the Archive Editor. Hiding the code, it can even be simplified (a light version has been implemented in the Musici project, a very neat one as well, also presented today). And by all simplification, it is open to being enriched and guarantees some persistence in the sense that the general format can be merged with other types of formats.  A fine thing indeed. But how do you merge all of the databases? How can I, in a reasonably short-term future (my project funding is ending in 2 years), have a real database of reference that is more scholarly than GND and BEACON?

The GND, the German authority file system relevant, among other things, regarding persons, is another delicate point. While everybody in the room knew that our only chance to coordinate our scholarly efforts, to get them to go not in thousands, but in more or less one direction, supposes us to work with and for the GND, most of the project strategies seem to rely on the fact that the future generations will do that for us. We don’t have time, we don’t have money, we just use internal IDs (well, of course, but the aim is so different it can’t even compare!), we will do that later. Could not every scholarly project with a funding including a person database in any form be by principle granted some kind of GND-overhead? Should not every of those projects be awarded some money for someone to send in to the GND all the important modifications, refinements, database enlargement that the project has produced?

We are back to one of my favorite themes: cooperations between libraries and research. That will be – well hidden behind a completely different title – the topic of the paper I will be giving next week, also at the Academy of Sciences, at the conference “Klassizität des Urbanen” – and said title is: “‘Der Hauptzweck einer Akademie der Wissenschaften muss dieser sein, Unternehmungen zu machen und Arbeiten zu liefern, welche kein Einzelner leisten kann’ – August Boeckh als Projekt.” Don’t forget to register for the conference!

Cite this blog post
Anne Baillot (2013, March 5). More persons, more data, more persons – more data? Digital Intellectuals. Retrieved May 28, 2024, from

Anne Baillot

I am a Professor of German Studies at Le Mans Université. My areas of research include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history.

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1 Response

  1. AndreasP says:

    Yes, yes, yes!

    It is a shame that richly-funded databases still choose to exist in a small niches of the Deep Web, and don’t use the rich possibilites that authority data offer. How can anyone building a biographical website NOT want to be part of the BEACON network that some scholars and librarians (especially from Munich) plus a handful of people at de.wikipedia (myself included) have woven in the last years?

    Just some examples:

    Once the BEACON technology really fires off, with files not only using GND, but also VIAF or LCCN or Wikidata or IMDb identifiers (or whatever), this will be even more useful. BEACON files are incredibly simple to create, by the way. Anyone with a spreadsheet software (or even a text editor) can easily provide a BEACON file for a database. I have even created multiple files for websites that do not use GND. (Here’s a list: ) All this took some time, of course, and it’s not the best practice anyway (the data should be stored within the websites’ databases, with automically created and updated BEACON files). But it’s not rocket science at all, and more people should (and easily could) provide BEACON files for their websites.

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