Blogging on a jet plane (don’t know when I’ll be back again)

While on my way to the ESTS conference that will take place in Paris from tomorrow until Sunday (thus depriving me from a well-deserved week-end, but I guess that with advent coming up, I will find occasions to make up for it), I can at long last take advantage of time I am not running after to do all the things that occupy a busy life. Blogging from the plane is always special. You are offline and hence off time (will have to add links and put online later), at some distance from the ground of things, moving from A to B without really moving yourself, not being able to do much more than sit and wait. In itself, it has something contemplative. Let’s go for a look down and a look back.
The bright side first! We are coming closer to the ideal of connected information I had envisioned at the beginning of the edition and had somewhat ceased to believe in at some point. I met with Marian Dörk and we began thinking together about visualizations based on the edition’s data. Some of his work looks like the kind of plausible playground for our data. But since it is possible to combine complex information this way, it is up to me, really, to come up with a convincing research question that goes beyond naming important authors or showing their reception throughout the century covered by our corpora. Although this might me a good starting point to confirm that our data is not biased (because the answer to those questions is well known and not likely to be convincingly overthrown by our edition), come to think about it. But all in all, the point is really to formulate requests that do not just repeat what is known, but invent the yet unknown. It became clear to me in the course of the discussion that such visualization would be likely, on the one hand, to show what the human eye cannot see (because it cannot embrace that much information at a time), but also, on the other hand, to display the missing pieces of the puzzle that might, for the same reasons, otherwise remain hidden in a dead angle.
This confirmed the plausibility of the two directions in which I want to develop the edition in the coming year (which I am slowly but surely beginning to see as the end of one development phase, thinking in parallel about what could be the next one and what kind of money I am going to have to apply for to realize it). The first one is to extend and define networks and the second one is to refine the presentation and exploitation of text layers. Both are likely to give way to interesting visualizations. And it would be exciting to connect both aspects (that are, at the time being, disjoint from one another and evaluate separately) in this way.
But this is thinking too fast, let’s get back one step. As much as our corpora might be reasonably representative of a wide range, if not most of the phenomena of textual genesis and publication strategies that can be described in the research context that interests us, I don’t think that this is true with regard to the networks our corpora allow to describe or to show. There is too little material for that. It takes more authors than we can present to connect the dots (persons, publications, places) representatively. The amount of editions dealing, in Germany only, with literature from the late 18th- early 19th century, suffices to demonstrate that none of these editions – and some of them are not small – can by itself cover the whole field. In other words, we need more data to make them say something relevant. We should be able to search through all these editions, search for people, search for publications, connect people and publications. This is what standards are really about – make relevant science possible.
In the first half of 2014, I am organizing two work sessions that aim at making things progress at least in the one domain that I know well: intellectual correspondences, German ones, of the first half of the 19th century. The first discussion round is conceived to define ways to implement technically connections between the several correspondence editions (in a way that all editions benefit from it at the end of the day). Program and invitations are being finalized and I am tremendously looking forward to that work session (in February). In May, it will be a workshop dealing with data modeling in correspondence editions and its conception as a research apparatus. There will be a poster session on the first day to present projects and on the second day papers addressing specifically the issue of connecting research question and data modeling. I have been working towards the finalization of this workshop for months and haven’t lost hope to wrap it up so as soon as our big conference is over (Briefe um 1800- zur Medialität von Generation). From this conference (for which excitement has been growing during the last weeks!), I hope to get ideas and inspiration that help me conceive an encoding of scholarly genealogies, a point that I deem of extreme importance when it comes to reflecting intellectual networks.
So much for the bright side. On the downside, I purchased a 3TB external hard drive to save our data. It is only for backup, I know,  but it makes me feel like I contradict my own values. The one thing I aspire to is a solid archive of my data! And all that Santa can bring me is a hard drive at the sight of which my brain immediately begins to spin and imagine all the many, many ways it could be destroyed. Right now, on my desk, for instance, it could burn, or get wet if there was some water infiltration from above, or be stolen, or melt because it is too close to the heating, or freeze if someone were to cut off the heating, or not support the temperature change or – the thought of my data on an external hard drive: that is enough to make me forget plane zen and dive mentally into hell.

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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