Yet again networks
There are many things that were really great in Lyon. There was seeing old friends again – for sure, that counts a lot. But there was also seeing a really interdisciplinary lab in action (the IXXI), being able to have exchanges about major infrastructural questions, being asked part of these questions by clever and interested students, and hearing about digital projects close to mine.
The seminar consisted in 3 papers. It began with my paper, which was too long, but everybody was patient and let me talk (thank you!). Then came the paper by Élise Leclerc, a PhD Candidate in Italian Studies who presented her dissertation project. She is working on handwritten family books left by heads of big Florentine families between the 13th and the 15th century. It was fascinating to see the extent of the literacy competence summed up in that one city so early in history. It was also interesting to see what kind of advice were left behind by those men for their families to maintain their political influence. But the paper was less about the content than about the digital way of dealing with it. Élise Leclerc has assembled information on 150 of those family books and is trying to see in what form to encode them and what can be gained from it for the analysis of the political relationships and their evolution in time. She was accompanied by the engineer who is helping her out with her data, Severine Gedzelman from the SyMoGIH project.
The third paper was given by Thomas Lebarbé and his PhD student Émilie Charles. They presented together their project of an infrastructure that would allow to put online and connect book inventories (mainly literary ones) historically located in the Modern Age. This infrastructure is mainly aimed at helping out researchers who want to have as little to do with XML as possible. What seems interesting to me in the project is of course the mutualisation not so much of the resource, but of the information: which books do you find on all bookshelves / on which bookshelves do you find this or that book. Putting together scholarly projects that are likely to have very different structures in the first place is a bold endeavor and it will probably, as Thomas Lebarbé said, take a while until it actually works. It made me think of another mutualisation enterprise, recensio.net, and the constant act of balance it represents for them to reach a significant and yet manageable amount of participants for the test phase. I fear that one of the main difficulties for the book inventories project will be, at some point, to decide who is in and who is out in the test phase, and then, with those, try and make a case for a bigger funding, that will then inevitably become some kind of infrastructural mammoth. How are infrastructures supposed to be governed anyway? (I mean being governed without being an elephant giving birth to a mouse, as you say in French)
Apart from the general infrastructural considerations, I will probably remember mainly two aspects of the discussion. First, I presented (shortly) the work we are doing on hands, and it was received with great interest (always a pleasure). And the second thing has to do with networks. When I exposed my reluctance to go on working with the concept of network, Pablo Jensen refused to give up so easily. He asked me what it is that I would expect from networks that I don’t get. This lead me to formulate (at long last) more precisely what the problem is. The crux are the links. I expect the links to render objective relationships (X read Y) as well as subjective ones (X is close to Y), including a time factor (X is close to Y on this and that topic in this and that period). This makes it difficult to define strong and weak links. Maybe it is indeed worth trying to define those links somewhat more precisely and see if anything comes out of it. I am still pretty intimidated by noodle packs (like in this paper by Pablo Jensen) though, and not so sure I would be able to interpret them in any kind of way. Still a lot to learn there…