Spring, disillusion and something like zen

The new semester began yesterday and it already feels like it has been months. I spent those two days struggling to get some actual work done – I succeeded for about 3 hours, which is not so bad. I remember not being able to cope with the distribution of my work time between administrative tasks, meetings, applications, teaching (minimal as I only teach one class) and research (research itself being divided again in archive work, reading, encoding, writing, editing) not a year ago. The disillusion as to what I can hope from my work days has at least achieved that I see my time running between my fingers on a regular basis and don’t freak out about it any more. I can’t make time that I don’t have. So let’s enjoy spring being spring, and proceed step by step with the big plans.

Although somewhat disillusioned, I still have concrete ambitions until the summer. First, our new layout has to go online soon. We have been tiptoeing and arguing about one single feature for the last three weeks, but we need to have a solution by next week and we will have it. We have to get online before the end of the month, this has taken too much time already. After upgrading the layout of the digital edition, we will do so for the Boeckh archive repository (/Boeckh platform / Boeckh papers overview: note to self, settle on a name once a for all!), get said repository officially online and find a clever way to link digital edition and Boeckh repository.

Second: more corpus! Sabine will begin encoding the reports from the Philological Seminar, I will move on on the von Buch/Beausobre letters with the texts I already have in transcription, Julia will publish the first pages of Boeckh’s books catalogue in a beta version. I keep my hopes down concerning the other corpora, but it would be a nice surprise to see them increase in mass too.

Third: better encoding! The already published letters will be reviewed, corrected regarding transcription and enriched in markup and commentary. This is the case for the 23 Tieck letters as well as for the encoding of the Chamisso letters to de La Foye done by the students of our first class.

These three aspects have such a high priority level that I realize while writing this that I have not even thought about what other tasks I could consider on the encoding’s side for the 4 months ahead. Improving the workflow, getting us used to working with SVN, presenting the books catalog nicely, working on the data exchange with the State Library and the PDR – things that feel old already, but need still a great deal of attention – will not leave Alex much time to impulse fresh air and ideas in the collationing or the TEI2PDF.

For the first time, I consider neither short (3 weeks) nor long (1 year) periods to make plans, but more a middle-termed one (4 months). I have a realistic check-list and I even have completely blacked out what will come after that period. In all rationality, I don’t think that this change of perspective will modify the group’s real production but marginally. What it can do, though, is change my perception of it. Not flipping out because I am not able to match goals that were from the beginning irrealistic might turn out to be – not so bad after all.

This feeling of general gravity has to do with my other activities in the mean time. Two of the volumes that I have to direct and have been dragging for years now are still far from being finished, and I think that my brain prepares itself for the final rush (one in May, the other in June-July), prophylactically saving some inner energy for this. Plus, I am teaching, giving talks and organizing conferences again, after a long pause in these activities. Keeping it somewhat down right now is probably the only way to survive, come to think about it. Plus, “after” (after July) will be the time when I have to concentrate on writing my book. I am looking forward to it, but I know already that it will not all be just fun either – and dispersion will not be an option then. At all.

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!

N.N. (mouse over)(on the subway tracks)

When I come back home after an evening out, I eventually end up on the platform of the Subway Nb 9 at the Zoo. Between 10 and 11 P.M., I always expect people to be as half asleep as I am, but there usually is so much activity that you might think it is 5 P.M. So I head to the front of the platform and check the tracks for mice. In the summer, there usually are 3 or 4 dancing around. I only saw one yesterday evening, one lonely mouse carefully checking each and every bit of the track. I suppose people just throw away so much food on the tracks that it’s worth looking for it in between trains (3 to 10 minutes). At least it is worth for a mouse to pop up.

Just like our popups appear by mouse over to show the explanation to a hand or an unclear passage (enough intellectual food to check it over).(or almost just like it, for the metaphor’s sake)

While watching the lonely, hungry mouse, I was on my way back from the DH Berlin Stammtisch, a monthly institution consisting in a wise balance between beer and interdisciplinary discussions on diverse digital topics. Although we were only 6 yesterday evening (or maybe because we were only 6), we discussed so many things that I will not even closely be able to render all of it. Instead, I will egoistically concentrate on the aspects that are most relevant for this blog.

Alexander Czmiel (who, together with Markus Schnöpf, attended our presentation of the 15th) asked me very rightly why our edition does not have a decent IP address. And I am extremely grateful for what happened after I had explained that I had had the possibility to do so for over 3 months now and was not able to settle on a name. At that point, everybody tried their best to help me find one. After giving it some thought today, the first suggestion (intellectuals.hu-berlin.de) seems the best one to me. It is certainly not optimal. You don’t expect something called “intellectuals” to deal with the time around 1800, where it was not used. The anachronism is a problem (also the fact that it does not give any relation to Berlin proper). The concept of  “intellectuals” has been my premise for what seems to be forever, but I have started doubting it a year ago. Maybe, after all, there is a better way to analyze as a group scholars, writers both male and female, publishers, in that time around 1800? – a way and a concept I would not know of yet, but that would dawn on me as an epiphany on the last funding day of my project. “intellectuals”: it is only a work hypothesis (one which I was also very grateful to be given the opportunity to explain at length yesterday at the risk of boring everybody), so should it really be an IP?

Although I said the contrary yesterday, I think that the controversial dimension of this work hypothesis and the historical context in which it is usually used (20th century social-historical studies) are the main objection to its use in an IP for our digital edition. I was strongly advised again adding a date yesterday (my beloved “around 1800” would have done so nicely though!) in an IP.

So what was it that I yesterday considered as the main problem and today do not? Mainly the answer to the question “What is this edition bound to become?” And when asked that, I was torn between the pessimistic answer (a series of XML files disseminated in the libraries and archives who host the digitizations of their manuscripts with it) and the optimistic answer (a big portal on literary and scholarly discourses in the late 18th-early 19th century that will be used by scholars, students and just everybody). In the end, this edition can probably become either one of those, but I can only in part influence its future destiny. So  it seems after all wiser to take it as it is now and as it will be in the two years ahead: a digital edition dealing with intellectuals in Berlin around 1800. In that sense, “intellectuals” would be an adequate identity. I might even file for the IP tomorrow.

N.N. did not just concern the digital edition’ missing IP. Part of the conversation also dealt with biographies and their norming. What shall be done with all those historical figures one encounters in each and every corpus? You would be surprise to see how long N.N. happens to have lived, how many books N.N. has written, how many battles N.N. has won. The way from anonymity to identity – a coarse-to-fine of some sort, as my statistician of a husband would put it – should in fact be accompanied by a general synchronization with a database like the GND (or the PDR). Now will we ever know of all the palaces, battles and elephants? Certainly no. But we should be able to sort out who is worth coming out of anonymity. A nice experiment: make scholars of all disciplines define what is a relevant historical person to them…


I will finish writing my mid-term report for the German Research Foundation this afternoon. This and the presentation of last Monday lead me to formulate more clearly our achievements and our goals. The good thing is: I was not overwhelmed and depressed by the to-do list when I saw what the already-done list of the last 2 years contains.

I spent last winter and spring running from a meeting to another, trying to figure out how to organize cooperations with different institutions in order to present an edition that does not pretend to re-invent things that already do exist. I have the feeling that this is finally going to take a real shape especially with the Boeckh corpus. Finding a satisfying presentation of our Boeckh metadata collection combined to the edition of interesting Boeckh documents is the next big thing on the to-do list. I have been looking forward to reaching that point for over a year. I am totally excited about working on that. Plus, it is made easier by the fact that we don’t need anyone to move on: we have the data, we just have to think about how to organize and present them.

There will be further meetings, of course, on the three other works in progress (synchronizing with the Personendatenrepositorium, connecting text and image more finely and comparing our manuscript transcriptions to the first prints hosted by the Deutsches Textarchiv). What will make those easier than it was in the last winter during the first meetings is the fact that I now have a more precise idea of what has to be the profile of our edition. It has to be performant in both quantity an quality. In quantity because we want, in the end, to analyse intellectual networks on a representative scale and need at least a mid-sized corpus to do so (not a small one like it is now the case). This aspect was clear from the beginning. The question that was harder to answer was the one of the quality in detail, especially considering that it can be contradictory with the quantity: if you encode every other word, you need months for a single document and never get to the point where you have the whole convolute encoded.

Still: It seems that the text genetic part of our encoding is not only a scholarly requirement shared by all in the group, where nobody considers it an option not to render a correction, a missing letter, a hole on the page. Our two views of the transcription (diplomatic version and reading version) really is an originality of our edition and should be a strength of it. There is still some work to be done on the definition of text genesis and its implementation on the encoding and the visualization (encoding on the level of a single letter makes it difficult to generate a clean visualization). But these are interesting questions as well and I think we can define a clear frame within this winter for sure.

When we will have more text (hopefully in the spring), we will be able to think about what can be automatized in the encoding. And then we will all relax and encode with the toes, letting the computers do all the work…


That’s what I call Digital Intellectuals!

The Berlin Academy of Sciences just launched a digital edition of the minutes of the work sessions that were held there between 1746 and 1786. You can consult it here: it is awesome. Not just because it looks awesome (great design, intuitive orientation, no information overload), but also because it is an actually well conceived resource – and a totally helpful one for my further work too.

The originals are in French (French became the official language at the Academy under Frederick 2nd and remained it until 1810), but you can find a selection of German translations. You can search either through the minutes (“Protokolle”, chronologically ordered) or through the papers presented at the Academy (“Akademie-Schriften”) or by looking for occurrences of a person (“Personen”). I was thrilled to see that my guy Beausobre (see this post on Beausobre) appears 912 times and am looking forward to cross-reference the occurrences with the periods for which I have letters waiting to be read. I so  like it when you find out that the official version of an information is presented in a radically different way in private writings.

The only thing that I think could significantly improve the edition would be a more precise work on the biographies. At the time being, they are pretty scarce. Hopefully those good people writing minutes and attending sessions at the Academy will at some point be integrated in the database of the Personendatenrepositorium. This is also a project of the Academy of Sciences and it aims at bringing together the biographical data emanating from the different Academy projects. One could argue that the PDR has a focus on 19th century and already a lot to do with just one century. But 1760 is really almost the 19th century, if you consider the major turn Berlin took with Frederick 2nd as the beginning of an intellectual era in Berlin (like I do).

It somehow confirms a kind of aporia I have been discussing with Claudia Sedlarz of the Berliner Klassik last Monday:  even if your aim is to seize network effects or connections, it all comes up in the end to the way in which you will be able to connect biographies. You always need a few “lighthouse” persons in your research horizon, like orientation marks, in order to be able to shed any light at all. And with that, you are either stuck in the canon or constituting your own canon. Either way, as soon as you are moving in the field of biographies, a block of normativity falls on your shoulders. But you can’t properly operate without it. Sound like Sisyphus to me…