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.

Horizon 2026

Yesterday, we had a guest in the person of Peter Stadler, who came to present the Carl-Maria-von-Weber-Gesamtausgabe and talk about technicalities and general DH philosophy.

It is always interesting, as it has also been in discussions with Stefan Dumont (who develops the digital work environment of the Schleiermacher edition at the Academy of Sciences), to see what kind of differences it makes to transform a non-digital edition into a digital one on one side and, on the other, to conceive the whole edition as a digital one from the beginning.  Digital editions that are built on the basis of a print product have the advantage that most of the editorial decisions have already been taken, and they have been taken in a way that fits the technical possibilities of print – that is, most of the time, the standards of a reading version that expands known abbreviations, whether these are letters or glyphs (Geminationsstriche, Ligaturen, abbreviations specific to an author or a time for instance), to mention only some of the cruxes we, on the opposite, actually have to deal with. This form of print standard has established itself as a scholarly one and works all the better as the transcription is not immediately comparable with the source. Having the manuscript next to the transcription compels much more the need for a diplomatic transcription (or so I think at least). In the case of the Carl-Maria-von-Weber-Ausgabe, the  hybridism also comes from the fact that part the edition (the genuinely musical one:  notes) is being made available in book form only.

The fact that the edition revolves around one author  also restricts to some extent its digital ambitions. I was surprised to hear Peter say that such author-centered editions are bound to disappear, but come to think about it, it makes sense. A big part of his work is to make the connections visible – connections between persons, between works, between realization steps of one single work – in the digital part of the edition. Peter underlined that is a clear advantage, in that sense, that they are editing all of the works, letters, etc.  in a “Gesamtausgabe”. But in order to make the networks really visible, it would be necessary to not remain within the Weber environment itself. Peter mentioned the papers of Weber’s first editor and biograph Jähns, that are also kept at the Staatsbibliothek. These are not just in themselves interesting, but also because they would provide valuable information about Jähns’ interventions on the Weber manuscripts (corrections, deletions, additions). But this would suppose to expand the author-centered concept of the edition. And invest money in a fine cataloging of Jähns’ papers after the model of what is currently being done with the Chamisso papers. As much as we certainly all agree that this is part of the scientific missions of libraries and archives (or becoming part of it), this requires funding and hence political decisions on the library’s level (which authors should take precedence for that kind of grant proposals?).

A point we discussed at length was, of course, the persons. The comparison between Weber’s index of person and ours makes little sense as it is, considering they have to deal with something like 7000 persons and we still only have 430 entries. Even if we reach the 1000 persons-mark by the end of the year, it will remain a completely different scale. While the Weber edition provides with a lot a biographical information, we keep that fairly scarce, but on the other hand, we implemented much faster the visibility of relationships (authorship, correspondence partner, mention, family relationship or love affair, and hopefully soon teacher-pupil as well). Plus, I am still unsatisfied with the biographical information we provide. Its provenience is sometimes not as reliable as I would wish, but there is no way for me to inform about that without falling into an obvious excess of time investment. So we decided to implement, like the Weber edition does to, the PND-BEACON that will at least make the provenience of the information on one person somewhat clearer and allow to give access to more biographical information without us having to sort, link and enter it all manually.

The beauty of the Weber edition is of course that it is an Academy project, due to be completed by 2026. Long time archiving, long period funding, a clear road map: so many things I often wish I had. But on the other hand, few surprises and little room for experimentation. I suppose you can’t really get it all…

Love Surrogates

In terms of data architecture, we should all love surrogates. Still, they seem to me to be one of the most difficult concept to explain to people who don’t deal with organizing digital data. Today’s post is a first attempt  to explain this (hoping to be as pedagogical as possible!).

It seems to be a common point of view amongst traditional humanists that having different entry points (say dates or persons or places) in a database or in a digital edition would mean that there is no underlying order to it. This might even be one major obstacle to conceiving edition projects that should be both online and paper. Digitally, working along a chronological highway (starting from the earliest document and working towards the latest one) is not optimal, whereas it still is the main and almost only recognized way of conceiving a paper edition. There already are big corpora such as Alexander von Humboldt’s papers for which it has been approached differently, but it remains a minority.

Let me take as an example the corpus of the letters from Chamisso to de La Foye we are editing in our current class. Our basis corpus are the 104 letters contained in the de La Foye papers of the Staatsbibliothek (all of which are letters from Chamisso to de La Foye), to which we have to add 2 letters from de La Foye to Chamisso from the Chamisso papers (also Staatsbibliothek) and one letter from Chamisso to de La Foye from the Freies Deutsches Hochstift. These are the 3 manuscript sources we could identify for this correspondence (maybe there will come some additional material from Krakow, I haven’t had time to ask there yet).

Apart from those manuscript sources, we have print sources: mainly 3 print editions (Hitzig, Palm, Riegel) that contain partly the same letters as those we have as manuscripts, partly others. I schematically summed up the possibilities this implies in a small drawing à la Laurent:

My first entry (“Single Document”)  shows that for each document you can either refer to one single source or to several sources (in which case you can collationate, e.g. compare text versions). What I have not drawn on the picture, although it is also a valid case as well, is the one in which you have no physical document left, but you know there has be one at some point. For instance, if Chamisso writes “thank you for your letter of September 4th” and there is neither a manuscript nor a print document dated September 4th of that year, you can still assume there has been such a letter. Maybe you will even find the document at some point; manuscripts are known to pop up when you least expect them to: having looked for them for years and finally given up, they suddenly are there, on the most unexpected shelf. In that case you create a surrogate, an placeholder for this presumable letter of September 4th. This allows, when it comes to point 2 (“Architecture”) and you want to have an overview of the totality of the correspondence, to reconstruct the maximum information you have.

In this second point of my drawing (“Architecture”), you can see the interest of identifying the nature of the documents we are referring to. For manuscripts, for prints and for “empty” surrogates, the metadata can contain enough information to create a real data architecture. The metadata information (source, persons, organization, repository, places, keywords, document description) are not only arbitrary things you can look for when using the search engine: they actually structure the whole architecture. And as a mean of organizing data, they also are a way of determining the workflow.

Working in cooperation with the Staatsbibliothek, we have for instance harmonized our metadata so that we can exchange information with the kalliope autograph database. This allows us as well as the database to collect surrogates that might happen to be “filled” later. Both our digital edition and the digital library of the Staatsbibliothek take advantage of that. The maximum reachable complexity and completeness in data architecture allows everyone, in the end, to spare a lot of time.

Another example could be that the keywording can allow to identify particular fields of competence (botany for instance when it comes to Chamisso and de La Foye). By identifying such recurring themes, you can assess much faster how many documents would require the help of a botany expert and plan your work accordingly.

To sum up my point: we should love surrogates because they allow complex and complete data architecture; not only are they a key to organizing data, they are also a time saver in that the whole data management allows a greater optimization of the workflow. Convinced?

And here’s a thought for my father, still at the hospital fighting for his life: no surrogates there, just plain love.


Out of the shadow, into the light

In 1813, Adelbert von Chamisso published a novel that became a major literary success. It was the story of Peter Schlemihl, the man who sold his shadow. He wrote the text during a stay in Kunersdorf, a hamlet 80 km east of Berlin. This is the place where the Chamisso Society held its yearly meeting yesterday within the facilities of the  Kunersdorfer Musenhof, a house hosting a permanent exhibition dedicated to Chamisso.



I realized then how many different ways of looking at Chamisso’s life and work there can be, how many different ways there are to keep the memory of his achievements vivid.


Let me tell you why he became a major protagonist within my project. You could ask the same question to each and every member of the Chamisso Society – or, for that matter, each and every scholar who  has dealt with the Chamisso corpus – and get a different answer. It is the beauty of such rich corpora that they allow to bring together different perspectives and hence to shed several kinds of light on it.

I had no idea that there exists no major edition of Chamisso’s work and manuscripts until I hired Anna Busch and Selma Jahnke. Anna had been working for years on the manuscripts of one of Chamisso’s best friends, Julius Eduard Hitzig, and she knew the early editions and the situation on the manuscripts’ side very good. Her plan when she started working in my group was (and still is, even if the digital edition has postponed the realization of that part to next year) to prepare a (book) edition of Hitzig’s correspondence with his poet friends, among which Chamisso plays a central role. Selma Jahnke came to the group with a dissertation project on Helmina von Chézy (gosh, I have to improve that wikipedia bio!), Chamisso’s lover in the 1810s. As for Helmina, we both knew that her printed work and manuscripts had never been considered as a “work” and treated as such in terms of scholarly edition. Both Helmina and Chamisso were literary active at the crossroads between France and Prussia, interacting with literary and scholarly networks, with publishers on both sides of the Rhine. Their brief love affair is also the story of a literary cooperation.

Both perspectives – the Hitzig one and the Helmina one – lead us to look more closely into the Chamisso manuscripts. There was one additional aspect – not a completely different one as they all are connected, but still another perspective – that seemed interesting to me in the context of my project. I had been working on the French-Prussian intellectual relationships in the late 18th century and was wondering how it would be possible to analyze the evolution with a counterpart in the early 19th century. Chamisso is for sure a representative candidate for that kind of analysis.

The different team member’s work lead to publications: Anna and Selma gave papers at the Chamisso Conference that took place in Paris in June 2011 and will have them published in the corresponding book. Selma’s paper analyzes the common literary work of Chamisso and Helmina in the 1810s; Anna’s paper deals with the Chamisso biography published by Hitzig after his friend’s death. Anna also constituted a corpus for our digital edition composed of 3 literary texts  that were kept together in Hitzig’s papers. One of them is a publisher’s copy of Peter Schlemihl, which she has been encoding lately and we hope to have online at the end of Summer.

At some point, I realized that we had to do with a corpus that was likely to enrich greatly our digital approach, our questions and our method on that level. In fact, the Chamisso papers could possibly allow to see  how letters can shed light on genesis and reception of literary works. At that point, we had to choose which letters to use and which tools to develop. The corpus we are working on now are the letters to Louis de La Foye (no wikipedia bio to this day, I promise to write it soon!), a childhood friend who, contrarily to Chamisso, returned and finally stayed in France. The letters extend to the 30 first years of the 19th century. They deal with politics, literature, natural sciences, French-Prussian intellectual relationships… We are editing this corpus together with a master’s class. My hope is that this corpus will allow us to develop our encoding on the level of linking together literary/scholarly works and letters.

In that project, we are working in close cooperation with the Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin, the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin-PK, the Deutsches Textarchiv, and René-Marc Pille, a French  Chamisso specialist, who will be visiting this week (his conference has been announced on the Chamisso-Forum). And with all these different light spots, Chamisso will certainly have to come into the light – and then we will see whether it is with a shadow or not.

Thanks to Michael Bienert for the pictures (and for his post on our edition)!

Can you keep a secret?

OK, I still haven’t posted the link to the edition. Actually, I intend to polish the Tieck letters (and wrap up the few missing ones) tomorrow. The postponing only extends to tomorrow evening. The fact that the University is empty and nobody seems to be around (ever heard about Easter break in Germany? fairly comparable to Christmas break…) has not been a great incentive to hurry up. Anyway.

If you have been following this blog carefully, you will have noticed that there is a corpus I never ever posted on. I mentioned in my last post the difficulties raised by the “canonical” work manuscripts and it seems to be time to introduce the big work manuscripts of the edition now.

It is in many ways a grateful job to dig out in archives papers nobody really knows about. You are being given, as the person who found the jewel, to expose it for the first time, showing what matters most to you, be it its shape, its seize, its reflections, its harmony…  This jeweler job is the encoding. While encoding, you emphasize one aspect or another: the work process, the connection to other works, the connection to other persons, etc. As the first editor, you get to pick the kind of light that has to be shed on the corpus. Everybody can interpret it in their way in a second step, for sure. But the first encoding is a first interpretation: this right you have as an editor is, in today’s world, still something you can take for granted when it comes to secondary authors. When you edit a writer nobody knows, you are expected to explain what its interest lays in.

Things are different when it comes to big authors who have already been interpreted for ages. You can’t edit Goethe in any other way than by scrutinizing each ink mark: not only might it mean something, but it has to be something meaningful. These are corpora with which it is not really possible to experiment around. It is some kind of unspoken rule that you cannot just do whatever you want with Goethe. Especially since there are armies of specialists working on it, big projects it is easy to learn about with the minimal effort of basic googling.

How to situate the pretty-big-but-not-so-great-that-they-have-been-edited-through-and-through authors in the big picture? The difficulty is not just to know what you should feel yourself authorized to do with it, but how to know who else might be working on the corpora and with which research interest. It should not be the job of the archivists to deal with that, but on the other hand, they are the ones that are likely to be confronted with the visits of several researchers wanting to work on the same or on similar corpora. The only thing you can expect from them is to let the different researchers know about each other.

From this point on, the researchers should be able to constitute work groups, to create dynamical and collaborative work environments, where all those who work on a corpus can contribute and share information. Why this only happens in the rarest cases is a mystery to me, and something that makes me at times way too angry.

In that sense, let it be a mystery to nobody that we will edit E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Sandmann (already online), Chamisso’s Peter Schlemihl (this summer) and Fouque’s Undine (over winter) following the manuscripts that can be found in the Hitzig papers at the Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin. And that we hope for collaborations.