Word of the Day: Workflow

I started noticing the recurrence of the word “worklflow” about a year ago. This is also the time that I had begun to get what metadata are (I come from a galaxy far, far away, as you see). At first, I imagined a nice little boat gently floating  on a river: me and my team along the workflow. I took me a while to accept that the problems of workflow involve thinking in terms of non-linearity and arrhythmia.

In the traditional way my discipline works, the most you have to coordinate is topics for papers when you plan a conference or exchanging corrections between the author and the editor for a book. The idea to work in direct connection with institutions and not just shake hands and put their names as “cooperation partners” completely changed the way I do my job. Half of it is, in fact, another job.

At the time being, our cooperation extends to 5 institutions we are working out a workflow with:

– the easiest workflow to implement so far – and also the only institution we already have a signed Memorandum of Understanding with – was with the Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin. We received their digitizations and used them on our edition; anyone wanting to re-use them has to ask for their permission; it is all settled and implemented on the edition page (which I promise you will get to see at the beginning of April)

– the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin-PK: the simple idea to implement in our digital edition a link to the digitizations hosted in the StaBi’s digital library involves a series of work steps before it comes to actually realizing this linking. We are now working on that specific workflow, which supposes a mutual effort in coordinating the granularity of information we put in the metadata (which both the StaBi and us want to use). Slowly but surely, I am getting acquainted with librarian data formats;

– Some of the texts we edit are major works of German Romanticism, so that the comparison between the manuscript and the first print is a major scholarly issue. In order to realize that, we are working on a workflow with the DTA (Deutsches Textarchiv, at the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften). The ball is in our camp right now, we have to realize a document that will be comparable to their document. It is not so easy since it does not just concern local amendments, but for instance whole paragraphs missing in one version – and the ending of the text is completely different, too;

– For the letters, I have emphasized often enough how important the index of persons is to me, especially with the aim of reconstructing intellectual networks. We are working out – guess what: yes, a workflow! – with the PDR (Personendatenrepositorium, also Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften) in order to retrieve some information from their database and for them to be able to use some of the specific information we provide through the unedited manuscripts;

– Within the Boeckh project, the cooperation with the University Library is a key element. Like for the StaBi, we have to find a way to mutually enrich our metadata. Unlike with the Staatsbibliothek though, it is not a limited number of folios we have as a common ground but thousands of books to be digitized. The difference of scale involves – well, a different kind of workflow. I am a little bit overwhelmed by the figures on that part of the project, I must admit. But we still have some time to figure it all out properly.

I hope to come to concrete cooperations like those also with the Archive of the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften and the University of Chicago Library / Special Collections. And hopefully others too. At some point.

One thing that I can say for sure is that I am very happy and proud of the way we use XML. The fact that we, the editorial team, the people who transcribe, comment, write papers on the literary value of those texts, encode them directly in XML/TEI makes it easier to put up all those cooperations. In fact, it makes it simply possible to work out direct workflows. That is one decision I will never thank Laurent enough for.

My biggest worry is still, of course, the long time archiving. On that point too, I think working in XML/TEI will be a major strength of the project. Still, I get more and more the question from the cooperation partners: “and how long does the project funding still last?”. June 2015 is coming closer, especially considering the time it will take to implement those workflows. But never would I have dreamed to be able to go that far in these 5 years, and I keep my fingers crossed that I will be given to pursue this work after this funding phase.

Materiality on a Scooter (@ Ribaltone’s with Toni Bernhart)

When I was 12, I discovered in an old family house (which used to be, in the 18th century or so, a post house) a whole bunch of papers – pictures, household accounts, letters – retracing the family history. I put it all in a trunk and thought I should either bring it to the local archive (but was afraid they would not take it because it was not so old and not so interesting) or at least protect them from decay, cold, heat, rain, fire… When I next considered actually taking care of it a few years later, dormice had brought their food and loot in the trunk and pretty much  everywhere in the room under the roof I had left the trunk in. My mother had thrown everything away months before – imagine stinking rotten eggs left in a closed room for months, with the summer’s heat warming the roof…

Deep inside of me, I am still convinced that my mother could have saved some of the material, if she had really wanted to. Part of me refuses to accept that the connection to our direct family history (though I honestly have little in common with those 19th century peasants and their struggles to sell their probably not so good wine) is now abstract, where it could have been palpable. What does materiality really mean, when it comes to archives? Should it be a purely individual, emotional access to the old piece of paper, or should it be made part of some kind of general interest? Should you be able to borrow old manuscripts from archives and bring them home on your scooter, or should they be left in their sanctuary?

Toni Bernhart and I discussed this yesterday when we started talking about the August Boeckh papers. I told him how difficult (and, in the end, expensive) it had turned out to be to spot and list the Boeckh papers (even only the ones that are in Berlin). My initial idea to take Boeckh as an exemplary corpus and to reconstruct the totality of his Nachlass in order to make it an actually tillable field for generations of scholars to come – well, it is not working  as smoothly as I had figured first. It is confronted to the fact that a random, but probably not irrelevant part of this corpus is private property. On the one hand, I understand the Boeckh family for not wanting to give away their precious treasures. On the other hand, they only want the materiality of it, and this is not really what I am looking for in the first place: I don’t want the book, I want its content – I want to see, for instance, which handwritten commentaries the margins contain (ah! the margins! I will tell you about encoding those at some point!). So I was all in all pretty happy when I discussed with Mrs. Angela Boeckh the possibility of digitizing some of it (and here goes another funding application…). But Toni Bernhart felt about that much stronger than me, saying that, especially when it comes to preserving the materiality, the only place valuables should be is a big archive like the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. He had a good point really. Of course, there could be a world war and it could all be destroyed. But it would actually take a world war – and not dormice.

The Osteria Ribaltone is an awesome restaurant, on the Viktoria-Luise-Platz in Berlin-Schöneberg. So appreciated that you really have to make a reservation if you want to be sure to get a table!

How critical should critical be? (Corpus Part Three)

I am polishing two papers connected to Louis de Beausobre, whose correspondence is the third of the four corpora we will edit first (at least part of it). As good an occasion as any other to post on that corpus and the edition problems I am seeing coming.

Louis de Beausobre was born in 1730 in Berlin as the son of the French reformed pastor Isaac de Beausobre (for those who understand French, take a little look at the French wikipedia page on him: the comparison between the French and the English version illustrate pretty well the point of my last post on wikipedia and biographies) and a much younger Prussian pastor’s daughter. Louis de Beausobre should not be mistaken with his older half-brother Charles Louis de Beausobre (1690-1753) who was a theologian and followed his father’s steps as a pastor before reaching, in the last three years of his life, the status of a member of the Berlin Academy of Science (in the theological section).

Louis’ career path is very different and it gives an accurate account of the way Frederick II. actually constituted a francophone elite in Berlin and Potsdam – beyond such symbolical measures as the invitation of d’Alembert and Diderot or the no less symbolical outcome of Voltaire’s stay in Potsdam.

Louis de Beausobre went to school at the local French Highschool (Collège Francois), where he was greatly influenced by his philosophy teacher Jean Henri Samuel Formey (who was himself in a major intellectual debt towards father Isaac de Beausobre). He then went to Frankfurt/Oder to study philosophy (the letters to Formey suggest it was mainly Baumgarten who counted as a teacher for him). I don’t think he really had a lot of occasions (or for that matter any reasons) to work on his German until that point, but it probably happened then. In 1752, Frederick, who had promised Isaac de Beausobre to support (financially, but, as it turned out, also institutionally) Louis, funded a two-year-stay in Paris. When he returned, Louis de Beausobre was received as a member of the Berlin Academy of Sciences – as a philosopher – and stayed  there until his death in 1783.

Beausobre developed a philosophy that turned out to be very close to Frederick’s. Who did influence whom? Can it be considered a tendency in terms of history of ideas, or did a few persons – among which Beausobre, who definitely profited from insider input on the Sanssouci doings – see the opportunity to create a closeness of interest with the king and seized it? The situation seems to me so intricate that it is not possible to have a clear overview of it in the current state of research – we need much more archives to be made accessible (working on it!!). Anyway, Beausobre was a skeptical philosopher just like Frederick, as I have shown in my paper “Pyrrhonismus und Politik an der Akademie der Wissenschaften um 1750” (that will be published this year in the volume Liaisons culturelles. Französisch-deutsche Kulturlandschaft um 1800, ed. by Anna Busch, Nana Hengelhaupt and Alix Winter).

The letters addressed to Beausobre and the few ones we have by him have – just like for the other corpora – a specificity I have to somehow make fit into our general editorial guidelines. Ironically enough, what I first considered would be easier to handle in that corpus than in others is now worrying me: the language. For the German texts, we have established clear rules as to what belongs to the diplomatical and what belongs to the critical version of the text (concerning the difference between diplomatical and critical, see this post and this presentation of the edition in German). Writing out abbreviations in the critical part I can implement on a French text, no question. But what I am confronted with now – and it will be the case in other corpora for sure – is that 1) the gap between 18th century French and today’s French seems to me to be bigger than between 1800-German and today’s German and 2) People who are no native speakers and still write in French because it is the usual communication language in Europe in the 18th century make mistakes or write in such an approximate way that makes it even harder to understand. So now I have to choose: Should I be “more critical” with the French texts than with the German ones, and correct things I assume are not “readable”? While taking a look at René-Marc Pille’s dissertation on the French letters by Adelbert von Chamisso last week, I found for instance a letter to a mister “Chamuseau”: as long as it is a person’s name, we have a way to tag and identify it as the Chamisso it actually is. But for substantives, verbs? I am afraid the over-correction would drag me too far though, and I think that in the end the French texts might be rather “less critical” than the German ones. So: polish your 18th-century French to get ready to Beausobre (and his German correspondence partners who write in French to him)!

Source: The first Beausobre manuscripts we will edit are preserved at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin-PK.


My first thoughts on Frederick and pyrrhonism are to be found in the edition of Frederick I was part of until recently, in the volume: Friedrich der Grosse – Philosophische Schriften, ed. by me and Brunhilde Wehinger in 2007 (Akademie-Verlag Berlin)

The second paper I was mentioning is called “Louis de Beausobre, entre cour et Académie. La correspondance d’un intellectuel francophone en Prusse au XVIIIÈme siècle” and will be published in: Entrer en communication de l’âge classique aux Lumières, ed. by Pierre-Yves Beaurepaire and Heloise Hermant, Paris, Classiques Garnier, in preparation for 2012.



What is life about anyway? (follow-up to: My hate affair with Wikipedia)

Scholars like me constantly need to check on biographical background on authors, politicians, etc. who lived in the period they work on. Be it in a letter, in a protocol, on a margin – you find a name and need additional information. What do you need and what does wikipedia give you?

First case: you have no idea who that person is and need a complete briefing. It happens often enough that some of the people that were intellectually active in the early 19th century have now disappeared in the limbo of the non-canonical and have hence been almost erased from the history of literature. In this case, there is most of the time not much to expect from a wikipedia biography. For instance, the French bio on Louis de Beausobre is a mix-up of information on both Beausobre brothers, who lived 30 years apart and whose careers have little in common.

Second case: you know who the person is, but need some additional information. When was it that he published this book, was he really friends with this or that person… This is also the kind of things you look for when preparing for a class (now how many husbands did Caroline Michaelis/Schlegel/Schelling have again, etc.). The problem is, you need that information to be reliable and precise. Wikipedia provides so much as no guarantee on that. See the English Boeckh bio:  the inconsequence between the title “Philipp August Böckh” and the first line “August Böckh” is obvious and does not suggest there was a serious double checking. (Boeckh never carried the name “Philipp”, but at some point, somebody transcribed his title “Dr. phil. August Boeckh” into a “Dr. Philipp August Boeckh” and this mistake has been carried on for centuries – but the official diplomas you can find in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin-PK make it explicit that is in fact a mistake).

One first problem with the scholarly use of biographies is that we need something that is easily accessible online but reliable. Wikipedia provides the first, but not the second.

Let’s assume it would. Let’s assume we would have the right dates in the right order – person x born here and then, published this and that, with links to the corresponding texts that are available online.

But then, either it presents itself as a series of bullet points, ordered by date or theme, in which case there is no space for general information on the evolution of friendships on a large period of time, on the character of the person, etc. Or there actually is a biographical narrative backing the whole thing up. A quick comparison between the strictly biographical part of the French Derrida bio and the German one  shows the obvious advantage of the latter on the former – be it only because of the unnecessary repetition of information in the French one.

But Derrida is a complicated case, because it is so close to us and we have so little distance to his work that it is hard to talk about it without being, somehow, part in it. Let’s take a more objectivable example. Let’s take the German Dorothea Tieck bio, which I can say for sure is good. What is so good about it?

It provides reliable information on her life, her character, her work. It is clearly structured. And most important: the narrative allows the reader to figure out, in a few lines, what the main tensions in her life were, in which context she has been writing, what kind of person she was. It is, in a sense, a work of art. I mean it that way, too. Because it obviously corresponds to the way that we consider biographies should be conceived today. Compare it with the article from the Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie and you will see how contingent – and historically ideological – these narratives are.

Because it is not possible to provide with a narrative and to remain neutral, biographies are bound to be faced with criticism concerning their credibility. I don’t think that adding them – that is, providing all the possible sources of information in parallel like it could be possible online, for the user to compare them – can satisfactorily solve that problem. But it should, in any case, address it.

Patching Part One: This Edition

While migrating my blog to hypotheses.org, I seem to have lost some of my original posts  in the meanders of the world wide web. Here are two of them explaining the big idea of this edition:

#1: What’s in there for you?

Dated Oct. 5th, 2011

I intended to present each corpus of the edition in detail, but I have decided to start with an overview.

The digital edition reflects only partly the four big orientations of the project itself. Those four questions are:

1) To what extent did the creation of the University contribute to the representation and understanding the teachers and professors developed of themselves as Intellectuals?

2) To what extent did this self-consciousness of Prussian intellectuals construct itself as a reaction to the French presence in Prussia? (what is meant by that is of course not only the military presence of Napoleonian troops, but also the scholarly and literary domination of Berlin by the French since Frederick II.)

3) Which strategies were developed to establish oneself as a writer? (trying to differentiate here between male and female strategies)

4) How can you gain a political statement from a scholarly or literary work?

I conceived those four focus points before I even hired my team. They brought their own interests and research history: Anna Busch has already written her dissertation on the publisher Julius Eduard Hitzig (see her blog), Selma Jahnke is working on a dissertation on Helmina von Chézy (yes, this is a wikipedia link – in German though) and Sabine Seifert is also working on a dissertation on August Boeckh (and here I am very sorry to have to put the English wikipedia link since it is not accurate: his name is NOT Philipp August, but just August – Sabine will explain that at some point) and Friedrich von Raumer. And there are other people on the team, working on smaller subcorpora for their Bachelor or Master thesis…

Then the digital edition came along, not as a small byproduct, but as our common project. We have divided it in the following subcorpora (which I will present in more detail in further posts):

1) The French in Berlin: this corpus is destined to contain several subcorpora that will (hopefully) shed light on the different aspects of this presence. The first one (planned for the first deliverables) will be an important part of the passive correspondance of Louis de Beausobre which I found at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin-PK (since I can’t seem to find a wikipedia link on Louis de Beausobre, I will post on him soon, promise).

2) Science and politics: this is Sabine’s corpus, dealing with the way University professors and Academy members took part in politics on an Academical level.

3) Romantic texts: this is Anna’s corpus, mainly work manuscripts she found at the Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin in the Hitzig papers. At least one of the texts will be published in March 2012.

4) Friday Society: this corpus contains the correspondence of this literary and scholarly society that met in Berlin between 1802 and 1849.

5) Tieckiana: this subproject contains various works and letters by the Romantic writer Ludwig Tieck that were not published so far or published only in a shortened/censored version. We will publish the youth drama Roxane and the correspondence with his friend Friedrich von Raumer in March 2012, both coming from the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin-PK.

New corpora are intended to be added in a later step: Classics Lecture Notes (lectures given by F.A. Wolf and Solger in the summer 1818 will come first) and unpublished texts and letters by the Romantic writer Adelbert von Chamisso are the ones that should be added next.

You can learn more about those corpora and about the way we connect them to our teaching if you come by our poster (I will be there together with my TEI expert Sabine) at the TEI MM and annual conference in Würzburg next week!


#2: Digital Edition “Das intellektuelle Berlin um 1800”

Dated Sept. 23rd, 2011

The Digital Edition of the junior research group is a work in progress. It is probably bound to stay a work in progress for a long time, but we hope to go online with a first set of texts by the beginning of 2012.

This edition has two main aims. The first one is to make texts available that have not been published so far or have only been partially published. The second aim is to use the newly published corpus to develop methods that can help describe the intellectual networks in Berlin at the beginning of the 19th century in a more accurate way.

The picture on this page shows a screenshot of what the front-end of the edition should roughly look like: the darker orange upper border lists the different corpora; the lighter orange one allows different types of access to the queries. The main window is composed of a digitization of the manuscript on the left side and its transcription on the right side. The transcription can be visualized either in a form that is totally adequate to the manuscript (“diplomatisch”) or in a commented form (“kritisch”) or in the form of the originary XML-file.

I will be posting our specific encoding guidelines soon. They reflect our restless efforts to respect the TEI-Guidelines without getting lost in details…