Setting experiments

I love saying I am doing experiments. It sounds so serious, so mature, so not like writing complicated (and maybe absurd) theories on letters as paradigms for literary texts as pieces of paper that always miss their destination like I did this afternoon…

Here is what the experiment consists in, for a sober evening (with Simon and Garfunkel cheering me up though).

The aim is to figure out how legitimization mechanisms in Wikipedia biographies work. We (Christof and I) divided this one question in the following ones:

1) How much weighs scholarly reputation?

2) Is a manuscript proof worth as much as a printed source?

3) Are those legitimization mechanisms different from one country to another?

4) To what extent do those mechanisms contribute to / rely on an existing canon?

Accordingly, I will tonight work on wikipedia biographies:

1) Under my actual name and under a pseudonym;

2) With reference to manuscripts only I know, reference to obscure publications, reference to well known publications;

3) On German, French and English articles (in the three languages for each person I write a bio on);

4) On people quite well known, on people known a little bit, on people only I know (which should not be a problem thanks to my 200 entries in the index of persons)

Wish me luck! I promise to tell you how it turns out in a couple of weeks (and only to put things I know that are true on wikipedia)

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.

What’s in a Boeckh?

I have already mentioned August Boeckh several times in the past (here, here and here for instance), but never presented the importance of the Boeckh part in the big picture of my project. Since we will have a team meeting in a couple of days, this seems to be a good time for a recapitulation on the workflow and the objectives.

First, let me tell you how I came to working on August Boeckh! When I developed my project on Berlin intellectuals around 1800, I thought that there was nothing new to find on the “big” intellectuals in the archives, nothing unknown to edit and possibly not so many new, clever ways of working on printed material without repeating what had already been said. I would still argue that when it comes to Fichte, Hegel, Humboldt, which are personae I avoid working on frontally. But at some point, I had to re-ask myself what is a “big” and what is a “small” intellectual, since there are obviously some in-between categories, some “mediumly important” intellectuals whose life and work were not as much over-explored as I had first thought. August Boeckh and his papers happened to be an almost completely unexplored territory.

August Boeckh belongs to the generation of young scholars that built up the Berlin University. Wilhelm von Humboldt had by far not done all the work that was necessary for the University to be a stable academic environment when he left his ministry. It is in the years between 1811 and 1820, the so-called “Gründerjahre”, that the relations between the faculties were clarified (the first status had planned an explicit hierarchy that put the Philosophical Faculty in the last place), the way to react to structural aporias like a conflict between University Senate and University Rector was settled, a University Library was organized, etc., etc. August Boeckh came to Berlin in 1811 and stayed there until his death in the 1860s. He served the University and the Academy of Science, was in contact with all major Academies in Europe, started the first Academy Project (a project still running by the way) on Greek inscriptions. He was Professor of Philology, but his activities inside the University extended to being officially appointed at giving all official speeches (first in Latin, then in German) and to leading the Philological Seminary, which he founded and directed until his death. He was a central part of the intellectual puzzle I am trying to reconstruct, at the intersection of politics (see the contents of his speeches), science policy (see his relationships with Alexander von Humboldt), University structure (he was dean and rector several times) and training the elite that made 19th century Germany.

Needless to say, he was a major figure in Classical Philology, so his printed work is solidly known, it was printed and re-printed. But there remains much to learn about his work at the University and at the Academy of Sciences. This is the dissertation topic I suggested to Sabine Seifert when I hired her to work in the group and that she has been exploring for a year and half now. Before I had that funding, I had been working with three other persons from the Humboldt University trying to figure out where to begin, how to proceed: Thomas Poiss, a Hellenist who had already published on that topic, Colin King, a Philosopher working for the August-Boeckh Antikezentrum and Christiane Hackel, a Historian who had worked on Droysen’s reception of Boeckh in her Masters thesis.

We are now working in three directions:

1) August Boeckh papers: in cooperation with the Berlin archives who hold manuscripts by Boeckh, we are putting together an overview of what there is left. The decision to begin with the Berlin manuscripts is a pragmatical one; of course, it should extend to all manuscripts in a further step. As much as I think it will be doable on a national scale, I am afraid it will become more complicated when we include all lecture notes from his classes, since he gave a lot of them, with a lot of public, and this kind of manuscripts are mostly to be found in the USA. The core of the workflow on this part of the project is really the coordination with the institutions. The idea is to work in XML in order to make the data exportable to the kalliope database and likely to be enriched in both directions (us getting info from kalliope, kalliope getting info from us). We have a whole bunch of datasets now (thanks to the funding of the De Gruyter Stiftung that allowed us to hire Julia Doborosky to do most of that work – I paid another big part of it with my Caroline von Humboldt award money, it seemed only fair…).

2) August Boeckh book collection: I explained here how the University Library of the Berlin University was born and how long it took before it became part of the University overall concept. Boeckh knew very well how important the University Library is for the institution. He donated all his books to the University Library after his death. Those books (very few of them were kept by the family) were then added to the existing stock without being systematically recorded. Some have an ex-libris, some do not. Some were listed by Boeckh on the handwritten catalogue he also donated, half of them were not. Boeckh’s list contains about 6000 items. Until now, we moved on two fronts in parallel: one is an XML/TEI information on each entry of Boeckh’s catalogue (identifiying the book, the edition, the volume, and then trying to find the corresponding volume in the University Library). The other is a less exhaustive list of books that can be identified on the basis of the ex-libris catalogue. We will have to merge these two at some point. The cooperation with the University Library Laurent and I have been working out a couple of weeks ago consists like in point 1) in putting up a workflow that allows mutual data enrichment. The final aim is a digitization program that will allow to virtually reconstruct Boeckh’s library (with the big advantage that his own books contain his personal remarks and notes in the margins…). One of the inputs I am expecting from this part of the project is insight in the mechanisms of reception and genesis: Which works of Classical Literature did Boeckh use? How differently could he refer to a source depending on the output he was planning to reach?  Combined with the lecture notes I evoked in point 1), one question that fascinates me is to what extent he would use his sources differently in his lectures and in his published works, where the censorship mechanisms, the public are not the same.

Which takes us to:

3) the edition of Boeck’s Enzyklopädie oder Methodologie der Philologischen Wissenschaften: this is a class Boeckh gave 26 times within 56 years, always based on the same handwritten set of notes. The first draft dates back to 1809 and Boeckh kept enriching it afterwards. The only existing edition of it was realized in the late 19th century by a student of his who wanted to render the totality of Boeckh’s thought, so that there is no trace  of the genesis of the work to be found there. The original manuscript of that very set of notes is held by the Archive of the Berlin Academy of Sciences, and a first transcription reconstructing the different moments of the genesis of the work has been realized in the 1980s, without being finished or published. What we want to do is start from there to realize a hybrid edition (digital in XML/TEI + paper) offering the possibility to collate (is that the right word for “kollationieren”?) the different text versions. We are working on the funding application right now, which is why we will be meeting on tuesday…

And as for myself, one of the very interesting questions I am working on for this summer is in which form or how to include all this material in the exist-database and present it together with the digital edition.

If you want to read the most recent publications on this:

* Romy Werther published an edition of the correspondence between August Boeckh and Alexander von Humboldt.

* Thomas Poiss published a paper dealing among other things with Boeckh’s speeches in my volume Netzwerke des Wissens. Das intellektuelle Berlin um 1800

… and contact me if you want more!


Writing blog posts takes too much time, they say…

I give you my quintessence of the last 2 papers of the Weblogs conference –

In a short, but intense paper, Hubertus Kohle presents a series of theses. The first one being that blogging and a peer review is a contradiction in terms. The quality of a blog post, says Kohle, depends on its quick access, on its making a good and clear point, on it being short – all qualities that get lost if you want to fit in the criteria of traditional scholarly peer-reviewing. He also states: the posts that are most commented  are the shortest and most personal ones (if I may ask: what is short? what is personal?). He pleads for the definition of criteria for blogs as a singular type of publications, combining quantitative and qualitative aspects.

Peter Haber explores legitimation mechanisms, comparing analog and digital media. Books (monographs especially as the ‘golden’ standard for scholarly publishing) have long established reception mechanisms. Haber then explains how papers have become more and more important and with them peer-reviewing, before he comes to blogs. Blogs tend to contribute more and more to increasing scholarly reputation (especially in the US and in the domain of DH). In his view, blogs should be better embedded in all the other publication mechanisms.

His last point concerns  the flood of digital information scholars potentially have to deal with. He presents the portal “Global Perspectives on Digital History”  that should soon offer a compendium of rss-feeds. Filtering is the key! – I can only agree after all the tweets I had to deal with today…


Blog-ray exposure (Weblogs in Munich Part 3)

The first afternoon session presents existing blogs. Maybe I will finally understand what makes a good blog. So far, my conclusion was that the traffic on a blog defines its official success. But on the other hand, a scholarly blog with 15 visitors that are “the right ones” is also considered successful. All in all, I still don’t understand what success looks like for a scholarly blog. The number of visits combined with the number of quotations or links? The number of commentaries? The number of tweets? Or maybe nothing that could be summarized in numbers? Let’s see…

Eva Pfanzelter talks about “Blogging the holocaust” and, among others, the controversial blogs you can find on that topic. She demonstrates that it is not the scholarly institutions that are key influences in the holocaust blogging. She does not speak about censorship (I would tend to go that direction, but I am not a historian… which also explains why I did not even tweet in this session: I had the feeling I did not really know all the underlying debates). She refuses to open the page of the holocaustdeniers blog though. Should we refuse to click on them by principle, because it increases their ranking as a blog? It is just not possible to get control over such blogs. So , should scholarly blogging have primarily pedagogical virtues in order to fight off this kind of  “sucessful” blogs?

Klaus Graf presents “Archivalia“. Considering the amount of posts he is responsible for, it is only natural he might adress the question whether a scholar who does not blog has to be considered a bad scholar. He evokes a thesis we already heard a couple of time: Scholarly blogging is more blogging about scholarship than blogging on scholarly contents (which would be some kind of pre-print function). Klaus Graf gives examples where blogging on Archivalia actually brought science one step further: unidentified manuscripts available on wikicommons, could be identified by experts from everywhere around the world (on the other hand: what guarantee do you have that a commentary on a blog post is serious – back to the review / peer-review theme.

Georgios Chatzoudis presents L.I.S.A., das Wissenschaftsportal der Gerda-Henkel-Stiftung. He opens on the question whether the degree of interactivity is only to be measured by the amount of commentaries you get to a blog post. According to him, consulting a blog post has to be considered like interaction (meaning that the main question is the one of traffic). Another way of implementing interactivity on the portal is the organization of live chats, facebook interviews, tweeten auf Tagungen, skype-interviews, instant messaging, and a lot more. How do they keep track? I find twitting and blogging are demanding enough if you want to still have some time to actually do research…