Brandenburg Musings

Yesterday was a glorious September Sunday and we were off to Kunersdorf, on Chamisso’s traces. Sabine, Selma, Anna, Johanna, Janin, Maud and I took first a train to Eberswalde, then a train to Wriezen, where we had rented bikes. And so as the sun started shining through the clouds at 1 PM, we were pedaling towards Kunersdorf’s church. The church is not only, as you can see, cute and original, it is also one of the only two that were ever rebuilt in GDR times.

Kunersdorf is the Brandenburg village in which Chamisso spent the summer of 1813 botanizing and incidentally writing his later successful novel Peter Schlemihl. By then, he was received in the castle of the nobleman who had invited him, Count of Itzenplitz. The castle did not survive the destructions of Second World War, but the park, the attendants’ lodging and a colonnade are still here to keep their memory alive. It is in the attendants’ lodging that the Kunersdorfer Musenhof is being hosted, where we could admire a small exhibition dedicated to Chamisso in general and Peter Schlemihl in particular. An original edition, several illustrated ones, translations were displayed, and showed how easily you could write a whole a history of literature based on such a major work, its dissemination, diffusion, reception.

There was another reason why we wanted to go to to Kunersdorf on that specific day. It was our last chance to see the German- Polish exhibit “Salons und Musenhöfe”.

This wandering exhibit is moving from one muse court to another, on historical spots on both sides of the Oder. It is only one part of a project that also includes installing information tables on the historical places as well. For instance, Janin prepared the table on castle Ziebingen, which like most of the places in the project does not exist any more, but were a place for reknowed intellectual and artistic get-togethers at the beginning of the 19th century.

(Janin being proud of her text (or shy?))

The exhibit showed how difficult it is to reconstruct sociability. There are – obviously – no recordings left,  only a few diary entries: it is almost only letters  or late (auto)biographies that provide testimonies, but testimonies that intend to show themselves under a singular light. Almost no cross-checking is possible, and it is sometimes not even possible to be sure about the persons who actually were part of one circle or the other. For big cities, such a cross-checking is often possible, be it only because there were much more persons involved in the sociability. On the countryside – it became obvious while we were riding our bikes thinking it should have been horses going through thick  forests in which one could only too easily get lost  – the isolation makes a strong contrast to such a city as Berlin, even on a 19th century scale. Once they had reached your east-prussian castle, you were bound to get to know your guests really well. One stayed over not for lunch, but for a couple of months, came with the whole family, trunks and stuff. Many of the descriptions of the Prussian Capital City as some kind of Babylon really only makes sense in comparison with those isolated castles. And it makes the comparison between urban and country societies even more interesting.

After a walk through the exhibits and the park, we could see that the sense for that kind of sociability was certainly kept alive by our hostess Margot Prust. While having a delicious cake and coffee in the Musenhof’s garden, we discussed – as you can see – the next cool feature of our digital edition.

Of ghosts and metadata

While writing my paper for the Biography Conference and writing my paper for the Frankoromanistentag and trying to finish up the grant application for the Boeckh Encyklopädie and settling on the OCR issue, thus turning my intention to very different fields and objects, I have been wondering which of the research objects I am manipulating are real and alive and which are more speculative and less substantial, constructions of a ghostly nature if you want.

It was Markus Schnöpf who gave me the first hunch when we discussed the composition of the Berlin Digital Humanities Group and he underlined how important the museology fraction is. I was not really able to process all the implications of that consideration in that moment. I only thought: The hegemony of text sciences is a very narrow point of view, come to think about it. I have been so infatuated in texts for so long that I forgot that other items can be placed on the same level as texts. Especially items that have just the same archival function: the function to keep things alive through memory. But are archives alive, or are they only ghostly versions of what they used to be, fading away, unsubstantial, flickering flames? Are stones or papyri more alive than texts? Do we need the original materiality, the manuscript itself, almost as an object of adoration, to keep things like texts alive – knowing perfectly well that they decompose anyway, never stay the same, never are the same than they just have been a second before?

Then the ghosts turned up again in another, completely different discussion. While Laurent was (yet again) trying to convince me to have the OCRs done (don’t worry, Laurent, I am convinced now), he said to me that images like scans without searchable (even badly OCRed) text were invisible, nonexistent as digital research items. Here are my ghosts!, I thought. Unsubstantial images that are connected to nothing. What makes digital ghosts is their lack of connection, of traceability, their absence of metadata. Metadata are existence factors.

I understand and accept the crucial role metadata play in the digital world. Do I really have a choice about that? Whomever refuses to admit that metadata play such a central role inevitably gets lost in the feeling that the web is unstructured, that you can as much find anything as you can find nothing, that it is all a big fascinating whirl you cannot have any kind of grip on. A dance of shapeless ghosts. In that sense, I don’t think that any form of digital science can do without a really deep epistemological thinking on metadata and their structure. In other words: it is essential that we, the researchers, take part in the shaping of the metadata that are relevant for our field. And that we do it now, because in twenty years, we will only have our eyes to cry because others have done it for us in a way that does not fit our research objects.

On the other hand, it can and should not all be about the metadata. If I consider things not from a structural point of view, but from the point of view of the inevitably super-specialized research that makes me want to go to work every day, metadata are dead. Real life is elsewhere. Real life is when meaning emerges, and meaning can emerge from anything, but most likely it emerges from something. From a manuscript, from a discussion, from a fight for a scholarship that is able to see ghosts and keep their trace – whether alive or not.


Positively Dawesome Feature

There is no such word as dawesome, I know. But I could not think of an adjective starting with a d that would express fully my enthusiasm for our progress on the production of pdf-files on the basis of our XML/TEI documents.

It is only natural that a publisher would not be very accommodating when you come to him saying: “Hey, we will have everything online first: would like you to then make a book out of it?”. As much as I understand the publisher’s  reluctance though, fact is that this is what we need (and by we I don’t just mean me, but also the scientific community at large). The digital edition of the Encyklopädie will provide a dynamical work and query environment.  What should the paper version provide for?

I gave that question some thought yesterday and came up with a list of ideas and questions:

On the level of a single dataset

  • 2 buttons: pfd this document / pdf this page
  • On each pdf:

–          Metadata in italic on top

–          Abbreviations expanded

–          No line breaks, no gaps, no unclear passages, no strikethrough

–          Additions appear, being marked as different from the text (bold?)

–          Page breaks marked (page nb?)

–          What about third hands? Do we keep them in the pdf?

–          Changes in script (latin/german) marked

–          In case of marginalia, separation of the text’s body in 2 columns (maybe we need to encode this in the XML document?)

–          Tagged persons, works, places are ignored

–          <note> with a resp-attribute at the bottom of the page (separated by a short line)

–          Act and scene appear at the top of the page

–          Styles for titles to be defined

–          Possibility to generate several pdfs depending on the text layer? (Boeckh-Encyklopädie)


On the level of a subcorpus (1 „pdf this subcorpus“ button)

–          Front page (define styles)

–          Add a table of contents after front page (with page numbers)

–          Index of persons, works and places: after the main text – with or without page numbers?(the pdf is not supposed to be there to search something…)


In the following minutes, Anna reacted by saying we need to show gaps, etc. And it turned out, especially, when Bertrand Gaiffe sent us the first conversions he had made (without having gotten much information from us as to what we want), that it would be much better to work with a double footnote apparatus than with a second column.

Of course, making pdfs doesn’t equal making a book, by far. But concerning the Encyklopädie for instance, it would offer the possibility to generate a pdf for each historical layer of the text (1809, 1810/11, 1816, etc.), and the book version would provide for a recapitulation of the text in the version of 1865. My fear (that we would in the end not do something so much different from what Bratuschek did in 1877, e.g. a cumulative compilation) would not be justified. We really are doing something different. And we hope to find a publisher that sees the potential and the meaning of this too.

There is still a lot of work to do there. I hope to be able to post a nice sample in a few days already!


A musical, a serious discussion, an information overload and a yiipee!

Yesterday was the day when we had our first digital edition meeting in a long time.  Everyone noticed the fact that is was overdue: it lasted almost three hours. I usually try to avoid that kind of length, but there was too much to discuss. We started preparing our first big official presentation of the edition (or launch if you want); we discussed the pdf issue; we did some general brainstorming on a few transcriptions that were not to easy to decipher, and Alex explained to us (in a first attempt to reach the deeper regions of our brains) how an eXist database works. In the aftermath, e.g. today, I also discussed with him what I wanted to try and implement for the Boeckh edition and what should be the next big steps for the digital edition in general. Busy, busy…

The presentation of the edition will have four parts: in the first 10 minutes, I will present the general concept of the edition (the 2 columns, the 6 views, and how this reflects the way our cooperation partners are involved in the project). Then, Sabine  and some students from our last class will present the correspondence corpora, showing what kind of novel information can be retrieved from our edition. The third part will consist in Anna and Johanna presenting the work manuscripts. And in the end, when (hopefully) everyone is wondering how this is all working, Alex will explain a few technicalities. Since we will have many speakers, everyone of us will have to make an effort to speak briefly. Most of all, we will have to rehearse the relay-passing-part of the presentation, so that we don’t lose too much time and attention of the audience in between the speakers. I always thought this is what preparing a musical is like (something I haven’t completely given up on doing one day). We will see in a few weeks if we are so good at dancing, singing, smiling, looking totally relaxed and enjoying the fun…

On the pdf side, I was very eager to hear what arguments there would be for and against the idea of making pdfs of our digital edition available per mouse click. Alex’ main argument was derived from the open-access idea of the edition itself: since it is realized with public funding, we could consider that we owe it to the taxpayer to make a version available that allows a smoother readability. I still do not have a clear idea of which of our 5 views (obviously, the scans are not concerned) should be turned into a pdf (maybe one of them, maybe either one of them, maybe all, maybe a combination,…). I admit that it is a tempting idea, but it would involve a huge time investment for Alex. For that reason, I have postponed this part to later in the winter. We should first work on the Boeckh corpus to see how we can harmonize the metadata we have from the various Berlin archives in various formats and merge them with the rest of our Boeckh data. Granularity, my friend, we will have a serious discussion in a few weeks, be prepared!

I could finish this post by telling you about the eXist database and why there are stylesheets and scripts involved and why the XSLT stylesheet is called a stylesheet although it is more a script and why it is that some browsers show our Geminationsstriche in an almost decent way while some others show some absurd dash in the middle of nowhere. But the information overload during that part of the meeting prevented me from actually sorting out the explanations while I heard them, so I don’t think it would be a great help if I tried to explain that. Instead, let me tell you that Alex suggested that we add some kind of timeline within the diplomatical transcription of Boeckh’s Encyklopädie, which would allow to display the different text versions in an efficient, intuitive and simple way. To this idea, I have only one thing to say: Yiipee!