Halloween Creeps: diplomatics and interdisciplinarity

While I was hoping to move on towards more peaceful times and actually be able to work, this week has proven (yet again) that it will always be a daily struggle to manage to find said peace.

The edition project of  Boeckh’s Encyklopädie died a sudden death. Part of the reasons for that is the fact that we wanted to have both a diplomatic transcription and a reading version. As this is one of main features of our edition, it freaked me out to see that a complete denial of the scholarly meaning of such a work is indeed not only possible, but also powerful in the system in general.

The first aspect of this is the difficulty to have the concept of an edition that is oriented towards a research question actually be recognized as serious editorial work. The legitimization pressure over an edition like mine in comparison with historical-critical editions is huge. I wonder whether it is so strongly the case in non-German Humanities. It certainly is a massive hurdle for us and I suspect that it will take a while until our edition is not considered like just a nice little project that kept 6 young women busy until they gave up their academic career and took care of their kids. Us working half-time in a nice historical-critical edition would certainly be much better accepted by scholarly hierarchy in general. Plus, we would actually have time to pick up the kids at school every day! Wouldn’t that be optimal for everybody?

This also has to do with the larger question of scholarly authority and the acceptance that editorial work is interpretation. There are several ways of editing the same text, there are several ways of working on the same source. Refusing to share a source and have different interpretations of it offered to the scholarly community is plainly scary. Would there have been only one single way to establish a text, philology would not have progressed like it did over the last centuries. Not to mention all other sciences.

Anyway, the Encyklopädie will have to wait for a more favorable hour.

The meeting of yesterday evening was of a completely different sort but it also lead me to think about the way I see the balance between work-that-is-accepted-and-recognized-by-my-scholarly-community on the one side and work that has to do with my personal vision of science, and pleasure in it on the other side. Twice a year, the network “Berlin der Begegnung” meets, usually for discussions that I like because they are outside my daily horizon. The discussion with Günter Stock yesterday was, for a change, fully in my horizon – and turned out to be at least as interesting as it usually is. Starting from the question of the role Humanities should play in big funding programs like Horizon 2020, Stock asked us how we manage to implement interdisciplinarity in our daily job and what we would want to change to make it easier to implement. Frank Noé said in the course of the discussion that the main obstacle is the disciplinary profile of professor positions and I fully agree with that. You can get superb fundings for interdisciplinary work for years as a post-doc, and when you get to the point where you want some stability in the form of a professor position, you have the wrong cards in your hands.

How do you work with other disciplines, other projects, other methods? You talk, and talk, and talk, and then you write in common. But mostly, it takes meeting after meeting to find a common language. What I miss most is the recognition of that kind of work as a qualification. All this time I spend trying to generate synergies or whatever you want to call it, to make traditional humanists and digital humanists talk to each other, is just as much time that I don’t have to write my book. And when it comes to getting a professor position, what counts is the book first.

(Why is it again that I am blogging instead of working on my book?)

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…


Seeing the edition with new eyes

The room was full, it was dark outside, the light went down and the show began!

The presentation itself really was a moment of joy for me, seeing things take shape that we had been working on so hard for a year and half. Every one of the 6 speakers (including me) had about 10 minutes to present his or her part. It was not possible to talk about everything and we focussed mainly on the literary aspects. I retrospectively regretted not talking about all the history of science-part and not mentioning such heavy problems as long time archiving. But we were not there to complain, so it was probably better that way. And the students’ presentations (Janine Katins and Johanna Preusse) were so good that it would have been a pity not to let them present their work at length just for the sake of trying to talk about each and every aspect.

There was no questions session after the presentation. I was dreading a mix of literary and technical questions that would inevitably be boring for one half of the audience or the other. The discussion took place in little groups, half in the room, half by the drinks table outside the room.I think every found whom they wanted to talk to – the TELOTA team talking to Alex, the professors talking to the students…

Many of those who came to me said they now see our digital edition with new eyes. I was at a loss. For me, what we had done was the exact opposite of that: not shedding a new light on it, but shedding its true light on it. I was so busy processing this information that I completely forgot to ask for explanations. Anna thinks that these commentaires mean that our edition is not self-explaning, which was what we had been wanting to do. This is probably one thing we will have to consider indeed.

I keep hoping though that it is not just that. Maybe it is the way we connect the literary interpretation to the digital edition that was not necessarily obvious. We who produce the edition do not only produce it for our readers or in order to reach a great text mass that the computers shall some day be able to analyze by themselves, we also learn and interpret extremely fine literary phenomens. Decoding the manuscript and re-encoding it in XML/TEI is interpretation, maybe that was the novelty of it.

Grapes and Cheese

Monday is, if not *the* big day, at least *a* big day. We will be doing our first presentation of the digital edition as a group. Although a home game, this is pretty exciting and I have been completely absorbed by the preparation since I came back from my vacation. In fact, it looks like I will be so until Monday, 6 PM, beginning of the presentation.

Of course, many things have not reached the completion I had hoped for on this big day. Not only do we have annoyingly few texts online: many of them do also not conform the latest developments of our editorial guidelines. The web interface is o.k., but the colors and image/text blocks still a bit clunky. The mix of German and English in some of the automatically generated popups has not been harmonized. I could go on and on like that. Even considering that none of the encodings could have been absolutely perfect, many things could have been more perfect.

I have been trying to hire someone for a whole year now, mainly to get some help on the encoding part, which would enable me to concentrate more on the  conceptual part. Of course I need to encode by myself, but it should not take too much time on the schedule of the person who is suppose to lead and coordinate (this being said not out of  laziness, but more of pragmatism). As a result (and this has been going on for a while), I have been very unsatisfied by the disproportion between the edited text mass and the conception of the whole. The conceptual part has moved on a great deal: I know perfectly well which are the directions we will be going for the next (and last) 2 and half years of the project. But not being able to realize this vision on the scale of a significant text quantity is somewhat frustrating. The gap between what I envision and what is being done is too big.

Looking back at what I was saying a year ago, I should actually be happy to have been able to move on with such impetus on  the conceptual part, and feel satisfied to be so cool on that topic now. I remember then – a year ago, when I first started blogging! – that I was restlessly trying to move on conceptually one step faster than the rest of the team. And  I did not have the feeling that I was managing that at all. Hiring Alex was the first big improvement, encoding 39 letters over the winter was the second one. Big encounters, the beginning of concrete cooperations with our main partners, helped me move one big and undoable seven-league-boots step ahead.

If I sum up what I have already transcribed that is waiting to be encoded, I come close to 500 to 1000 pages. Provided that I find the right funding and the right person (both of which I have been  failing at for a year), I certainly have enough material to keep him/her busy for a while – a while being in that case a couple of years. And honestly, come to think about it, I really have to find someone and a funding. But I am fed upwith filling smaller or bigger grant applications, for this or that funding or stipend, or trying to find someone with whom to apply for a funding (of course people don’t want to do that kind of things, it is too uncertain). There are still not enough digital humanists active in literary sciences. And too little flexible funding for that kind of tasks.

Second lesson: we are, up to the end of the project funding, full. If someone comes with a small corpus that fits and this person is willing to publish it in our edition, fine. But we cannot allow ourselves to add any single corpus to what is already planned, because we simply will not manage.

Third lesson: there will be (if everything goes according to plan) grapes and cheese mini-skewers after the presentation on Monday. A little sweet, a little salty, a little sweet, a little salty – a digital edition’s life on a toothpick.