Workflow intricacy

Anna is now on parental leave, but I had the amazing opportunity to have her replacement  financed for one year by the German Research Foundation (that is family-friendliness!). It is Julia Doborosky who will help the digital edition move on in Anna’s absence.

Julia belongs to the Boeckh team. She is the one who has gone through all the archival material at the University Archive, at the Academy of Sciences Archive and at the Geheimes Staatsarchiv (don’t know the correct English name for it) and thus generated 1200 entries in our Boeckh platform (which I presented in this earlier post). I also had the possibility to finance her a few months last year to begin the work on Boeckh’s list of his own books. Reconstructing Boeckh’s library is what interests her most, so this will be her primary task during her time in my group.

I find it exciting to be able to implement the change of scale I have been waiting for (by the way: things are moving on on the letters’ side as well!) also on the level of the reconstruction of Boeckh’s book collection. We will soon be able to work on linking our data with that of the Grimm-Zentrum (digitized and OCRed books that used to belong to Boeckh). To this day, Julia has transcribed 700 titles and has been bibliographically informing them. For each entry, she looks for the corresponding book in the library’s stock and if she finds Boeckh’s exemplar (recognizable by its ex-libris) and sees handwritten remarks by Boeckh in the book, she mentions it (we have an extra XML-category for that) and it is set on the digitization list. It is exciting precisely because this is not completely digital edition, not completely repository, but at the junction of both.

Less exciting is the trouble this puts us in in terms of workflow. Things were fairly clear in the last six months. When you encode, make sure no one else is working on the index. Seldom did Anna, Sabine and I had so much time to spend encoding that this would be a problem. But from now on and until the fall at last. Sabine will be preparing her edition of the documents from the philological seminar, while Julia will be working on the Boeckh book cataloge. And if by chance I actually manage to do some encoding, that makes way too many people encoding at the same time. We will definitely have to re-think our workflow. One of the major problems, namely the risk that IDs are being given two or three times, might be solved by attributing to each editor a specific letter or number to begin their IDs with (for instance I would encode my new persons with p1…, Sabine with p2… and Julia with p3…). I wonder what are the chances that we encounter the same person in parallel and then give not 1 ID to 2 persons but 2 IDs to the same person.

Sadly, my brain is not wired properly to deal with that kind of information intricacy: on the very second I suggest an adaptation of the workflow, I imagine a worst-case scenario and immediately see what kind of problems could arise from it. I hope that Alex will come up with a rational solution to this. It will in any way require really good versioning, that is for sure…

Boeckh Book – Back

The book August Boeckh. Philologie, Hermeneutik und Wissenschaftspolitik (under the direction of Christiane Hackel and Sabine Seifert) is now on the bookshelves (at least ours)! You can order it from the publishing house as book, e-book or as a combination of both.

It is the third volume in the collection “Berliner Intellektuelle um 1800” , which is so to speak the printed face of the junior research group and was conceived to bring together our work results. I directed the first volume, Netzwerke des Wissens. Das intellektuelle Berlin um 1800 (published in 2011). The second volume,  Französisch-deutsche Kulturräume. Bildungsnetzwerke – Vermittlerpersönlichkeiten – Wissenstransfer was published in 2012 under the direction of Anna Busch, Nana Hengelhaupt and Alix Winter.

The volumes 4, 5 and 6 of the collection will only appear in one to two years. Volume 4 will be the result of the correspondence + generation conference of November 2013, while volumes 5 and 6 will be Sabine’s dissertation on Boeckh and Selma’s dissertation on Helmina von Chézy. So back to work!

Ping pong with my enemy and other publication strategies

I was invited in Paris last Friday to talk about my position as a junior group leader and how to apply for it. I ended up having to answer three times in a row the question “But do you really have PhD candidates?” (after me saying exactly that a couple of times already), but I also had more satisfactory communication experiences within my 24 hours there. And there was a real spring experience involved too, and that was a blessing in these times where, in Berlin, we barely reach the freezing point at around 2 PM in the sun (only if protected from the wind).

I won’t write about the crazy Easter collection my favorite chocolate shop had on display (you can see it there and it really has nothing to do with the object of this blog), nor about the collapse of the Orlyval traffic (just as Parisian to me as the exquisite and expensive chocolate), nor about the book directed by Aurèle Crasson I bought at Gibert Joseph and have been devouring since then (on which I will certainly blog soon). I will tell you, though, that I met a PhD candidate who played ping pong with my worst (academic) enemy and managed to turn him, while playing ping pong, from angry for her not having translated his text, to a nice guy. I never imagined villains playing ping pong. With PhD candidates. And then turn nice. Somehow, something is missing in this picture of academic Small-World-iness. But I suppose I was not meant to know more about it, just to proceed my journey carrying the image of ping pong for my nightmares to deal with.

What I really want to write about is my experience concerning the way open access was discussed with PhD candidates who want to engage an academic career. Publishing the dissertation was the most interesting point, especially with PhD candidates who were settled half in France and half in Germany. In Germany, you have to publish you thesis in order to be authorized to “wear the title”. In France, you mainly have to survive a 4 to 5 hour-defense, and then you are good to go as a doctor. Although publishing the dissertation is an administrative necessity in Germany, there remain a wide range of ways to do so, within which you have to choose the best deal in terms of relation reputation/expense. I appreciated a lot the way Sabine Lammers from the Hamburger Edition presented the deals that are acceptable and those that are less interesting, and why they are to be considered so. Far from just defending the position of the publishing house she works for, she tried to give the PhD candidates a sense of the market they become part of in the very moment when they engage into the publication of their dissertation. I realized how tempting it must be for publishing houses to rush on those truly innocent preys and how many, many ways there are to squeeze money out of their need. Comparatively, and although it is still a non-canonical option in the Humanities even in France, having the possibility to make your dissertation available on TEL is not only a decent alternative, it also shows what open access means for young scholars: namely that they should care about the way they can have their work be known, not how they can have their work be sold.

To be true, I regret not having published my dissertation, because not having the book as an object in the hand means that I will never get closure with what was the greatest and the worst solitary adventure I ever had. And ever since I moved to Germany ten years ago, I have been suspecting that it would soon be fatal to me in the German academic system. It still hasn’t to this day, which I consider one of the great mysteries of my way through German Academia and will probably wonder about until retirement.

But now I really have to write my second book (which will technically be the first one). And to publish it. Am already thinking about the cover.


DH-Aphorismus Nummer 1

(Ich habe mir lange gewünscht, etwas zwischen Tweet und Blogbeitrag zu haben und habe beschlossen, diese Kurzbemerkungen in Form von Aphorismen auf dem Blog zu veröffentlichen – in der jeweils passenden Sprache)

Aphorismus Nummer 1, auf den 15. März 2013

DH sind nicht: Digitalisierungsprogramme.

DH sind: Verjüngungskur.

Encoding IS conceptualizing (non, je ne lâche pas la proie pour l’ombre)

I have been faced lately – in several forms – with the reproach that the intense work on my digital edition prevents me to do what I should actually be doing, e.g. interpreting and conceptualizing. There certainly is some truth in this. I would be the last one to say that I don’t need more time to manage to do the conceptual work. But this is only a question of time (or: this is alas indeed a question of time), since I see clearly where this part of my work is going – and it is heading towards a greater conceptual precision.

It is difficult to explain to someone who has never, ever in their whole life, seen or touched code in any kind of form, how encoding changes the way you read and hence interpret the texts. Concerning editorial work, I consider XML a major simplification when it comes to dealing with more than 20 pages. I am convinced that the kind of mind that is used to editorial work is also the kind of mind that is bound to think in tree as code does. Though at first a bit strange, XML revealed itself as a great relief  as far as editorial work is concerned. The only time I had had to do with really big data (relatively big data – at least so big that you cannot have everything in your head all the time) was my dissertation, and it was encoded too (in TeX). All other big things, books and all, I had had to do in Word, I had the feeling it was slipping through my fingers. Point one: encoding is structuring the editorial work in a way that allows it to grow a whole bit without the editor to be flooded by information. It brings structure.

But that is not really the point. What is criticized is more the fact that the digital edition becomes an autonomous project for the digital sake of it. Now, how can I prove that the encoding is a response to my research question to someone who has no idea of the systematicity of our ontologies? As annoying as this communication situation is, I find it necessary to find a way to answer that question in order to reduce (maybe someday annihilate?) the gap between “technique” and “research” (digital/traditional humanities).

Let me take two of my main research concepts as examples of the contribution of encoding to their development.

1) Communication strategies (“Kommunkationsstrategien”) is an expression I have used and abused of in the past two years. Originally, this covered more an intuition than a real research method or research object. It imposed itself to me when I realized that men and women writers were around 1800 in so radically different writing and publishing situations that it was not even possible to compare how they find their respective ways to the book market. From that point on, the difficulty was not to get locked into case studies, saying that one person did so and so and the other one so and so and having said nothing. The effort to get past the case study is one of the things I find best realized in our digital edition. We don’t edit everything that has ever been written then, but we edit texts that are representative of all the steps a text goes through: idea to write the text evoked in a letter by the author, draft of the text with its corrections, publisher’s copy,  comment in a letter of another person, review in a journal, acquisition for a personal book collection, quotation in a class. In this way of presenting the several steps in the text constitution, we have brought literary and scholarly discourses together: maybe there is some distinction that will need to be made here after all. The “communication strategies” we explore have mainly two aspects: they concern the constitution of the text itself (implementation of inner censorship in the drafts, publisher’s direct interventions) and the communication about the text (especially the ambiguous discourse inherited from the Enlightenment, connected to the expansion of the book market and its consequences on the status of the author, saying on the one hand that fine texts are only for fine people – e.g. an elite -, while on the other hand wishing for a wide public reception). The markup we developed allows to observe systematically not only the authors’ writing habits, but also interventions in the text from hands that are not the author’s. It shows clearly how the communication strategies are anchored in the genetical development of the text and in its reception as two phenonema that interact with one another.

2) Networks: There is a good reason why I have not mentioned networks in my project title. I still have no precise idea what a network is. Still, the project is most of the time referred to as “Berlin intellectual networks”.  Obviously, the digital edition will make it possible, at some point, to draw networks of persons, of works, of places – of persons and works and places and dates,  for that matter, and to trace connections between dots. Right now, I still do not see how this will improve my research results – probably because I am still a novice in this field. What I have come to realize by encoding here is that networks can be used and defined by being brought down to groups. We have begun to work on groups that will allow to observe the developement of cohorts, associating some similar biographical data and see where the dots join in the course of  lives and careers. Such groups are for instance the students from Boeckh’s philological seminar or the professors of the philosophical faculty of the Berlin University. We will soon add affiliations (to the Academy of Sciences, to Associations or scholarly Societies).

This is supported by our work on the concept of generation (see the conference we are organizing in November; conference page here), which offers an occasion to confront the history of the concepts of romanticism and classicism and see how they relate to real or fantasmatical networks. Obviously, these concepts still operate on several levels at the same time, and I tend to think that sorting out those levels might even lead to a constructive revival, at least of the concept of romanticism.

These two aspects I developed are immediately connected to the one concept I can’t hide from my title, the intellectuals. You might have noticed that I have not asked for a “”-URL after all, not being so sure about the validity of the intellectuals in the long run. There is still some work to do there. But we do have two years to do it.