A conference as we like it: “Fontanes Briefe ediert”

A guest post by Selma Jahnke and Sabine Seifert –

The Theodor Fontane Archive hosts most of Theodor Fontane’s letters – a real treasure not only for research on the author himself but for a variety of research approaches. Several attempts and efforts were made to edit parts of his correspondence but a complete edition is – even today – still a desideratum. And where could this project be realized more suitably than at the Fontane Archive itself? To think about possible projects, methods and medias of editing, specialists of different disciplines were invited to share their point of views and expertise.

In the first section of the conference, an inventory of realized correspondence editions was presented. Helmuth Nürnberger (Flensburg), the most experienced editor of Fontane letters and chief editor of the letter section of the Hanser Edition “Werke, Schriften, Briefe”, as well as Eda Sagarra (Dublin), esteemed senior researcher at Trinity College Dublin, were among the speakers, reminding of the merits of bygone studies we should keep in mind and which are still thought-provoking. The colourful evening presentation by Lothar Müller (Berlin) focused on the materiality of letters and the character of objects – aspects that always pose a challenge to preparing an edition.

Materiality of manuscripts and letters, poeticity and historical impacts were the most prominent keywords during the second section that dealt with Fontane’s letters as source material for and object of research. Thorsten Gabler (Berlin) presented Fontane’s habit of writing and then again overwriting his own texts to produce dense textures of ambiguity. This generates objects with several layers of ink as well as meaning which cannot be edited appropriately in a traditional edition without facsimiles. Michael Ewert (Munich) focused on the intersection of letters and essays as genres both in Fontane’s writings and in 19th-century literature. In their respective talks, Rudolf Muhs (London) and Christine Hehle (Vienna) approached Fontane’s letters from a historical point of view. Muhs emphasized the importance of incorporating lost letters using the example of the correspondence between Fontane and Rudolf Metzel, Fontane’s supervisor at the Prussian Press Office. Hehle discussed the difficulty to reconstruct relationships between people with the help of their letters by means of Fontane’s correspondences with Karl Emil Franzos and with Moritz Necker, that also allow for new aspects of the author’s exposure to anti-Judaism. All these presentations clearly showed the variety of facets of working with letters and how preferences differ for what an edition should accomplish.

For the last and longest section, experts of current editing projects and on today’s editing possibilities in general were invited: Yvonne Pietsch (Weimar) from the Goethe Letter Edition, Claudia Bamberg (Marburg) and Thomas Burch (Trier) from the August Schlegel Letter Edition, Peter Stadler (Detmold/Paderborn) from the Carl Maria von Weber Edition, and Daniel Hochstrasser (Zurich) from the Alfred Escher Letter Edition. Two of these editions are digital ones (Schlegel, Weber), one is printed (Goethe), one is published both digitally as well as printed (Escher), and all four of them have to deal with large amounts of letters. Patrick Sahle (Cologne, presentation online here) and Hochstrasser have been following the improvements and the professionalization of digital editions and Digital Humanities for years now. Looking at several editions in detail, both discussed the aspects that are the most important for preparing a good digital edition. Stadler emphasised the key role of standards and authority files and envisioned a linked data standard for digital letter editions in general. Wolfgang Bunzel (Frankfurt/Main) as well as Marianne Beese, Roland Berbig and Tobias Witt (Berlin) pointed to the fact how instructive visualising the networks of correspondences could be. We think this section – and the following round table – remarkable: Concerning the possibilities of digital editing, too many projects still start from scratch just imagining the advantages a digital solution might bring. Instead, they should have a look at other projects and how these dealt with the problems they encountered. Communication and exchange between projects were the general keywords. This discussion was resumed at the round table that again addressed the conditions and the potential of digital editions in general. Hanna Delf von Wolzogen, head of the Fontane Archive, plans to build a network around the archive that goes beyond this year’s conference and the one planned for 2014.

At this conference, one could see the two sides still present in textual scholarship: The one side, without any technical experience, became bored or nervous when for instance Hochstrasser illustrated his 115 criteria for digital editions. And there is the other side, familiar with XML/TEI, digital editing and web presentation, who sometimes react impatiently to the non-technical talks of ‘analogue’ philologists. But here in Potsdam, the slow progress of finding a joint way of using new possibilities without denying the old merits of tradition was pleasant to join.

Digitizing objects (#dhb_2)

Although term starts only tomorrow, it is as if I had been on business mode for a while already. The organization of the second workshop of the DH Berlin circle kept me busy all along September and it is only now that some rest is in sight – you know, the rest you get from pagan activities like writing papers and applications, spiced up by some effort to make those generate some synergy for my book (call that a chapter if you want…).

What is it with  the DH Berlin workshops, really? Looking at the big picture of my scholarly activities (like, say, what I would put on a CV to apply for a professorship in German Literature), they have an added value close to zero. This is certainly true regarding the one that took place on Friday, which dealt with “the material object in the digital world”.

You can certainly argue (and you would be right) that texts, in their materiality, are relevant as objects and as much subject to the material turn as any other matter. And pretend that the workshop had to do with texts too.  After all, there were plenty of text people at the workshop. But fundamentally, the discussion engaged was way beyond a split between digital text sciences and digital object sciences.

The three papers addressed the question of the way objects are digitally addressed from the point of view of field research (Archaeology, Elisabeth Lindinger, Berlin), museums (German Technical Museum, Johannes-Geert Hagmann, Munich) and finally libraries (Prussian State Library, Ralf Stockmann, Berlin; the slides are here). Each of them presented the way they deal with objects in their respective research/preservation/display environment. The digitization process itself was discussed from these different points of view and turned out to be a core topic.

I hate nothing more than telling people I am in DH and have them ask me what it is that I digitize. I don’t digitize anything, I am merely an occasional user of digitizations. It is always my point in such discussions to argue that DH are much more than digitization, that what I do has only marginally to do with digitization. And suddenly, on Friday, in the midst of DH people and DH people only, digitization was what structured the discussion.

As irritating as this seemed to me at first, I had to admit that starting from the digitization allows to ask the question of the conception of metadata, thesauri and databases on a pragmatic and eloquent base. The question of the richness of metadata was discussed at length and in direct connection with the question of standards. Rich metadata sets are not only expensive (in time and hence money), they might also restrict the use that other scholars or users can make of them. The difficulty is to find a balance between explicitness and openness (of data in general, but specifically of metadata in that they are at the interface of cultural heritage institutions and research for instance) that allows not only the user you always more or less have in mind (it was said at some point that the “potential user” epitomized in digital project is in general very similar to the person who conceives the project – I would add, either similar to the person or close to some fantasy they nurture of their connection to the outside world), but pretty much any user, even one that does not belong to said fantasy or one that has strictly nothing to do something with it.

In other words: how do you make metadata clever? Through the use of standards, authority files, object identifiers, of course – and preferably not local ones. But also by accumulating documentation, merging and cumulating information connected to single data sets. For instance by making the use of simple, low-budget tools accessible to smaller institutions or university collections that are often not present online at all. Or by implementing the cool “I-am-working-on-that-document” button modeled by Ralf Stockmann after the like-buttons in order to improve communication within the scholarly community and interaction on the basis of common research objects. But all of these excellent suggestions will be of no use as long as long time accessibility has not been addressed on a larger scale. In that respect, Germany should envy the TGIR Huma-Num (and Huma-Num could offer a homepage in English, I can’t seem to find it).

“The” object, digitized, connected, open, rich, as we constructed it during this afternoon spent trying to figure out ways to make ideals come true and objects work as interfaces in the digital world, seems to be still somewhere between stratosphere and troposphere. Almost there, so to speak.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do

A guest post by Sabine Seifert (almost) live from Rome – and remembering the beginnings of this blog in Würzburg in 2011, 150 blog posts ago.


It’s the third day of the TEI conference 2013 in Rome, the talks are good as is the coffee and yesterday’s poster session went very well. The obligatory poster poetry slam was fun – and here is my poster and my poem:

A scholar in the Berlin of the 19th century
studied Greek and Latin classics in a fury.
He did research, wrote essays and published editions,
thought about philology and changed its definition.
A many letters and reports he wrote
that also show how he did note
the political situation of his age.
He wanted to free science and speech from the cage.
Alas, most of his literary estate
rests unread in archives and fades.
These valuable letters are not easy to find,
therefore we set out to be no longer blind
and put up a platform showing where to seek what
and in detail what the archives have got.
We created some entries, some others were imported,
in the right way they all were sorted
to then present in a systematic overview
all handwritten documents without further ado.
This metadata platform is connected – as we thought fit –
with the digital edition of some of Boeckh’s writ.
His letters are presented in a wonderful way:
in a diplomatic transcription and a reading text that say
where are the names, the places, works and so forth
to research what networks of Berlin intellectuals were worth.
Authority files and TEI schema ensure the connection.
With data exchange and collaborations we strive for perfection.
All these technical terms are not very poetic
but my colleagues and I think them still so magnetic.
Therefore I am happy to be here with you,
come to my poster and enjoy the view.