Spring in Graz – Sunshine and X-technologies

From 13 to 17 April 2015, just in time for my first anniversary as DiXiT fellow and for the arrival of the sunny days, the Spring School “Advanced XML/TEI technologies” took place at the Centre for Information-Modeling at Graz University. The five-days school was a joint event between DiXiT, the Institute for Documentology and Digital Editing and my host institution. It was directed to participants from the field of digital scholarly editing with previous knowledge of XML and TEI. The participants from all over the world – Argentina, Belgium, Bulgaria, Germany, Ireland, Italy, France, Austria, Switzerland, Serbia, Spain and the United Kingdom – came with different backgrounds and different motivations, but all of them with the same question:

“Once I have finished encoding, how can I process my XML data to publish, analyze, and query it?”

Following the steady announcements about workshops devoted to digital scholarly editing circulating on blogs and mailing lists, it is striking that there are avaliable almost exclusively introductory and specialisation workshops on XML/TEI (such as on encoding of Mss, inscriptions etc). On the other hand one hardly finds events on the further processing of XML data, even if the need is clearly there. To meet this demand and after the successful DiXiT-camp in September 2014 on “XML/TEI for Digital Scholarly Editions: standards, tools and software”, we decided therefor to organize a further School, this time with the topic “Advanced XML/TEI technologies”.

Our admittedly very ambitious goal for the five-days course was the mediation of the know-how for processing, analysing, publishing and querying XML data sets of digital scholarly editions. The program ranged from XPath and XSLT, XQuery and eXist to HTML, CSS and JavaScript. Also a block on more complex TEI functionalities, such as image-text linking and schema generation was on the schedule.

The sessions were hold by a teaching-team consisting of experts from several institutions: James Cummings and DiXiT ER fellow Magdlena Turska from the University of Oxford, Ulrike Henny and Franz Fischer from the Cologne Centre for e-Humanities, Torsten Schaßan from the Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel and Alexander Czmiel from the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities. On the part of the Centre for Information-Modeling, Martina Semlak, Gunter Vasold, Georg Vogeler and humble me were involved in teaching.

One of the highlights of this week was surely the evening lecture “On Form and Substance – Encoding, Modelling, and the Fine Line Between” hold by Tara Andrews, Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Bern. Moreover we’ve offered our guests a guided city tour through Graz, a reception at our Centre, and the excursion to a Buschenschank in Styria’s countryside.

I experienced this whole week in a steady shift of perspective between teacher and student: on the one hand I was involved as teacher and tutor, but on the other hand I even participated as student in the more complex sessions on advanced XSLT and XQuery.

Since it was only for the second time that I had the chance to teach, and also for the first time in English, I was conceivable nervous beforehand. Even if I am still far away from being really relaxed in front of a class of students, such as my dear colleague Magdalena Turska already is, and I still need to improve how to interact constantely with the students, as well as to improve my time management (planned to little time for the excercises), it went very well and I enjoyed holding the HTML-session – I hope the participants did too.

Still from a teacher’s perspective I realized also how difficult it is to teach participants with different backgrounds and levels. Some of the attendees had an university background in digital humanities, while others have obtained the skills at work (and often only those they needed), and again others have learned everything on their own using w3schools, SelfHTML and YouTube tutorials. The heterogeneity of experience and practice, which I guess you always encounter in such workshop events, make it difficult to satisfy all participants equally at any time. As teacher, you can only try to find the right level somewhere in the middle which covers at least most students possible. Another solution for future schools which came to my mind, might also be splitting the sessions into a common theoretical part and a subsequent part of exercises in small groups, graded according to levels and supervised by tutors.

Shifting now into the student’s perspective, I really liked the session in which the participants presented their own problems – mostly issues in encoding with the TEI. The often quite varying responses of the teachers were almost as interesting as the participant’s questions. This session has shown that the TEI provides “only” guidelines which allow plenty of room for different interpretations and very often not one single, definitive answer – not even by the TEI experts. That is actually a good thing. On the other hand, if one assumes that each editor interprets these guidelines differently, it is evident – though still non established – that each digital scholarly edition should be accompanied by a detailed documentation that explains e.g. the choice of a particular element and generally the whole modeling architecture (providing also the scheme).

Another thought or idea I had this week, talking to our guests and and seeing a lot of overlaps and parallels in the challenges they are facing in their work, was the creation of a central repository to collect and document individual work steps carried out during processing XML for digital scholarly editions and to provide also the respective code snippets. In the end certain components of a digital scholarly edition such as an index or a search function follow always the same principles and models and do just need to be a adapted to the respective project. Such a repository, built in GitHub or as a Wiki, could be helpful in our daily work since we all face the same tasks and challenges over and over again, mostly all alone in front of our computers – why not sharing our own achievements and at the same time benefit from other’s?

To sum up, I think the Spring School was a great success. We reached our goal to transmit all necessary technologies to publish, analyze and query a digital scholarly edition. Of course these technologies were only a small selection, though still enough for the time allowed.

After a five-day course no one can expect to fully master all the skills that have been taught, but that’s not even the point. It is much more a matter of making a first approach towards these technologies, understanding their basic principles and grasping the interaction of all components required to process XML data. I think if this first step is made, it is also much easier for the participants to independently gain more knowledge and skills when needed in the future.

All in all the Spring School has shown that the need of scholarly editors for in-depth workshops on advanced X-technologies is definitely there and that the offer of such events is still far too little. Since a spin-off School exclusively for advanced XSLT, XQuery, and eXist seems to be specifically desired by several participants, DiXiT-affiliates are already discussing a possible host institution to arrange it in the near future.

Hope to see you there!

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All teaching materials, slides, excersises, etc. can be found on the IDE’s website.

 


neuber

I am based at the Austrian Centre for Digital Humanities in Graz. I graduated in Editorial Philology in Berlin where I worked in the field of digital scholarly editing of mss and prints. I am interested in modern ms and print studies, theories and concepts of writing, text and editing theories, media transitions at the turn of the ct. 19|20.

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