Hello world! (Again)

Last year it was Java/C/XML.

This year it is up to Python, therefore…

print “Welcome to Day of DH 2010. This is your first post. Edit or delete it, then start blogging!”


Today is thursday, and as every thursday, I bother Danilo Giacomi, a software developer to have lessons about Talia/Muruca a digital library/electronic editions platform that NetSeven has developed in the context of a European project and which has been used to deploy several scholarly websites, such as Nietzsche Source. Basically what we do is browsing  the online source code of the application deposited at GitHub, and then I ask Danilo very annoying questions about the source code, trying to understand how the browsing, publishing and search functions have been implemented. In this way I’ve learned a lot of things, thanks to Danilo, who will end up having a nervous breakdown due to my insistence, but who has my eternal gratitude in exchange :-) .

Talia, or Muruca as it is called now, is very interesting since it has been written in Ruby on Rails, which follows an MVC paradigm, and the underlying data is encoded using Semantic Web technologies. So they have an ontology which models the primary sources together with the related RDF. The manifestations of the editions (yep they also use a little bit of FRBR)  are encoded in TEI, but they are part of a larger context represented by this semantic  structure. In this way they have already got their place in the Linked Data world. Talia is one of the most interesting publishing frameworks recently developed in Digital Humanities. In many ways it’s similar to Fedora Commons, sharing some of the underlying vision, but it has the advantages of having already some out-of-the-box functions and it’s more suitable for smaller scale projects.

Is really worth it?

Premis: since I’m in the writing-up phase of my PhD this is a draft I’ve just been writing today, about the relevance of the electronic medium for scholarly editions.

It is more than legitimate to ask whether all this interest about the electronic “transposition” of the critical edition is justified by an actual scholarly advantage or it is dictated by the current trends. More likely, what should be done is to identify the proper proportions of these two tendencies. At a general level, what should be considered it is an evident physiological phenomenon where new medium encompasses (and therefore “encodes”) the contents carried by the preceding one, in a selective way. At this level is it possible to place the general activity, superficially labelled as “trend”. This has been the case for the handwritten transcription of the oral culture and tradition and of the following print edition of handwritten texts.

One would say, and not without any reasons, that the printed book, together with its related textual organization and what lies underneath it, in particular for what concerns the narrative model, is what seems to resist more to a digital conversion. Using one of the main principles of creative writing, we can classify the textual information in two main categories: on one side there are those texts that we read for their communicative value, and the related quality and quantity of carried information, which are exemplified by the model of the scientific paper: on the other side there those texts which we turn our attention to for their expressive value and emotional content, and are represented by narrative, in particular by the novel, and poetry (Cerami 2002: 14). This distinction should be considered a very broad one, since it is not possible to arouse emotion without transmitting information and event the more aseptic information, depending on the context, can arouse a very strong emotion[1].

Texts are strictly related to tools. Book, and in general the paper support, it is clearly a fundamental tool, a first level one, but it does not exclude the presence of other tools, which seem to focus more on the informative aspect, or eventually even meta-informative, of texts[2]. The more the informative aspect of a text is strong, the more it will be possible, and profitable, apply to it further tools, able of using this information. Digital encoding, for its intrinsic features, such as computability, reproducibility and transmissibility, has very evident and incomparable competitive advantages for what concern informative texts, pushing in the background the needs related to ergonomics, usability and familiarity[3].

These needs are still predominant when dealing with narrative texts, and the printed book perfectly adhere to them. The current evolution and interest about electronic books can change soon the situation partly filling the bridge between these two types of text. The idea of eBook is without doubt interesting and evidently linked to the one of critical digital edition, but it has to be considered in specificity of its particular nature[4].

The scholarly edition, in fact, is situated in a particular position between the two typologies illustrated above. Its object of study is the narrative text, but it is approached with a rigorous attitude focused mainly, but not only, on the expression level, which is superimposed and modelled by an interpretative, explicative and reproductive structure, one would say apparatus, which has a strong informative nature. For this reason the ecdotique activity can take the more and immediate advantages from the electronic format, compared to the other disciplines in literary studies.

[1] A similar distinction is made by Gino Roncaglia, in is recent La quarta rivoluzione. Sei lezioni sul futuro del libro (Roncaglia 2010), one of the most complete and interesting work about electronic books. He identifies the following reading modalities: lean back, here corresponding to the emotional texts; lean forward, related to informational texts; mobility and secondary fruition.

[2] Book is only apparently a passive tool, since it allows some actions to the user, such as recording annotations or his current position, actions which are not that easy to implement to current virtual environments for electronic texts.

[3] It is not by chance that currently in scholarly, and in particular scientific, publishing, the electronic editions of the journals are the main offer of publishing houses, with the printed copy only as a side. This notwithstanding, the models of these editions are still strongly imitative of the preceding paradigm. Some innovative experiments are appearing, such as the integration of multimedia or interactive content. A basic example of this kind of functionality is the graphic visualization of the behaviour of a sorting algorithm on its Wikipedia page: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merge_sort>.

[4] An idea underlying all the reasoning made until now is how the use of a different format redefines the consolidated and taken for granted relationships between entities which are strictly linked but basically heterogeneous; in our case the concepts of text, document, book, edition, collection, archive and library. The current format of electronic book, being them based on PDF or EPUB, are “technologically” simple products, if compared to the complexity reached bye electronic critical editions or electronic archives or  digital libraries,  which have complex programs both client and server side,  together with rich metadata and refined graphical interfaces,  to implement the several functions of publishing, browsing and search.  A plausible scenario is the one where eBooks are automatically produced starting from richer and more complex structures, selecting from time to time the interested portions of content, as if they were search or views made on an underlying database. Actually this scenario has already been implemented, for instance by the New Zeland Electronic Text Center <http://www.nzetc.org/> or by the Electronic Text Center of University of Virginia for the Modern English Collection <http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/modeng/modeng0.browse.html>.