„Overcoming the mental barrier"

A conversation with the junior researchers Ulrike Henny and Peter Andorfer

They both began by acquiring the technical know-how by themselves. Today Ulrike Henny and Peter Andorfer are producing digital editions and contributing to larger edition projects. We met with the two junior researchers at the conference “Digital Metamorphosis. Digital Humanities and Edition Philology”, held in Wolfenbüttel in November 2015. They explained why digital edition philology is an ideal field for young academics, what misconceptions they’ve encountered with respect to their work, and whether they’d personally be just as happy living without printed books.

Fascinated by the possibilities of digital editing: Ulrike Henny and Peter Andorfer. Photo: Nicole Alexander

The interview was conducted by Timo Steyer and Nicole Alexander.

Ms Henny, Mr Andorfer, what brought you to the field of digital edition philology?

Ulrike Henny: Through a DFG [German Research Foundation] project which was looking for someone to manage the conceptual-technical details of the digital edition “Amoenitates Exoticae” by Engelbert Kaempfer, a doctor and travelling researcher. This Latin text is Kaempfer’s opus magnum, first published in 1712. The digital edition, by the way, is hosted by the Herzog August Bibliothek. When I applied for the DFG project, I wasn’t at the university anymore, but actually had a job in the area of web development. With that practical knowledge under my belt, I returned to academia and the digital humanities.

Peter Andorfer: In my case, it was just the opposite. While I was working on my dissertation on the “Depiction of the World”, written by the Tyrolean peasant Leonhard Millinger between 1790 and 1815, I came up with the idea of transcribing and publishing a portion of the almost 1,000-page manuscript. I decided for the digital variant because that would give me the chance to include facsimiles of the manuscript. That would also allow the astute reader to gain his own impression of the quality of my work.

So you both acquired the technical know-how by yourselves?

Andorfer: I was lucky enough to get a “Digital Humanities” scholarship from the Herzog August Bibliothek. That gave me time to get acquainted with the subject of digital editions and put me in contact with others who could help me with technical matters.

Found her way to digital edition philology via a DFG project: Ulrike Henny. Photo: Nicole Alexander

Henny: Shortly before I completed my degree programme at the University of Cologne in 2009, I gained additional qualification with an IT certificate for humanities scholars. At the time I was playing with the idea of applying for a job at a library, and it was clear that such a position would require more than knowing how to use Microsoft Office. This IT certificate got my foot in the door, so to speak. The rest was learning by doing.

Is the field of digital edition philology especially well-suited for younger researchers, because they’ve grown up with digital media and are more open-minded when it comes to new methods?

Andorfer: Yes, I think so. Another reason this field is so attractive to young researchers has to do with the fact that digital editions are very inexpensive – apart from the working hours you put in. What’s more, you can present results much faster than in traditional edition philology. That makes it very appealing.

How steep is the learning curve in becoming acquainted with the principles of digital edition work?

Andorfer: Encoding texts into XML or TEI isn’t difficult. To put it most simply, whoever can read and write is also capable of producing a digital standard edition. I believe it’s more of a mental barrier you have to overcome in the beginning. Because if you’ve only been working with Word – in a “WYSIWYG” environment [What You See Is What You Get] – then the view behind the façade can be rather perplexing at first. But once you’ve broken through this mental barrier, you recognise very quickly that digital edition work isn’t witchcraft, but is very easy and understandable.

Henny: That’s how I see it too. I often see researchers, who come from the more traditional field, try their hand at a digital edition and then quickly give up. They think they have to learn so many new things that they simply can’t do it. That’s too bad, because it’s not true.

So you don’t necessarily have to be a nerd to be able to produce a digital edition?

Henny (laughs): No. That is, unless you really want to do everything yourself.

Andorfer (laughing too): At least it’s more fun if you are.

When you present your digital edition projects at conferences or colloquiums, what kind of misconceptions do you often encounter?

Henny: If at all, then it’s the misconception of the kind – such projects are never finished. And – why can’t I just process texts in Word and convert them into PDFs – that’s also digital.

How do you respond to that?

Henny: I always explain what the difference is between a PDF and what, in my opinion, is a true digital edition, where the presentation is separate from the context and codification of the data. And I try to clearly state the advantages, for example, that you can present results much faster than in printed editions and you can make corrections at any time.

Believes that printed books will continue to dominate: Peter Andorfer. Photo: Nicole Alexander

Andorfer: When I say that the data is freely accessible, that’s when people jump in and say, “Ah-ha, then anyone can do whatever they want with my data.” For them that’s the worst thing that could happen. But this is exactly where the advantage lies. I make my data available so that other researchers can build on it. As it is, it’s practically impossible to ever complete a digital edition. But I believe it will take some time until this view is accepted.

It sounds like digital edition philology still has a lot of persuading to do. How do you see the relationship between printed and digital editions developing? Will hybrid editions be the form of the future or can we expect all editions to go digital in the coming years?

Andorfer: As to the latter, no, I don’t think so. Anyone who wants to make a name for themselves in the humanities has to have a printed book to show for it. It’s a matter of academic socialisation. Furthermore, many researchers, who wish to publish actual books, have to secure third-party funding to cover the printing costs – which makes it a lucrative business for publishing companies. As long as this is the case, the printed book will continue to dominate. Many people probably find it more pleasurable to read a printed book than a digital edition. Although, I can’t imagine there are many people who lie comfortably in bed, perusing hundreds of pages of critical commentary. I consult a scientific edition when I’m searching for answers to specific questions. No one can seriously argue that it’s easier to do that with a printed book than with a digital edition.

Henny: I can’t imagine taking a step backwards to books. What’s more, not every digital edition can be printed in book form. I believe printed editions make the most sense if one simply wants to read a work or refer back to an established text for his or her research. Everything beyond that will increasingly take place in digital editions – for example, comprehensive accessibility of facsimiles which Mr Andorfer mentioned earlier.

It’s not surprising that you support digitalisation on account of your profession. But what about privately? Do you generally read e-books or do you prefer printed books?

Andorfer: I’ve moved around a lot in the past years, so for convenience sake I’ve gotten used to hardly buying real books anymore.

Henny: I also try to read books in electronic form as much as possible. However, not all the books I want to read are available as e-books. So that’s preventing me from switching over to e-books completely.

Interview participants:

Ulrike Henny studied Regional Studies of Latin America in Cologne and Lisbon. After working in the field of web development and collaborating on the DFG-funded edition project on Engelbert Kaempfer, she joined the Cologne Centre for eHumanities (CceH) in 2011 where she was responsible for the digital presentation of the projects of the North Rhine-Westphalian Academy for Sciences and Arts until 2015. She is currently a research associate in the junior research group “Computational Literary Genre Stylistics” (CLiGS) at the University of Würzburg. She is also a member of the Institute for Documentology and Scholarly Editing (IDE).

Peter Andorfer studied History and German Studies at the University of Innsbruck and earned his doctorate with a dissertation on works by the Tyrolean peasant Leonhard Millinger (1753-1834). During an extended research visit at the Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel, he produced a digital edition of Millinger’s opus magnum, the “Depiction of the World”. Andorfer also collaborated on the DARIAH-DE projects “Research Data” and “Scientific Collections”. He operates the Internet site www.digital-archiv.at which serves as a platform for developing DH projects and making them accessible to the research community. 

The conference

Click here for documentation from the conference “Digital Metamorphosis. Digital Humanities and Edition Philology”, which took place at the Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel from 2 to 4 November 2015. The documents include the two keynote addresses by Bodo Plachta and Joâo Dionísio as audio files and PowerPoint presentations by selected guest speakers.