Cologne Dialogue on Digital Humanities – Back to the Future of Digital Libraries

I had the great pleasure to be invited to an elite „dialogue“ with leading scholars in a domain that I left some 20 years ago. My PhD research at the university of Cologne was based on the question whether social structures and developments can be made „visible“ by analysing cultural artefacts and the corresponding reception documents. I was digging deep into the censorship of novels in 18th century France analysing some 600 novels and their „reception“ by censors of the Ancien Régime. I screened 15 years of censorship registers with decisions on refusing royal printing privileges and documenting seizures which gave me the possibilty to identify personal readers throuhout society and their relationship to a forbidden genre (comparable to todays computer games: everybody plays but officially it is not liked…). I did some correspondence analyses (a special statistical procedure en vogue at that time, permitting to deal with nominally scaled measures). Later I was teaching at the University of Stuttgart „Computerphilologie“ which meant TUSTEP, COLLATIO, CLIO – old mainframe software just appearing on PC. I was member of the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing and was reading a lot of stuff from computational linguistics and „literary theory & the computer“…

Willard McCarthy at the Cologne Dialogue on Digital Humanities

And eventually I was able to meet some of the main authors I was reading at that time, e.g. Willard McCarthy (picture during his talk in Cologne) at a conference with invited speakers only organised by Manfred Thaller one of the advisors of my PhD thesis: the Cologne Dialogue on Digital Humanities, which is meant to be a starting point for further conferences and for institutionalising eHumanities in Europe. Nice coincidence: coming backing to one’s roots but being able to join the ends of a story.

The conference held in the nice 18th century manor of Cologne Wahn (yes, near the airport) was organised such that two experts were speaking on the same aspect of the eHumanities but from different angles. Seven topics were addressed.

My part was being a non-technical counterpart to Ed Fox, whom I consider being „Mr. Digital Library“. One of my first courses I gave in Potsdam took his book as textbook. So: what a burden! On the other hand I sort of replaced Stefan Gradmann, which was a challenge too. I hope I could or can contribute to this debate. Unfortunately Ed Fox could not come to Cologne being seriously ill.

The intention is that on the CCHE Website the discussion will be continued. So please stay tuned on the „controversy on Digital Libraries“ there or post a comment on my text here – if you want. I am writing in English here in order to enable the workshop partcipants to understand this post too.

In my paper I address the question whether Digital Library engineering is able to generate knowledge or if – more fundamentally – Digital Libraries as they burgeon everywhere now make any sense at all.

2 thoughts on “Cologne Dialogue on Digital Humanities – Back to the Future of Digital Libraries

  1. Hans-Christoph Hobohm Post author

    Ed Fox has sent me an e-mail as reply which I paste here as it is:


    Many thanks for your kind note and for sending your paper.
    Finally managed to read it today.
    Sorry for the delay.

    I am sorry I missed the meeting, but had little choice.
    Would have preferred being with all of you to having a heart attack and open heart surgery 🙂
    It is hard to believe it has been a month since the surgery.
    The doctors say that the first 4 months are when the heart shows the most rapid recovery, so am taking care to do what I can to help with that.
    Fortunately, am up to walking three times per day, each 30 minutes, for a total of about 4 miles on level ground, so clearly am making some progress.
    Also, fortunately, have been able to keep up a sufficient work schedule, on computer or phone/Skype, so completed grading in time for graduation, and now can spend the summer working from home on research, supervising a lab full of graduate students.

    Regarding the paper, here are some comments.
    I’m not much for blogging, and this is rather informal, so will stick with email.

    1) It sounds like you aimed, and succeeded, in pushing people to widen their horizons, and stretch their imaginations.
    From the 6 faculty workshops we ran to promote undergraduate education by focusing on preparing people for Living In the KnowlEdge Society (LIKES – see, it became clear that people in many disciplines, including the social sciences, have a very limited sense of what is possible when computing is more deeply understood and connected with their work.
    We found that it helped to group many of the computing related activities into 4 broad categories, so people can see beyond current tools and systems, e.g.,
    1. Data, information, and knowledge–including their representation and management, and including data structures, databases, document collections, and knowledge management
    2. Algorithms, analysis, problem solving, programming, work flows, and software engineering
    3. Interaction, interfaces, graphics, games, visualization, and virtual environments
    4. Modeling and simulation
    From my perspective, those working on eHumanities have barely scratched the surface regarding what is possible in any of these 4.

    2) I’m glad you noted that some of the Ss in 5S can and should be significantly extended.
    When I describe 5S, I start with Societies and then move onto Scenarios and Spaces.
    These 3 essential parts of digital libraries are usually treated very simplistically.
    Just the first two of these are meant to include all of what is considered in the social sciences, and all of what relates to people (together with machines of all types) engaging in activities (like in 1.2 above) in contexts (like in 1.3 above).
    While it is important to build systems, so people see some examples of what is possible, researchers should push to advance beyond what is easy to conceptualize and build — as we see in today’s DLs.
    Some of the recent focus areas in research reflect the importance of working on pieces of the much larger puzzle yet to be made clear: on social networks, task support and other aspects of HCI, GIS and other systems handling spatial information, data stream management systems supporting sensor networks, and all types of organization (considering structure, including knowledge management).

    3) Regarding „documents“, my research goes back to the days when Documentation was still in vogue.
    One funny story: at a party at a multimedia conference in UK in the 1980s, I was chatting with Ted Nelson.
    When he asked me what I worked with, I said „documents“.
    He was quite pleased, since he considered them central to his view of hypertext and hypermedia (terms that he coined).
    Today, in DL discussions, we often refer to „digital objects“, allowing a very broad range of possibilities.
    Further, in addition to including the 5Ss, we move to related concepts, for example, from Scenarios to Services, which allow handling of content, context, and connections / relationships, as well as aiding people in their striving for meaning, application, utility, …

    4) So much more could be said, but best is for me to focus as much as I can to help get out a series of 4 booklets (hopefully each no more than 150 pages) in the Morgan & Claypool series that Gary Marchionini is editing, about 5S.
    Though there will be many formal / mathematical as well as technology and application discussions, my hope is that readers will be pushed to see that the idea of a DL is much broader than what they imagine, and that 5S provides a very broad and powerful framework to help with all this.
    Maybe by the end of this year, you will see some of the results of all this, and join me in the belief that we do agree on many issues.

    Thanks again for sharing your paper!
    Warm regards, Ed“

  2. Pingback: Beitrag zur Digitalen Bibliothek veröffentlicht -LIS in Potsdam

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