VISIT REPORT L.Burnard

Max-Planck-Institut fur Geschichte, Gottingen

14-19 July 1985

International Workshop on the Creation Linkage and Usage of large-scale interdisciplinary sourcebanks in the historical disciplines

This four day workshop (the title of which was even more impressive in German) had of necessity a floating population, but over the whole period there were some notable absences (e.g the French) as well as some unexpected presences (i.e the Italians en masse). Attendance averaged thirty each day, predominantly German and Austrian, with a sprinkling of Swiss, four Italians (two each from Pisa and Rome), one American (namely Jarausch of North Carolina, president of the International Something for Quantitative Historical Research), one Belgian (Paul Tombeur from Cetedoc, Louvain), one Dane (Marker, from the Danish Data Archives) and three Britons (May Katzen from Leicester, Kevin Schurer from Cambridge and myself).

The stated purpose of the Workshop (or, as Zampolli persisted in calling it, Washup) was to investigate the feasibility of standardising the machine-readable sources increasingly used by historians and to promote their free exchange on a European basis. Its unstated purpose (according to Tombeur who, as sole representative of the Francophone world, was in a somewhat machiavellian mood) was to consolidate its organiser's position as a newly-appointed mere Austrian in the pecking order of Germanic scholarship. Certainly there was much wheeling and dealing going on, mostly in German, and it was evident that quite significant gestures in the direction of European co-operation were being made. Either way, I found it an unexpectedly worthwhile and unusual gathering: worthwhile in that a formal agreement between the three Text Archives represented was actually committed to paper, and that I found out about several database projects not at all unlike our own previously unknown to me; unusual in that the informal structure and small scale of the occasion permitted quite detailed discussion.

The main achievement of the Workshop was probably the agreement between Zampolli, Tombeur and myself reached over lunch on the first day. This had four heads: to combine our Archive catalogues, to continue to control access to their contents in the same way (effectively) as we currently do at Oxford, to try to get legal guidance on the copyright problems involved and to investigate ways of standardising descriptions of text formats. A proposal will be put to a subcommittee of the Council of Europe chaired by Zampolli for MONEY to work in this area. This agreement was achieved largely in reaction to a proposal made by Manfred Thaller (the workshop's organiser) which we all agreed was unworkable for text, with all its attendant copyright problems, however desirable it might be for unpublished historical sources. Regrettably, the only person who might have been able to introduce some intellectual stiffening to the discussion of text formats (van der Steen, whose paper on text grammars presented at ICCH this year was also to be presented here) was unable to attend, as were representatives of the major French and German text archive.

During two days of rather circular argument, it beame apparent that the nation of conceptual analysis as a necessary precursor of database design is still widely regarded with suspicion by historians, being seen as the preserve of informatics. For many of those present the phrase data description was assumed to be something more like the proposed 'Study Descriptions' which the Social Science Survey Archives (coincidentally meeting at the same time in Esssex) have been trying for some time to standardise. In my innocence, I made the point (several times) that computer held versions of original source materials need some rather more abstract description than are needed for derived sets of numbers and standardised encodings. The OUCS database design course, part 1, might have been of some assistance here, but I was not called upon to give it; instead 1 gave a condensed version of my Nice paper, stressing how the TOMES database resembled its abstract model. I also found myself chairing a most unsatisfactory discussion on how texts should be described, for my sins.

Most of the presentations were given in German, with rather haphazard summary translation. What follows should therefore be regarded not as an exhaustive account, but just as a crystallisation of the bits I could (a) understand (b) remember.

Much of one day was given over to a presentation by teams from Freiburg and Munster of a massive database of Mediaeval German names extracted from necrologies, abbey roll calls etc This proved to be the Greek Lexicon writ large (they have about 400,000 name forms and the database occupies 230 Mb.); one could unkindly say that its software is also pretty Mediaeval: they use Sperry's DMB-1100 which is a Codasyl system, but access to the database is provided only by a query language which looks very much like Data Display, circa 1975. The part of it of which they were proudest was the vastly complicated lemmatisation code which determines what the probable root form of a name is if the particular variant of it required is not yet in the database. They promised to send me a copy of their schema design in which they have somehow managed to find a need for about 40 different record types to support a subset of the facilities the Greek Lexicon supports with less than a dozen.

A team from Zurich described an interesting, if methodologically suspect, project in which vast amounts of data about the weather in Switzerland between 1525 and i860 had been extracted from all sorts of written sources and then combined to produce all sorts of time series analyses about changes in agriculture, social structures etc. A gentleman from Salzburg described his attempts to analyse patterns of Mediaeval migration using Thaller's own CLIO system, unfortunately entirely in German. CLIO was also the subject of a presentation, though not a very clear one. It is a PL/1 package, currently being rewritten in C, a novel feature of which is its string pre-processor, which converts from more or less any input format likely to be encountered in "free text" versions of parish records, chronicles etc down to its own internal structures, access to which is then provided by an interactive concordance generator. Various other software tools (e.g. to do nominal record linkage and lemmatisation) are also provided, but Thaller did not have time to do more than sketch the architecture of the system.

I was more impressed by a man called Merqenthaler from Ulm, who has wrapped up SIR/DBMS, TEXTPACK, COCOA, a word processor, the standard SIEMENS archival system and possibly some other bits and pieces into one consistent screen driven package, -for use by psychiatrists doing content analysis on transcripts of patient interviews. The raw text is put through a spelling checker as well as a dictionary which identifies key (psychological) concepts within it. His system is also being rewritten in C, which appears to be where it's at in Germany these days.

I was also impressed by two of the art historians present who did not actually give presentations but with whom I had some interesting discussions about the Ashmolean project; one was from the Marburg institute, whose work with Iconclass I already knew of; the other was Dr Albert Schug from Cologne, who appeared to be the Grand Old Man of museum applications in Germany.

Finally, I met two archaelogists with something intelligent to say (not a very common occurence). One was selling a natty little micro-based system called ARCOS which records sherd images on videotape and then automatically analyses them to provided cataloguing data; the other was selling a detailed descriptive taxonomy for archaelogical specimens. The former costs 60,000 DM and I have an English language glossy about it; the latter is free, but all in German.