Report on the Cologne Computer Conference


7-10 Sept 1988

This conference brought nearly 500 delegates, chiefly European, to the beautiful city of Koln in Western Germany, currently celebrating its 600th anniversary. Three international associations combined forces for the occasion: the International Conference on databases in the Humanities and Social Sciences (ICDBHSS); the Association for History and Computing (AHC); and the International Federation of Data Organisations for the Social Sciences (IFDO). The preoccupations of these three organisations clearly having considerable overlap, a joint conference should not have been an altogether bad idea: there are many important respects in which the interests and skills of the social science data archivist or analyst and those of the historian are complementary. The organisation of the conference did not, however, encourage inter-disciplinary discussion, let alone cross-fertilisation. Indeed, the complexity and rigidity of the timetable gave very little scope for discussion of any sort - though of course, there were ample opportunities for private argument over large quantities of echte koelsch.

Somewhere between 150 and 200 papers were timetabled, with on occasions as many as six parallel sessions spread across the three days. It would be nice to report that this density reflected the richness and variety of the scholarship on display, but honesty does not permit me such politeness. The fact of the matter is that (judging only by the sessions I attended) a good third of the papers were either almost entirely innocent of intellectual content, or had nothing to say that had not been said a thousand times before, usually more concisely. There was also an unusually high number of scheduled papers which simply did not appear - perhaps mercifully. All of this had a dispiriting effect, which no amount of software demonstration, nor even the excellent buffet dinner provided by IBM, could dispell. The following biassed and idiosyncratic account should of course be read only as an expression of my personal reactions, and makes no claim to impartiality or omniscience, or even accuracy.

Proceedings began with a plenary panel session, in which six speakers were due to expatiate on the subject of "databases and the future of electronic scholarship"; in the event there were only three. First off was Joe Raben, who, as originator of the journal Computers & the Humanities, and of the ICDBHSS conference series as well as much else, has every right to rest on his laurels and refrain from stating more than the obvious: this he did, and at some length. He was followed by Nicoletta Calzolari, deputing for Antonio Zampolli, from the Istituto Linguistica Computazionale in Pisa, whose brisk precis of trends in computational linguistics (the shift from grammar, to lexical studies, to analysis of corpora) and the technological and social changes heralding the emergence of the polytheoretic linguists' workbench deserved better attention than it received from an audience already half asleep. As the third speaker, I tried (unsuccessfully) to provoke disagreement about the different paradigms within which databases are used, and to mediate an opposition between the hermeneutics of scholarship and the certainties of information technology by saying "look you, there is models in both".

After lunch, given a choice of sessions on Content Analysis, Computer Aided Instruction, Regional history and Data protection, (two other sessions were also timetabled, but did not apparently happen), I opted for the first, where I was first stupefied by an authorship study which had not progressed much beyond the smart idea of typing the text into a computer, and then amazed by a stylish stylistic analysis of crime fiction. Volker Neuhaus (Germisches Inst.,Koln) readily agreed that a highly formalised narrative such as the classic detective story "of the golden age" was that much easier to analyse using an small number of exhaustive taxonomies than other perhaps less ritualised material, but this by no means invalidated the methodological interest in his paper. Later in the same session, Peter Mohler gave an interesting presentation about the venerable General Inquirer program, now available from ZUMA at Mannheim in a PC version, and its use for classifying or codifying narratives for statistical thematic analysis. This session also included an impressive paper from Robert Oakman (USC) which demonstrated how frequency counts could be manipulated to cluster sections of Jane Austen's prose meaningfully, using an algorithm originally developed for clustering geological specimens according to the proportions of their component minerals. It is hard to see what this was doing in the same place as the other paper in this session, which supposedly concerned whether or not computing had anything of relevance to modern literary critical concerns, and proved to be of quite extraordinary crassness.

I began the second day of the conference by chairing a tiny session on expert systems, (someone had kindly volunteered me for this honour without first ascertaining whether I actually knew anything about the topic), made tinier by the fact that only two of my four speakers materialised, but larger by the fact that one of them had brought most of his research team with him. The team came from the University of Grenoble, and had developed an expert system for use by urban planners, to assist in decision making. Their paper had a strong theoretical content, but remained impressive. The other paper was more superficial, and consisted of some meditations about the applicability of expert systems to legal databases.

My obligatory presence in this session meant that I was unable to listen to the opening papers in the session devoted to Manfred Thaller's Historical Workstation project, notably his own presentation of the workshop concept, Gerhart Jaritz (Krems) on an iconographic project using Kleio and Peter Becker (Gottingen) on family reconstitution. I did however arrive in time to hear Kropac (Graz) describe his Kleio-based prosopographical database, Muller (Salzburg) on 15th-16th century patterns of migration as deduced from the Salzburg "Burgerbuch" with Kleio's aid, and Bozzi (Pisa) on the Latin lemmatisation routines which are now incorporated into Kleio. I was impressed by all the databases presented in this section; what I felt lacking was any sense of quite where the research based on their use was heading. However, the collaborative and non-commercial ethos of the Historical Workstation project has much to recommend it, as does Kleio itself.

After lunch, I first listened to someone expounding how Pascal programs could be used to list all the names of people who might perhaps have been around on a given day in the Middle Ages at a particular court, but, finding it hard to understand why this was either useful or methodologically valuable, subsequently decamped to a session on data archives. This proved to be unexpectedly interesting. I arrived too late to hear Marcia Taylor and Bridget Winstanley present the work of the Essex Data Archive's Seminar Series on the cataloguing of computer files, but in time to hear an excellent summary of the 'Trinity' proposals concerning the standardisation of historical datasets from Hans- Joergen Marker (Danish Data Archive). This was followed by two further papers concerning current standardisation efforts, one national, describing the framework being set up in the Netherlands for a Historical Data Archive (Van Hall and Doorn); the other international, on the work of the ALLC/ACH/ACL Text Encoding Initiative (Sperberg-McQueen). I found all three papers interesting and important; the session was also exceptional in that it provoked (and permitted) much useful discussion. For those who find the subject of data standards marginally more exciting than watching paint dry let me add that the discussion centred on such matters as the social history of research (what datasets exist? what were they created for?) and consequently was far more concerned with interpretative issues (what does this codebook actually mean?) which are at the heart of the quantititative/qualititative divide in much current debate, rather than on whether to use square brackets or curly ones, ASCII or EBCDIC etc.

The last full day of the conference offered sessions on a variety of topics: those I missed included art historical and archaeological applications, legal sources, incomplete data, and time series analyses. Instead I stayed with a session on more or less straight historical database applications: this included a French genealogical system using dBase, tweaked sufficiently to cope with the intricacies of the Bourbon dynasty (Selz-Laurier, LISH, Paris); a fascinating analysis of networks of influence in German state-sponsored research institutions using Oracle and multi-dimensional scaling (Krempel, Max Planck Inst. fur Gesellschaftsforschung, Cologne); and a rather less fascinating discussion of the difficulties of handling orthographical and semantic variance in a standardised historical dataset (Haertel, Graz). Dan Greenstein (Oxford) gave one of the more thoughtful and thought-provoking papers in this session, pointing out the conventional historian's uneasy relationship with "the bitch goddess quantification" and attempting to assess the extent to which (for example) the multiple encodings possible with true relational database management systems succeed in restoring the historian's intimate dialogue with his sources with reference to his own work with the History of the University's enormous INGRES database. This was followed by an interesting re-telling of a paper originally written by Frances Candlin (Glasgow) as a programmers' eyeview of the historian's activities, but presented -with much embedded commentary- by Nicholas Morgan, of the DISH project at Glasgow. These two papers alone offered ample opportunity for serious methodological debate, which was not, however, taken.

A large international conference of this kind is of course much more than a collection of research papers. This one also provided a shop window for an impressive panoply of software systems and books as well as the obligatory gossip and politicking. The latter being inappropriate material for a report of this nature, I shall conclude with the former. Systems demonstrated included a full colour art historical image retrieval from laser disk developed for the Marburg Institute, the BBC Domesday Project and IBM's famous Winchester Cathedral graphics model as well as a host of pc-based software nearly all of academic origins (TuSTEP, Kleio, TextPack, ProGamma, HIDES, DISH, CODIL and a Hungarian concordance package called MicroDIC stay in my mind).

I concluded my stay in Cologne by attending the annual general meeting of the Association for History and Computing. The Association now has around 500 members from 23 predominantly European countries, only 60% of these being in the UK. Three new "branches" (one of the hottest political issues of the conference concerned what exactly a "branch" was) had been set up, in Italy, Portugal and France. A fat volume, based on the first Westfield conference, had appeared and, despite a devastating review in Histoire et Mesure (a journal edited by the President of the Association, it should be noted), would be followed by a second volume later this year. The British, Portuguese, French, Austrian and (newly created) Nordic Branches reported on their activities. Manfred Thaller reported that his standardisation work was progressing, and that another workshop might be organised next spring in Goettingen. The Archive group was sending out a questionnaire in collaboration with the Essex Data Archive. Ambitious plans to expand the Association's journal were announced, as were plans for a series of other publications.