Report on "Rencontres TEI francophones", Nancy, 20-21 octobre 2005

This was an interesting two day meeting hosted by ATILF, and organized by Susanne Alt and Veronika Lux-Podalla, which brought together a number of key TEI users and interested parties in the francophone world. It followed up a preliminary meeting also held in Nancy at INIST during the spring, at the time that Nancy established itself as a TEI host.

The programme combined themed sessions of presentations, and parallel discussion groups. Following some words of welcome from the director of ATILF and from the European TEI editor, it began with a session on dictionaries and terminology. Christiane Fritze (Academy of Sciences of Berlin) reported on the results of a demonstration project using TEI as the exchange format to permit interaction between a group of previously encoded (in various formats) historical dictionaries, and a corpus of digital texts, aided and abetted by the usual panoply of XSLT stylesheets and an eXist database. I was taken by the way in which the research group works: each month they choose a new project in the general area of promoting scholarly awareness in the humanities, and work on it. Despite its small scale, this was a persuasive demonstration of the benefits of using TEI markup to integrate the outputs of previously independent projects.

This was followed by a presentation on similar themes from the "kompetenzcentrum" (I think we would say "centre of excellence") at the University of Treves, given in Germlish by Hannes Greil and Niels Blohnert. Their kompetenz seems to be mostly is in retro-digitization of major historical dictionaries and their subsequent integration with corpora of historical materials in German. Most of the dictionaries they discussed were originally encoded in Tustep, and even their conversion to XML was carried out using Tustep. The scale of their operation was impressive however.

Laurent Romary reminded us of the difference between a dictionary which maps words to senses, and the semasiological orientation of a terminological database, which maps concepts in a defined domain to words. He sketched out his ideas for a reformulation of the.late lamented TEI terminology chapter, and made a persuasive case for the general usefulness of such a chapter in the P5 -- if only someone would draft it.

A lady whose name I forgot to write down reported on the deliberations of a joint ATILF/INIST workgroup concerning the applicability of the TEI Header, and its place in the metadata universe. The group aims to define a minimal header for use in the cataloguing of material "born digital", in particular electronic theses: where have I heard that before. They like the fact that the header permits such richness of metadata (arborescence is the french word), but think it needs to be constrained. She also presented some comparisons (and mappings) with OLAC and Dublin core, but did not, curiously, mention METS. Apparently the structure of the TEI Header is not derived from AACR2 but from ISO 2709.

A consultant from a company called Archimed called Christophe Arnoult described an interface developed to search TEI conformant digital theses, using metadata apparently derived from other online resources. The work had been done using a very small sample, and the only interesting thing I noticed about it was their application of statistical procedures derived from the tag usage to determine which header elements should be indexed and how. Otherwise he made the familiar point that in the absence of clear guidance on how to apply it, the TEI Header DTD provides more than enough rope for most conventional retrieval systems to throttle themselves on, and incidentally bemoaned the fact that people didn't always package together all the resources needed to handle a document (e.g. where is the DTD? where are the system entities referenced?)

Denise Malrieu (Paris X) asked a good question and proposed an impressive range of possible answers. The question was: what kind of metadata might be useful for literary scholars working with narrative texts; and the answers ranged far beyond purely literary-historical-bibliographic perspectives to include internal structural features and audience expectation, as well as summary statistics and their deviance or otherwise from a norm. She also talked about the viability (or otherwise) of automatic tagging of various discourse features -- not only what the computational linguists call "named entity recognition" but also narrative level and status (dialogue, quotation etc). She also mentioned but did not describe ongoing work in establishing appropriate parameters for narrative text classification.

After lunch (up the hill: chicken and chips), we divided into three groups for more focussed discussions on (a) dictionaries, animated by Susanne Alt; (b) metadata, animated by Laurent; and (c) electronic theses, animated by Sylvie Gressillaud. I attended the last of these, and watched as Gautier Poupeau walked through the most relevant features of TEI Lite (using Oxygen), only occasionally muttering about how different things would be in P5. These parallel groups then reported back: the dictionary group had looked at Susanne's (excellent) presentation; the metadata group had been introduced to Roma and derived a simpler DTD for the header.

Last session of the day discussed questions of documentation and translation. Pierre-Yves Duchemin (Enssib, Lyon) briefly sunmmarised the actitivies of the G5 group which had started with the ambition of translating the whole of the TEI Guidelines into French. They have now produced a version of the P5 Header chapter and are working on two others. However, they seem to have taken note of the comment I made when visiting Lyon earlier this year about the need to base their translation on the ODD sources rather than on their output. The working relationship betrween this group and the TEI's own I18n effort, on which Veronika reported next, remains somewhat murky to me. In presenting what is planned for thew latter, Veronika provoked a surprisingly heated debate about the wisdom (or otherwise -- most people thought otherwise) of translating the element names in TEI documents.

The second day began with a very impressive presentation from Gautier Poupeau (Ecole des Chartes) about the principles and practice underlying their digital publication program. This was high quality textbook stuff about open source, free access, TEI xml rendered dynamically on the web, conforming to the needs amnd expectations of scholarly editors.

Also impressive in its way was the presentation from Jouve, a long established French electronic publishing house which is apparently now piloting use of TEI as an interchange and delivery format for its digitization activities. Denis Delvalle explained a workflow they have now introduced in which OCR output, expressed in a detailed proprietary format, is transformed into TEI, and then converted to the customer's specific requirements. Interestingly, Omnimark is still their weapon of choice in this struggle.

And finally, I gave that talk about Xaira again, this time translated into halting French, and augmented with live demonstrations of assorted French corpora running on a borrowed laptop.

After lunch (up the hill again, steak and chips this time), Laurent and Veronika chaired a discussion about next steps and further missionary activity. It was agreed to hold a focussed training session on developing the digital thesis plus header customisation front just before Christmas and to try to provide nmore input and discussion material on the website. The idea of a TEI summer school was floated. And there was some discussion about what exactly Veronika should report to the members meeting next week.

Overall, this was a reassuring, even encouraging, workshop. There were over 20 participants, mostly but by no means exclusively local, and from different backgrounds. The problems raised and issues discussed are would resonate with any TEI user anywhere in the world; unlike some other such gatherings, however there was an evident committment to making the TEI work, by participating in its development and promotion.