« Exploiter les données structurées en XML »

Here’s a nice way of spending a day in the heart of the Marais. Get together a bunch of people who do actually use the TEI (or some other kind of structured XML markup) to do cool things and ask them to talk for a maximum of 10 minutes each about the software they use and what they do with it. I claim no credit at all for this idea: the event was master minded by Anais Wion, Fabrice Melka, and Denise Ogilvie who just coincidentally have to prepare a workshop on the verb « exploiter » in Aussois later this year. Whatever its origins, this turned out to be a really worthwhile day, and not just because of the venue (the alabaster hall of the Archives Nationales) or the lunch (yum, Lebanese buffet).

A proper account of the proceedings has been promised for a couple of weeks hence, so this note is just the consequence of me jotting down some immediate impressions on the train home. There is already a useful page of links to stuff mentioned at the workshop at http://www.delicious.com/workshopexploiter, which I should probably update with this report.

I kicked off by explaining why the TEI really didn’t ought to have much to do with software production, except for its own nefarious purposes. I conceded, however, that those purposes led inelectably led to the production of Sebastian’s Excellent Stylesheets and hence to a generic software tool of some importance in the community. Marjorie Burghart then talked about XML database eXist, showing it in action on her sermones.net site, and also her paleographic exercise site; the main problem with it, for her, was that its installation and maintenance on a local server require a little more technical expertise (for example, fine tuning a java environment, recovering tomcat when it falls over, etc.) than is available for the typical humanities department. This need for infrastructural computing support turned out to be a major theme of the day. Next up was Lauranne Bertrand from the CESR team at Tours, who showed how they currently use XTF to display various versions of their richly encoded texts. Maud Ingaro then introduced us to a new XML database from the University of Konstanz called BaseX which seems worth a second look, if only for its very sparkly visualisation features, though its main claim to fame is probably its ability to handle REALLY BIG (multi-gigabyte) databases, which (if true) should give several current pontificators pause for thought. Jorge Fins, also from CESR then talked about Philologic, which provides traditional text searching (full text indexing, concordancing, etc) capabilities, running on a distinct (and distinctly dumbed down) copy of the Bibliotheques Virtuelles des Humanistes exported to Chicago.

After a brief pause for coffee, Alexei Lavrentev, standing in for Serge Heiden (reportedly recently immobilised by a close encounter with a crampon) showed us the current state of  txm the open source text analysis system developed by the textometrie project at Lyon. Severine Gedzelman, also from Lyon, then described Hypermachiavel, an application for handling multiple aligned corpora (or, to be more exact, one specific set of multiple aligned corpora). I found the difference in software design between these two projects interesting: txm was developed very consciously as a generic text processing framework, incorporating and rationalising feaures from many other systems; whereas hypermachiavel was developed (almost from zero) very much to meet the specific needs of a particular research project, but without any particular generic intention.

Does the world need another generic tool for doing textual annotation in XML? Certainly many linguists and computer scientists seem to think so. Cue Antoine Widlocher from the University of Caen, and Glozz, a new plateform for distributed linguistic annotations of text segments, overlapping or otherwise, relationships, graphs, etc. etc. Very nice visualisations, as per other java applications; nice features such as annotation histories; no evidence that any researchers from the humanities had been involved in its design or application up to now. Florence Clavaud, from the Ecole Nationale des Chartes, then spoke very briefly (no really) about Pleade and her plans to enhance this mainstream EAD-muncher to include TEI capabilities. Pleade is one of the tools of choice in the French Archival community so that enhancing it to handle TEI as well as it currently manages EAD and sets of digital images would be very cool. Also from ENC, Vincent Jolivet and Frederick Glorieux showed us diple which is a nice simple package written in php to transform complex TEI markup to static web pages with a complementary suite of stylesheets to render them, and something called xrem, a very glamorous tool for visualisation and construction of RELAX NG schemas. Fred likes to work directly in RELAX NG rather than via ODD, but the results almost justify such heresy. Nicole Dufournaud, aided and abetted by Denise Ogilvie, told the (possibly) instructive history of how Millefeuille (a nice customized TEI editing and indexing application based on work Nicole pioneered back in the nineties)  is now in a suspended state of animation. Following one unsuccessful attempt at reanimation, it appears that another one is proposed as part of a European project. Finally before lunch, Maud Ingaro showed us some camstudio videos about dinah : this « philological platform for the construction of multi-structured documents » is currently being developed at Lyon in a project studying the manuscripts of Jean-Toussaint Desanti, and seems worth a second look, even though it’s a long way from being stable yet.

After the afore-mentioned very nice lunch, there was a wide-ranging free-form discussion, from which I took away chiefly the following points (as aforesaid, there will be a more complete and correct report later):

  • a general feeling that IT infrastructural support was lacking: in particular, people wanted
    • some kind of sandpit environment in which they could experiment with different tools
    • some easily accessible web-publishing service for e.g. doctoral students to showcase their work
  • a general feeling that development and implementation of XML-based projects was hard work requiring input from specialists, consequently a need for more training
  • a desire to share experience of these and other tools; the existence of TEI-FR, and the TEI Tools SIG were agreed to be appropriate channels.

Some pointed requests were made for the TGE to do more to provide some of these services, which proposal I agreed to go away and investigate.

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