Yesterday’s Information Tomorrow (maybe)

If you go to the TEI’s website at you will find, as you might hope, a respectable number of documents tracking the evolution of the Text Encoding Initiative over the last umpteen decades. Curiously, though, the record for the most ancient period (before 2008, shall we say) is a lot easier to find and manipulate than for most recent times. This posting records my attempts to put together in archival format the full record of the meetings of the TEI Technical Council.

The Council, as any fule kno, met for the first time in 2002, and is still producing regular reports of its debates and its decisions. There is a page on the TEI website ( which “lists TEI Technical Council meetings and teleconferences, with links to the meeting minutes.”

I downloaded that list (it’s a WordPress HTML file, of course), ran it through HTML Tidy, and processed the result to produce a nice simple TEI file of entries like this

<item> conference call <date>8 December 2022</date><ref
> [on website]</ref></item>
<item> conference call <date>10 November 2022</date><ref
> [on website]</ref></item>

My quixotic goal is to enrich this data with links to TEI source files for each set of minutes, preferably in a consistent TEI format.

Now, twenty years ago this would have been quite a reasonable proposition since (as the current TEI Vault shows), the TEI once had an “eat your own dogfood” policy of producing all of its documents in TEI. Over the years, this policy has varied somewhat, largely as a consequence of changes in the tools available, and the culture that goes with them. These policy changes relate not just to the look and feel of the website itself but also to which versions of its contents are preserved and how. Today, I think it is not unreasonable to say that much of the TEI website exists only as WordPress pages: many of those pages were first created as Google Docs and then converted to WordPress, some of the older ones were created originally in hand-crafted TEI XML, and the very oldest were created in TEI P4 SGML, but the only versions that can reliably be downloaded from the current website are in WordPress HTML.

Much of the time, of course, this is unproblematic. Mostly, we just want to read the stuff, not analyse it. But occasionally, and especially for the older material, whoever or whatever was responsible for producing the WordPress files has really made a hash of it. Consider, for example, the working paper

This working document is quite an important one in the history of ODD. But as currently presented on the TEI web site it is badly broken, to the extent that the text has become incomprehensible.  Consider this paragraph:

Comparison with earlier versions of the page (thank you Wayback Machine) show that this is a recent breakage: here for example is the same paragraph as it appeared back in 2005 when it entered the Internet Archive.

The Wayback machine, of course, can only archive what its crawlers find. They found this page a couple of times between 2005 and 2018, both of them looking fine, but thereafter only the WordPress version. This would not matter so much were it not for the fact that the original TEI P5 source has not apparently been archived anywhere, so the breakage cannot easily be fixed.

Such losses in translation occur occasionally in more recent documents too. Here’s a paragraph from the WordPress view of document tcm46  (Minutes of the TEI Council’s April 2011 meeting) for example:

Again, until or unless I track down the original version of this file, there’s no way of filling that particular gap.

Less annoying, but more pervasive is the fact that the WordPress files rarely try to preserve any structural or semantic information. The markup will mostly contain a long series of list items, some of which may pertain to the same topic, some of which may in fact be headings, some of which are an accident of formatting. In the text (apart from links) there’s no explicit indication of interesting things you might want to search for, such as names, places, or dates.

Very few WordPress files are well formed HTML, though the wonderful w3c utility tidy does a good job on pushing them into a processable shape. Out of 120 wordPress files, 38 (nearly a third) failed to respond to this treatment, mostly because they contained an unhealthy mixture of HTML and TEI or TEI-like tags.

And finally it has to be said (I’ll be brief) that it seems really sad that the TEI is preserving its deliberations in a proprietary, tool-dependent, presentation-oriented format … the kind of format which the TEI was set up to preserve scholarship from. What kind of apostacy is that?

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