The usual problem

Now that I have all of the TEI Council minutes in XML which is more or less valid against TEI-All, I can start worrying about defining a sensible schema for them, oh bliss. One possibility might be just to accept and preserve every tagging decision taken during the long history of this archive, even the silly ones. Another might be to retro-convert everything to a single brutalist vision of how things Ought To Be. Or somewhere between the two extremes, perhaps.

Over the last 23 years, different editors of TC minutes have taken different views in all the places where you might expect them to. Even in the days when minutes were prepared in kosher TEI, mostly conforming to TEI Lite, there was still plenty of scope for different practice. Shall we distinguish soCalled, and mentioned, q and quote, term and emph? Are we consistent in using emph for linguistic emphasis rather than formatting? Do we distinguish q and quote, and if so, for why? If we have gi and att (or occasionally ident type=’att’) do we also need tag, and code and ident?

In more recent times, when such ontological anxieties have become perhaps less feverish, the minutes use a comparatively restricted set of distinctions, mostly to do with whether a snippet of text is in italic or bold, or used as a heading or a link, or is a list item. Indeed, sometimes the tagging decisions we see in the XML file are purely an artefact of the formatting tweaks needed to present the minutes on the WordPress website and have little to do with document structure or meaning. And in sadly many cases, if a semantically tagged version of such documents ever existed, it is now lost. Should we, in the interests of consistency, enforce the lowest common denominator across the whole set of documents?

Consistency at least in the way major components of each document are presented would surely be advantageous. To take a simple example, every set of minutes begins with a list of the persons participating in the meeting. Sometimes it is presented as a list of items; sometimes as a single paragraph; sometimes as a sequence of paragraphs. Almost always the names of individual attendees are associated with a siglum or set of initials, but the way in which this is all represented in the XML structure varies considerably. This sort of thing is easy, if time consuming, to make consistent. And probably something like the current conventions, in which each person’s name is given as a distinct <item> within a <list> should be aimed for, since it is clear that the various ways these lists are currently presented is really only an accident of formatting, changes which are of much lesser interest than ease of processing the list in various ways. Whether or not the full TEI paraphernalia linking occurrences of a person’s initials in the text to their appearance in the list of attendees, is another question.

Of courser, if we were starting this exercise from zero, we would follow the textbooks and first carry out a data analysis. What are the important entities in a set of minutes, and what are their properties? Each of these documents relates to a meeting which took place over one or more days, in a specific place, or in cyberspace, with a specified set of participants. The minutes indicate the topics discussed, to some extent formalised in terms of identified issues, or action points. We might also ask what sorts of research questions should our analysis facilitate: how often do particular individuals or kinds of individual intervene? How long does it take for an issue to be resolved? How many different issues are under consideration at a particular time? Where do issues come from? And so on.

But we are not starting this exercise from scratch. The documents already exist. Moreover, the conceptual entities they are concerned with, and therefore represent, change over time, reflecting the Council’s evolution both in terms of its practice and its sense of purpose. That purpose has always been to maintain and develop the technical content of the TEI Guidelines, of course; but with the availability of sophisticated issue-tracking and reporting software the way in which this is carried out has changed a great deal. Consequently the operational model – the modus operandi – of the Council has also changed a great deal. These changes are necessarily reflected in the organization and content of the minutes.

Writing a full history of the TEI Council’s evolution is not however the purpose of this document, tempting though it is. A few salient aspects of that history do however affect our document analysis. For example, it’s necessary to understand that when first set up, the Council worked very much in the same way as the original TEI project: its role was largely to initiate, supervise, and integrate work carried out in more or less autonomous working groups. This had worked well for some major expansions of the P5 Guidelines, such as the addition of manuscript description, or character encoding issues following the adoption of Unicode, where the TEI had been able to constitute a motivated and informed group of experts to produce concrete proposals; less well in areas where such a group proved harder to constitute or motivate. For the first five years of its existence, from 2002 to the publication of TEI P5 1.0.0 in 2007, however, the Council’s minutes are full of reports from specific working groups, and actions on someone to pursue them.

This was also a period during which the TEI enjoyed the luxury of two paid editors. The process by which the Council itself took over editorial responsibility probably started with the full scale review of the first draft of P5, in which each chapter was assigned to a Council member for review, though actual implementation of changes to the Guidelines (which involved a content management system called perforce) remained a specialised activity, not available to all. The minutes from this period necessarily therefore have many “action points” aimed specifically at the editors.

For releases 1.0.1 to 2.7.0 (2008 to 2014) the following formulation of the Council’s role appeared on the PDF title page

TEI P5:
Guidelines for Electronic Text
Encoding and Interchange
by the TEI Consortium
Originally edited by C.M. Sperberg-McQueen and Lou
Burnard for the ACH-ALLC-ACL Text Encoding Initiative
Now entirely revised and expanded under the supervision
of the Technical Council of the TEI Consortium
edited by Lou Burnard and Syd Bauman

Only in September 2014, with the 2.7.0 release, did that last line disappear, establishing finally that the Council was now editorially responsible for the whole.

By this date the Council’s modus operandi had also changed considerably. Already, in 2009, we find the Council reviewing and acting on proposals for change to the Guidelines known as “feature requests”, originating from the wider TEI community rather than from the Council or the Board. A key step towards expanding this practice was the adoption of the open source issue tracker provided by sourceforge, which hosted the TEI Guidelines source from 2007 onwards, and remains a recognizable forerunner of the current github based system.

The move to such systems has several implications for the current archival project. Firstly it means that a substantial amount of the TEI’s intellectual history is now exhaustively documented, including all sorts of crazy ideas and false starts and frequent repetition, but all on a platform which the TEI itself does not own or control. Secondly, it means that the links into the documentary base provided by those external systems and the more diplomatic narrative constructions provided by the current minutes are really quite important if we wish to develop a proper historical understanding. And finally, of course, the availability of this detailed repository of issues and their resolution has changed dramatically the way the TEI Council does its work.

Yesterday’s Information Tomorrow (maybe)

If you go to the TEI’s website at http://www.tei-c.org 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 (https://tei-c.org/activities/council/Meetings/) 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

<list>
<head>2022</head>
<item> conference call <date>8 December 2022</date><ref
target=”https://tei-c.org/activities/council/meetings/tei-technical-council-teleconference-2022-12-08/”
> [on website]</ref></item>
<item> conference call <date>10 November 2022</date><ref
target=”https://tei-c.org/activities/council/meetings/tei-technical-council-teleconference-2022-11-10/”
> [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

https://tei-c.org/activities/council/working/tcw02-approaching-the-son-of-odd-source-markup-for-p5/

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?

The origins of ODD

I’m moving house this week, which involves packing up thirty years of accumulated junk of various sorts. As a result, every now and then I stumble upon some long lost historic document, like this one. It dates from a lunch that Michael Sperberg-McQueen and I enjoyed at the Lido restaurant Bergen in November 1991. This being a family restaurant, it was equipped with paper table cloths and wax crayons, Norwegian kids for the use of, which Michael and I were quick to reappropriate to our immediate needs, namely some kind of visual representation of the production system we wanted to create for the editing and processsing of the TEI Guidelines, version P2. We knew we were going to write and edit it in some version of TEI SGML; we had faith that anything in SGML could be transformed into anything else. We just had to work out how, and what.

P1 had been produced by some devious hackery that only Michael understood, and more critically which only ran on the mainframe at UIC; we wanted something that would be platform (hardware and software) independe nt. Such was the promise of TEI SGML, after all. Somewhat to our horror, the only reasonable high level programming language in which we were both reasonably competent and for which there were decent implementations on all the machines we collectively used (IBM CMS, VAX VMS, IBM PC, Macintosh…) seemed to be a now largely-forgotten string handling language called Macro Spitbol, so we decided that our production system (what nowadays we’d call a work flow) would have to be written in that. But of course the heart of everything would be a nice author-friendly TEI SGML dialect, for which we optimistically coined the acronym ODD: One Document Does-it-all. ODD files would be parsed by an SGML parser, and its output filtered through a variety of Spitbol processors to create other formats. And that, more or less, is what we did.

On this schematic you can see the basic idea in blue. The big blue circle is the ODD format, from which are generated canonical TEI files (with extension .TIN (for Tiny) or .TEI), RL files (extension .TD), and DTD files, the three little blue boxes. DTD files are of course SGML DTD files, which ois why you see a green line going back from them to validate individual ODD files (I dont know why it’s labelled LB though). “Tiny” files would use a subset of the TEI Lite schema defined back in 1988; RL (later renamed .REF) files would use the TEI vocabulary Michael had developed for reference documentation of individual elements (“TD” for tag documentation). Down the middle you see a list of TLAs in blue which I think must have been attempts to decide on a name for the format (WEB, Joe, LAM, RDF, CSP…), though what they expand to I really don’t remember – what a pity we didn’t choose RDF. Or not. And over on the left in red you see some notes which eventually became the canonical structure of the TEI Guidelines: there is a chapter about the “blort”, containing prose paragraphs; there is a documentation element referencing the blort tag, and there is a parameter entity reference which pulls in the definitions for the blort chapter.

What happened next? Well, we did set up a workflow more or less on this model, and we did use three separate filters written in macro Spitbol (mostly by Michael) which turned our ODD SGML into two flavours of straightforward TEI-lite-like SGML, which we called “P2X” and “REF” and also generated SGML DTD fragments. After experimenting with a generic filter called “tf” (also in Spitbol) to translate the generated TEI files into LaTeX, and dallying with a Canadian tool called Omnimark, we finally settled on a rather swish transformation engine called Balise, which was produced by a French company called AIS. Either way we were able to print the fascicles of P2 in something that not only looked quite nice but also looked just the same whether I printed it in Oxford, or Michael in Chicago. Except for the paper size, of course: ain’t standardisation a marvellous thing.

And what happened to ODD? It turned out to be quite a good idea. We gave a presentation about it at the ACH-ALLC conference in 1994, though I cannot remember what we said and we never got round to writing it up. Michael developed the ideas in the “tag documentation” part quite extensively, and (I believe) used them also in his next job working for the W3C, but the TEI’s ODD stayed more or less unchanged until work started on the TEI’s XML reincarnation, at which time the whole system was re-imagined and redesigned as the lean mean generic schema generation system we know and love today. But that’s another story.

Tweaking the Agora Stylesheets – 1

The AGORA project (this one, not to be confused with this other one nor even this other one again) has defined a very simple TEI XML schema for  scholarly publishing. In this series of blog entries, I report my attempts to process a set of documents which conform to that schema into PDF and other formats, using the TEI stylesheet library.  My environment is a laptop running Ubuntu 10.04, on which I have installed the 5.1.4 release of the tei-xsl package and most of the texlive Ubuntu packages (versions dating from July 2009 according to dpkg).

On the train to London this morning, I  wrote a Makefile which validates each file and, if valid, then processes it using the teitolatex and xelatex commands. This produced something not entirely discouraging, with the  following obvious things to fix:

  • some of my files had  numbered headings and others didn’t. By  default the stylesheets added numbers willy nilly. I need to switch this behaviour off.
  • some of my files used <byline> in the header to indicate the affiliation for an author, like this:
    <byline><docAuthor>Fred Flintstone </docAuthor>
        Euphoria State University, Kansas</byline>.

    By default, the stylesheets clearly have no idea what to do with the text fragment following the <docAuthor>, and therefore spit it out on a page of its own.

I learned at the excellent MUTEC workshop last week that the recommended way of modifying these stylesheets is to set up a new “profile”, so I duly visited the directory  /usr/share/xml/tei/stylesheet/profiles and created a new folder there called   /usr/share/xml/tei/stylesheet/profiles/agora (somewhat to my surprise this did not require root access).  I then copied the existing default specifications for each of the target transformations I thought I might use in my Agora work into this folder. Like this:

$cd /usr/share/xml/tei/stylesheet/profiles
$mkdir agora
$cp -r default/latex agora
$cp -r default/docx agora
$cp -r default/oo agora

The directory names (latex, docx, etc.) are not particularly well publicized: I worked out by inspection that “oo” must be the one invoked by the command “teitoodt”… presumably at some point it will be renamed Liboff vel sim.

Anyway, this setup should mean that if I now do e.g.

$teitolatex --profile=agora foo.xml

I should get the same result as I would if I left out the –profile … and so indeed I do. Good.  Time to start messing about.

I take a peek into the contents of my agora/latex folder. It contains just one file, called to.xsl — which presumably controls the conversion from tei to latex. One day maybe some clever person will add a file called from.xsl which does the opposite. Or not.

The file is rather dull: all it does is remind me that the file is copyright TEI Consortium 2008, and that the library it invokes is “distributed in the hope that it will be useful, but WITHOUT ANY WARRANTY”. Fair enough. It also loads the stylesheet at
../../../latex2/tei.xsl but all it does to modify that is set some mysterious parameter called reencode to false. So clearly I am at liberty to add further modifications in this file… or will be once I have  changed permissions on the file.
../../../latex2 (i.e. /usr/share/xml/tei/stylesheet/latex2, sibling of the profiles directory) is the directory with the real biz. It contains files named for most TEI modules, as well as promising looking files like tei-param.xsl. A little sniffing around, and I have discovered the XSL template for procesing the TEI <head> element inside the file core.xsl, which contains the following magic:

<xsl:choose>
<xsl:when test="ancestor::tei:floatingText">Star</xsl:when>
<xsl:when test="parent::tei:div/@rend='nonumber'">Star</xsl:when>
<xsl:when test="ancestor::tei:back and $numberBackHeadings='false'">Star</xsl:when>
<xsl:when test="$numberHeadings='false' and      ancestor::tei:body">Star</xsl:when>
<xsl:when test="ancestor::tei:front and $numberFrontHeadings='false'">Star</xsl:when>
</xsl:choose>

That looks to me suspiciously like there should be a parameter called numberHeadings which I should set to false in order to suppress those pesky generated section numbers. (Of course, I’d have found that out immediately if I’d bothered to read the documentation, but …)

Back in my file profiles/agora/latex/to.xsl, I add the following line

<xsl:param name="numberHeadings">false</xsl:param>

and then regenerate the PDF, using the tweaked stylesheet in my agora profile:

teitolatex --profile=agora aaberge_2007.xml
xelatex aaberge_2007.tex

Bingo! no numbering. This could maybe be easier than it looks…

My second problem is trickier. The challenge and the delight of the TEI is precisely its open-endedness, and so it often happens that something which looks plausible in TEI has no obvious translation in some other markup system, such as LaTeX. In my case, how *should* the <byline> element be processed? A grep through the LaTeX directory shows me that at present there is no template at all for it, so my hands are comparatively untied. My first thought is just to add a template like the following to my file:

<xsl:template match="tei:byline/text()">
\author{<xsl:value-of select="."/>}
</xsl:template>

on the assumption that the bit of text inside the byLine elements might as well be treated in the same way as an author as anything else. But LaTeX is not so liberal: when it finds that I have generated

\title{The Semantic Web in a philosophical perspective}\author{Terje Aaberge}
\author{,
Sogndal, Norway}

it simply ignores the first \author. This suggests that I cannot solve this without learning more about LaTeX than I really want to.

Maybe I can modify the existing template for <docAuthor> to deal with this special case. In the file header.xsl there is a template like this

<xsl:template match="tei:docAuthor">
<xsl:if test="not(preceding-sibling::tei:docAuthor)">
<xsl:text>\author{</xsl:text>
</xsl:if>
<xsl:apply-templates/>
<xsl:choose>
<xsl:when test="count(following-sibling::tei:docAuthor)=1"> and </xsl:when>
<xsl:when test="following-sibling::tei:docAuthor">, </xsl:when>
</xsl:choose>
<xsl:if test="not(following-sibling::tei:docAuthor)">
<xsl:text>}</xsl:text>
</xsl:if>
</xsl:template>

It’s a horrible kludge, but if I insert the following before the final <xsl:if> element, it should make sure I output any following sibling text fragment before outputting the }

<xsl:if test="parent::tei:byline and (following-sibling::text())">
<xsl:value-of select="following-sibling::text()"/>
</xsl:if>

I therefore copy the whole of the <xsl:template> for docAuthor into my to.xsl file, add the above clause, and blow me down it (nearly) works. I had, of course, forgotten to suppress a second appearance of those pesky text fragments caused by the default processing for <byline>.  One more template:

<xsl:template match="tei:byline/text()"/>

fixes that.

Of course, the more I look at this, the less I like it. A much better solution would be to tag the affiliation data as such in the XML source, using an element such as <affiliation> perhaps, and then process it correctly into whatever LaTeX provides for the treatment of such things. But that would, as aforesaid, require some research into what LaTeX can do, as well as changing the Agora schema.

Not a bad way to pass the train journey to Paris, especially when surrounded by kids returning home after the half term hols.

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