Digital Scholarly Edition: Alfred Escher Correspondence [Review]

The past years have seen notable efforts to introduce the scholarly community and the wider public to the life and work of the highly influential 19th century Swiss politician and entrepreneur Alfred Escher (*1819, †1882; e .g. founder of the Nordostbahn Company (1852/53), Eidgenössisches Polytechnikum (1854/55, now ETH Zurich), Schweizerische Kreditanstalt (1856, now Credit Suisse), Schweizerische Lebensversicherungs- und Rentenanstalt (1857, now Swiss Life), and the leading figure behind the successful realisation of the Gotthard railway). The course of Escher’s career reflects the dynamic environment that existed during the founding years of the Swiss federal state and Escher managed to create effective synergies between politics, railways, finance and education that helped Switzerland onto an undreamt-of upward trajectory (cf. Escher Foundation: Biography).

While critically examining many of Escher’s achievements, historical research on the person of Escher has been quiet for a very long time during the 20th century and only in the late 1980s awoke interest in Escher as a historical personality. Most importantly, Joseph Jung published a four volume biography in 2006, followed by a number of subsequent publications on Escher and his daughter by the same author. In order to further promote critical historical research into Alfred Escher and subjects relating to him, the Alfred Escher Foundation was established in 2006. 1 Among the research activities of the foundation figure a documentation centre offering access to correspondences, speeches, articles and publications (located in Zurich and opened to the public since 7th March 2012) as well as a small number of ongoing dissertation projects on Escher related topics.

Besides the Escher biography, the publication of letters written by and to Alfred Escher stands out as the most important undertaking of the Escher foundation. This editorial project, running from 2008 until 2015, concentrates on ca. 4500 letters held by the documentation centre as a systematic and complete collection of copies supplied by several public and private archives and intends to publish the whole collection online (starting 2012). This digital edition is complemented by a corpus of selected and richly annotated letters in six printed volumes, three of which are published to date with the next volume forthcoming in summer 2012. Both editions are based on the same transcriptions carried out by the Escher foundation (in XML/TEI), from which any form of presentation can be generated (single-source principle). By 21st February 2012, 501 letters written between 1831 and 1848 were released online. The data set will gradually be increased over the next three years and extensions and optimisations to the presentations are to be expected. As of now, the digital edition of the letters offers a variety of search and filter options, extensive commentaries on the relevant people and events, as well as a comprehensive chronology of Alfred Escher’s life and work (cf. Escher Foundation: Digital Edition, Letters; Escher Correspondence: Course of project).

Assessing the Value of the Escher Correspondence Project as a Digital Scholarly Edition

A digital scholarly edition has the potential to be valuable for a bigger community, if three central claims are satisfied: the data made available must be relevant, accessible and useable. Important is furthermore a middle- and long-term strategy both in relation to funding and chosen technologies and standards. Taking these aspects into account, this review illustrates why the Escher Correspondence project is rightly regarded as a state of the art project (cf. e. g. Institut für Dokumentologie und Editorik 2012).

Relevance

As indicated already, the personage of Alfred Escher is of great importance for Swiss history of the 19th century. Amounting to 4500 letters from the correspondence with more than 500 contemporaries and covering topics as diverse as politics, economics, education, railways, banks and insurance, Escher’s correspondence is a momentous testimonial that may inform research in economic, politic and social history. While the print edition, although arranged chronologically, is based on a thematic selection (cf. Jung 2008, p. 14–16), the digital edition aims to publish the correspondence in its entireness and thus is able to illustrate aspects of Escher’s life and work that are not essentially covered by the print edition. After all, Escher was not only concerned with large scale projects and undertakings that mattered for the country as a whole, but also interested in more local development and debates. Similarly, many of his letters also shed light on Escher’s private life.

Accessibility and integration of the source material

Besides providing access to all Escher letters that are available to the Escher Foundation, the digital edition aims to include a wealth of additional information and commentaries, comprising the contents of the print volumes (commentaries, summaries, short biographies, maps, tables and listings). Unless this extensive stock of source material can be browsed intuitively and / or searched reliably and any evidence found can be referenced and reaccessed easily, it is not very useful as a resource for research.

The Escher letters can be accessed through five different types of navigation that are implemented as sub-sites and can be reached with a simple click from the initial view. These navigational approaches allow to list the letters in a) a serial manner (using faceted classification), b) according to the time of writing and c) based on people or d) places mentioned. There is also e) a search option with sophisticated functionalities. Subject related access is not provided as a first level entry point, but it is achievable through a keyword field in the serial list of letters or by using the search function. Just below the main navigation the user is shown his current position in a breadcrumb path. This feature is somewhat misleading in that it does not reflect lower level choices (e. g. the choice of an initial letter regarding a listing of person or place names) and invariably relegates to the ‘Alle Briefe’ view as soon as a letter is selected and displayed. Implemented in a more helpful manner, it might show something like ‘Home > Alle Orte > Aachen (D) > Briefansicht (AES B0161 | ZB FA Escher vom Glas)’ and allow the user to go back to the name listing after having selected one of the letters. 2

The core source material of the project are (hand-written) letters. By way of transcription and encoding (in XML/TEI) they become available for display within the digital edition. Each letter can be viewed in three ways, as edited text, digital facsimile and as a diplomatic text with a magnified view of the corresponding line in the facsimile on cursor roll-over.

  • The display of the edited text of a letter reflects the transcription that is used for the print version (letters that are edited in the print version are labelled as such in the title area). It consists of a basic normed transcription of the letter, that allows for the display of relevant additional information such as explanations of abbreviations and names (words underlined in blue that are explained using a hovering effect on roll-over; so-called ‘Tooltips’) and comments appended as endnotes (linked to blue superscript numerals). The display of an edited letter is complemented with a contextual menu that highlights corresponding names, locations, etc. as well as indications to linked letters and contextual comments in the text on click in the menu. The listed items at the same time serve as links to the denoted entities (cf. Escher Correspondence: Functions and Setup).
  • The facsimile view of a letter contains page by page displays of the digitised original sources, the first page often being supplemented with measurement indications and reference colours. For better readability, the digital representations of the letters can be increased and optionally be displayed in full window view. 3 The scans provided are of high quality and suitable for close-up study of the text, but the platform does not allow for exporting the facsimiles e. g. as a PDF file.
  • Contrary to the edited text, the diplomatic text avoids editorial intervention where possible, but instead concentrates on peculiarities related to the graphical layout and the handwriting of the original source (line lengths and breaks, alignment of single words and paragraphs, insertions and deletions). A notable feature of the diplomatic text is the synoptical display of the original source on cursor roll-over. 4 The corresponding line of the original text is displayed as a ‘tooltip’ that can be locked to a position or moved and rotated freely (cf. Escher Correspondence: Functions and Setup).

Three properties or features are shared by all three display modes. First, the metadata pertaining to the source of the letter, its publication (where applicable), title and the assigned keywords are listed above the display of the letter. Second, preceding and subsequent letters, both in relation to the whole collection and the exchange of letters in question, are always accessible within one or two clicks. Third, the footer of the page always holds a suggestion how the particular letter (commentary, etc.) is best quoted. These quotations contain the unique identification number of the current document, thus allowing stable references on the level of a letter. A more granular citation seems not warranted by design, yet it is of course possible to refer to line numbers of the synoptical view / diplomatic text (that should not normally be subject to change).

Usability

The Escher Correspondence project is predictably above all of interest for historical research, a discipline that builds on the selection and critical interpretation of valuable sources. Given the relevance of Escher’s personage and correspondence as well as the multi faceted accessibility of the digital edition, this resource certainly has the potential to contribute to the work on many specific historical research questions. While the full text search option provides an important entry point to exploration of Escher’s letter, the keyword and metadata based search and browsing options allow for more structured retrieval of material.

A very nice feature in relation to date related access strategies is the chronology that is accessed via the main navigation. Instead of a mere listing of dates with associated letters, the digital edition employs a two level time bar display. The initial view shows a part of the time span between 1819 and 1882 (Escher’s years of birth and death) with the possibility to navigate to earlier (left) and later (right) years. A letter symbol indicates the rough number of letters and makes a general pattern in correspondence activity obvious. For each year, the number of letters is also indicated. Very useful is the temporal indication of political, economical and other functions held by Escher (e. g. member of committees and councils, chair of organisations, etc.), since it presents valuable context information at a glance. The second, more detailed view is accessed by selecting one of the years. The time bar now covers 40 days and the letters are displayed on the day of their origin. This view is supplemented with important events of Escher’s life and, as in the previous view, Escher’s functions. Both letters and events reveal basic information on mouse action and letters are linked to the threepart detail view described above (cf. figure 1 and Escher Correspondence: Chronology).

Escher Correspondence – Chronological view (day view)

Escher Correspondence – Chronological view (day view)

A special feature comparable to the time bar display is the map view that is accessed over the location option (‘Alle Orte’). Using cartographical material and representing all locations mentioned in the correspondence (with the respective importance / number off occurrences), this feature illustrates the considerable geographic range as well as the main areas covered by and involved in the exchange of letters (cf. figure 2 and Escher Correspondence: Locations). While it does not matter for the spatial accuracy and is a minor detail, it would be nice if the cartographic material would reflect the infrastructural networks of the mid to late 19th century, but this is certainly nothing to demand of the project discussed here and would rather be the subject of a digital history resource project on its own.

Escher Correspondence – Map view

Escher Correspondence – Map view

The digital edition also provides the user with a possibility for personalisation. After registering with the service, any user has the possibility to save searches and collate selected letters to personal folders that can be shared with colleagues or published. This functionality, called ‘Mein Escher’, marks a step towards a virtual research environment, but the usefulness of this function is currently fairly limited. Some suggestions to improve the functionality of the personalisation might encompass a simple notepad to save personal notes or, desirably, a more capable function to annotate letters directly, possibly by selecting spans of text or circling sections of a letter. The possibility to append personal labels to letters would be similarly interesting. If such annotations could then be exported in a convenient way, the resource could become a very powerful research tool. 5

Further power of currently existing features might be leveraged, if the time bar and the map view could be used in connection with personal folders or based on keyword searches. This would for instance enable a user to display all correspondence related to the ‘Gotthard’ project in a chronological succession, perhaps in order to compare its intensity to another keyword.

It is in any case not unlikely that such functionalities and similar optimisations already figure on the roadmap of the edition project and it will not only be interesting to await forthcoming publications of the correspondence, but also to follow the further development of the resource.

Sustainability

While the digital edition of the Escher Correspondence is planned to be finished in 2015, this date will not mark the definite ending of the project. First of all, the online resource will require some ongoing maintenance. It is also conceivable, that the project will be extended at a later point in time, be it for the inclusion of newly discovered Escher letters, for an extension of the scope (e. g. by integrating correspondence of family members, other documents in relation to Escher) or for the interrelation with a similar resource. The design of the digital edition seems to allow for such undertakings.

Concerns related to long-term sustainability encompass the need for future funding, proper documentation of the project and the choice of suitable technology. In the case of the Escher Correspondence project, all three concerns appear sufficiently covered. The Escher Foundation is carried and supported by a number of established institutions and a severe shortage of funding seems highly unlikely. As concerns planning and documentation, the project appears to be on equally stable grounds (as far as this can be estimated by an outsider). Finally, the technical implementation of the project is based on technologies and standards that are considered to be future-proof and do not inhibit future amelioration, extension or migration. Most centrally, the project separates content from presentation and thus by design avoids many of the possible intricacies related to progressing technology. The project’s content — unquestionably its main asset — is in its entirety encoded in XML. Given its plain text basis and relative human readability, XML is the standard of choice for the majority of comparable projects. Relying on the guidelines of the Text Encoding Initiative as a principal encoding approach is certainly a good choice for a digital edition that comprises a diplomatic transcription. Adhering to this widespread standard might facilitate later conversions of the source files and of (parts of) the related queries and transformations (if the need should arise). The web technologies employed by the project, although extremely widely in use, might be the weakest link from a long-term perspective. Possible successor technologies will however certainly provide comparable functionalities and will be equally qualified to host the digital edition of the Escher Correspondence.

Applying a general perspective on digital critical editions

After addressing these rather specific questions of relevance, accessibility and integration of the source material, usability and sustainability, it is perhaps worth to briefly ponder the question in what ways the digital edition excels the print edition. A notable contribution to the underlying question is an essay proposed ten years ago by Peter Robinson, for his part editor of the Canterbury Tales Project (cf. http://www.canterburytalesproject.org; ca. 1989–2006), that pioneered new methods for transcription, collation, analysis and publication. In ‘What is a Critical Digital Edition?’ (2002) Robinson suggested six achievements digital editions should attain.

Following Robinson (2002, p. 51–59), a critical digital edition…

– is anchored in a historical analysis of the materials.
– presents hypotheses about creation and change.
– supplies a record and classification of difference over time, in many dimensions and in appropriate detail.
– may present an edited text, among all the texts it offers.
– allows space and tools for readers to develop their own hypotheses and ways of reading.
– must offer all this in a manner which enriches reading.

Robinson developed these statements against the background of the edition of a medieval text. Such editions generally involve the elaboration and presentation of an edited text that is based on a number of extant witnesses. The preconditions of a 19th century edition such as the Escher Correspondence considerably differs from this model, yet Robinson’s demands seem to be sufficiently fulfilled by the edition in question.

In the Escher corpus, most letters are available as single objects and they thereby represent the only instantiation of a text. The need for a historical assessment related to the material witness, based e. g. on stemmatic analysis, becomes thus relatively obsolete, as do hypotheses about creation and change (there is not much room for speculation). The diplomatic transcript is aware of changes that occurred to a letter after the initial writing, although most of these changes seem to have happened instantly in the process of writing the letter (extensions, deletions). This transcript covers a good level of detail, especially since it is supplied with facsimile views of the text and in doing so emphasises the physical reality of the actual letter. Complementary to the diplomatic transcript, the letters are presented as edited texts, perfectly in line with Robinson’s fourth demand. The appearance of these edited texts is normed and any text contains a number of links that build up to a dense, cross-referenced network.

Robinson’s perspective embraces the idea that editors, being perhaps more acquainted with the base text than its own author, should not deliver arbitrariness, but they must also beware of applying too strict guidance. While the digital edition of the Escher Correspondence project does not lead the user through a central argumentation or suggest a principal way how to approach the extensive stock of source materials, it seems not at risk of arbitrariness. The reader is first of all directed to the sources, but the structuring principles of the digital edition as described in this review and the transparent use of keywords and links as well as the currently present (and hopefully further developed) tools allow the user to “develop their own hypotheses and ways of reading” as claimed by Robinson (2002, p. 56–57). Without any doubt, the clear, yet not simplified, presentation of Escher’s correspondence that is embodied by the digital edition warrants an enriched reading and researching experience.

Literature

Escher Correspondence (2006–2012). http://www.briefedition.alfred-escher.ch [accessed on 6th March 2012].

Escher Foundation (2006–2012). http://www.alfred-escher.ch/en/ [accessed on 6th March 2012].

Institut für Dokumentologie und Editorik (2012). State of the art: Digitale Briefedition Alfred Escher [online, published on 23rd February 2012, accessed on 6th March 2012]. — http://www.i-d-e.de/briefedition-alfred-escher

Jung, J. (2008). Alfred Eschers grösstes und letztes Werk. In Jung, J., Fischer, B., Fries, M. and Kraus, S. (eds.) (2008). Alfred Escher zwischen Lukmanier und Gotthard. Briefe zur schweizerischen Alpenbahnfrage 1850–1882. Zurich: NZZ Libro. Alfred-Escher-Briefedition 1: 9–16.

Robinson, P. (2002). What is an Electronic Critical Edition? In Variants: The Journal of the European Society for Textual Scholarship 1: 43–61.

Notes:

  1. The foundation is financially supported by a great number of donors and institutions, many of which are based on Escher’s entrepreneurial work (cf. Escher Foundation: Donors). The tight interlinking with corporate enterprises — that is illustrated e. g. by the fact that Joseph Jung is employed by both academic and corporate institutions (‘Titularprofessor’ at the University of Fribourg, Chief Historian at Credit Suisse) and serves on the administrative board of corporate companies and foundations — is a particularity of the Escher Foundation’s research activities and should be kept in mind in the reception of published interpretational accounts (the edition of source materials seems not to be biased in any way).
  2. Currently, the path shown is ‘Home > Alle Briefe > Briefansicht, irrespective of whether the letter is accessed through ‘Chronologie’, ‘Alle Briefe’, ‘Alle Personen’ or ‘Alle Orte’.
  3. The implementation of this feature relies on the Deep Zoom viewing Ajax library ‘Seadragon’.
  4. This effect might rely on automatic segmentation of lines and auto-generation of mapping tables using Perl and the ImageMagick suite, cf. the explanatory screen shots available at http://www.i-d-e.de/wordpress/wp-content/ uploads/2011/11/Skript-zur-Zeilensegmentierung-von-handschriflichen-Dokumenten_19.11.2011.pdf.
  5. While all contents of the digital edition are encoded in XML (based on the TEI guidelines) and this data is held in the native XML database eXist, the user data of the personalised functionalities is stored in a relational (MySQL) database (cf. Escher Correspondence: Functions and Setup). This framework should allow for much more sophisticated personalisation, although the seamless integration of complex queries may pose some difficulties.
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