[26 October 2008]
This is the second in series of posts recording some of my impressions from recent travels.
After the XSLT meetings described in the previous post, and then a week at home, during which I was distracted by events that don’t need to be described here, I left again in early October for Europe. During the first half of last week [week before last, now], I was in Mannheim attending a workshop on organized by the electronic publications working group of the Union of German Academies of Science. Most of the projects represented were dictionaries of one stripe or another, many of them historical dictionaries (the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, the Dictionnaire Etymologique de l’Ancien Français, the Deutsches Rechtswörterbuch, the Qumran-Wörterbuch, the Wörterbuch der deutschen Vinzersprache, both an Althochdeutsches Wörterbuch and an Althochdeutsches Etymologisches Wörterbuch, a whole set of dialect dictionaries, and others too numerous to name).
Some of the projects are making very well planned, good use of information technology (the Qumran dictionary in Göttingen sticks particularly in my mind), but many suffer from the huge weight of a paper legacy, or from short-sighted decisions made years ago. I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time to standardize on Word 6, and to build the project work flow around a set of Word 6 macros which are thought not to run properly in Word 7 or later versions of Word, and which were built by a clever participant in the project who is now long gone, leaving no one who can maintain or recreate them. But however good an idea it seemed at the time, it was in reality a foolish decision for which project is now paying a price (being stuck in outdated software, without the ability to upgrade, and with increasing difficulty finding support), and for which the academy sponsoring the project, and the future users of the work product, will continue paying for many years to come.
I gave a lecture Monday evening under the title “Standards in der geisteswissenschaftlichen Textdatenverarbeitung: Über die Zukunftssicherung von Sprachdaten”, in which I argued that the IT practice of projects involved with the preservation of our common cultural heritage must attend to a variety of problems that can make their work inaccessible to posterity.
The consistent use of suitably developed and carefully chosen open standards is by far the best way to ensure that the data and tools we create today can still be used by the intended beneficiaries in the future. I ended with a plea for people with suitable backgrounds in the history of language and culture to participate in standardization work, to ensure that the standards developed at W3C or elsewhere provide suitable support for the cultural heritage. The main problem, of course, is that the academy projects are already stretched thin and have no resources to spare for extra work. But I hope that the academies will realize that they have a role to play here, which is directly related to their mission.
It’s best, of course, if appropriate bodies join W3C as members and provide people to serve in Working Groups. More universities, more academies, more user organizations need to join and help guide the Web. (Boeing and Chevron and other user organizations within W3C do a lot for all users of the Web, but there is only so much they can accomplish as single members; they need reinforcements!) But even if an organization does not or cannot join W3C, an individual can have an impact by commenting on draft W3C specifications. All W3C working groups are required by the W3C development process to respond formally to comments received on Last-Call drafts, and to make a good-faith effort to satisfy the originator of the comment, either by doing as suggested or by providing a persuasive rationale for not doing so. (Maybe it’s not a good idea after all, maybe it’s a good idea but conflicts with other good ideas, etc.) It is not unknown for individuals outside the working group (and outside W3C entirely) to have a significant impact on a spec just by commenting on it systematically.
Whether anyone in the academies will take the invitation to heart remains to be seen, though at least a couple of people asked hesitantly after the lecture how much membership dues actually run. So maybe someday …