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University of Basel

From Erasmus to JavaScript

Text: Urs Hafner

The University of Basel is positioning itself as a national center for digital editions. In doing so, it is helping to reinvent the tradition of editing established by Erasmus of Rotterdam at the bend of the Rhine river.

Publishing editors are not generally known for being “innovative”. In the digital age, multivolume editions compiled according to specific standards that usually contain a writer or philosopher’s entire works are seen as a thing of the past; too lengthy, too expensive, too much paper.

This negative image is, however, undeserved, even if publishing editors do occasionally become stranded or even go under due to unreasonable expectations. A completed edition remains a monument encapsulating a great deal of thought and work. While turning a manuscript into a typewritten printed version may seem simple to the man on the street, it is in fact a highly demanding undertaking with its own academic field, editorial philology. Publishing editors ensure the transmission of important works and pass on cultural heritage.

Foundations for research

Attack is the best form of defense – and digitalization offers an opportunity. Not by chance, the University of Basel is seizing this opportunity and modernizing the editorial process. In the German-speaking region, Switzerland is considered an editorial stronghold, and Basel has excelled as a Swiss editorial center. It all began in the 16th century, when the humanist scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam published his edition of the Bible. This pioneering strategy is being promoted by the Forum für Edition und Erschliessung (FEE), which coordinates editorial and literary projects at the University of Basel and is based in its library. “We want to be Basel’s Biozentrum of modern editorial practice,” says FEE managing director Samuel Müller. The Forum is establishing itself as a national coordination center for the digital infrastructure of editorial projects by bringing together humanities, sciences, and textual and visual studies – a novelty in editing. It also aims to provide the foundations for humanities research: “Editing is actually basic scientific research,” says Müller.

Today, there are no editions that are not wholly or partly digital, be they the works of Johannes Atrocianus, Karl Barth, Walter Benjamin, the Bernoullis, Jacob Burckhardt, Leonhard Euler, Friedrich Nietzsche, Robert Walser, Anton Webern, or the papyri in the University Library Basel – all of which are connected to the FEE. The advantages of digital editions over purely paper-based editions are clear: You can keep on updating them and adding information, full text searches are simple, and it’s easy to link them with other works.

Versions, variations, readings

“The FEE offers a digital editing environment,” explains Markus Wild, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Basel and director of the FEE. The Forum takes a three-pronged approach: It develops and provides the “basic technology” required for digital text editions, it secures the data collected during this work, and, as a player in the digital humanities, it develops digital tools that can benefit all humanities disciplines. To achieve this, it works with the Digital Humanities Lab at the University of Basel.

The Forum supports a wide range of projects, including literature, music, philosophy, and images. Some were conceived purely as analog editions, such as the Karl Barth edition that has now been going for quite some time. This is now being brought into the digital age in collaboration with the FEE. Software developers must familiarize themselves with conventional editorial practices. After all, publishing editors have different traditions and must often make major decisions. There is no definitive document that can simply be taken from the archive for editing or digitalization. Some texts have several versions that differ in places. There must be a clear reason for deciding which is the valid version.

Older texts often cannot be deciphered without some doubt remaining, and can be read in different ways. Even a printed text does not necessarily make this easier. Some publishers or typesetters may have altered passages against the author’s wishes, or inserted variations or even errors on the manuscript galley proofs due to time pressure. Ultimately, we need to ask what belongs to the work, and what does not. Interest is increasing in letters and diary entries; even the marginal may prove significant.

Just as there is no definitive text, editorial philology is not standardized. In the second half of the 20th century, different schools fought bitterly over the correct practice. Today, there are two main opposing movements: The historic/critical and the text-genetic/critical. The historic/critical movement reconstructs the state of the text as produced by the author for initial printing, and makes the work accessible by supplying details of the text’s creation and reception, the author’s biography, and the historical context.

Risks of digitalization

Meanwhile, the text-genetic/critical movement aims to map the text’s history as precisely as possible; the reader should be able to retrace the author’s writing process. Commentary is of no interest. A further branch of editorial philology developed based on the biological model of phylogeny is currently becoming established for the publication of particularly challenging medieval texts: Rather than creating a work, their authors processed on material passed down to them – like their predecessors and successors – which they then passed on themselves. This makes the question of the original text completely obsolete.

Digitalization may not remove these difficulties, but it does alleviate them. The medium allows a certain degree of flexibility, for example the text corpus to be considered. Still, digitalization does have its risks: Programs quickly become outdated, books are still the safest form of storage, and nobody knows how long digital data can be retained. Recently, the computers for the Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, completed in 2009, had to be hacked to prevent all the data from being lost.

According to Wild, the FEE will make sure this never happens again. He explains that the Forum looks after not just the texts, but also the data and findings collected during the work, for example annotations and variations. Editing is research, and its results will no longer be left forgotten in a drawer once an edition is complete. After all, the FEE is part of the digital humanities and will drive their development for the benefit of all disciplines within the humanities that must get to grips with digitalization. For example, humanities researchers working today must have a firm understanding of the JavaScript programming language. Wild and Müller hope that, through the FEE, editing will take a more central role in humanities research, having previously been relegated to the sidelines.


More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

Basel – an editorial hotspot

Basel is becoming a national hotspot for digital editorial projects. This is being driven by the Forum für Edition und Erschliessung FEE, based in the University Library Basel. The Forum is working with the Universities of Basel, Bern, and Zurich and the Zurich Central Library to launch the “Nationale Infrastruktur für Editionen – Infrastructure nationale pour les éditions” (NIE-INE), a national editorial infrastructure financed by swissuniversities. The technological basis is provided by the national Data and Service Center for the Humanities (DaSCH) – initiated by the State Secretariat for Education, Research, and Innovation and the Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences – and the Digital Humanities Lab at the University of Basel. 

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