Introduction to Plain Text Workflows and Sustainable Publishing


Disclaimer 1: many of the ideas have been inspired by the work of Alex Gil (@elotroalex) and Denis Tenen (@dennistenen)1 and discussions with the two of them and others at DHI Beirut, THATCamp Beirut, and DHSI.

Disclaimer 2: I am teaching short workshops on some of the ideas outlined in this post at Digital Humanities Institute - Beirut on 10 March 2017 and at DH Abu Dhabi on 10 April 2017. Basic slides are available here and here.


In the world of (academic) publishing, large aggregators and indexers have turned into and acquired publishing presses and generate obscene profits by charging the public (every tax-payer worldwide) multiple times over. First by charging the predominantly publicly-funded academic for publishing the results of her publicly-funded research and by enforcing a culture of pro bono labour among academic reviewers and editors; second by selling this content to equally predominantly publicly-funded libraries, which then increasingly demand access fees from members of the public, who want to access their collections; and third by offloading the cost of long-term preservation to, again, publicly-funded institutions. This system not only created a hierarchy of academics and institutions in the relatively well-off “West”—two classes divided by their ability to pay for being published and accessing publications (their own and others). It also increasingly prevents anybody outside western academia from accessing cutting-edge research and participating in intellectual discourse.

  1. Tenen, Dennis and Grant Wythoff. “Sustainable Authorship in Plain Text Using Pandoc and Markdown.” 

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The difficulty of establishing publication dates for books from late Ottoman Bilād al-Shām

Original post (2015-07-23)

I am currently preparing my thesis for publication and the process of revision, I am again turning to Ottoman legal texts and their translations. Today I want to come briefly back to a question I have extensively dealt with in my thesis: The difficulty of dating printed sources from the late Ottoman Bilād al-Shām. Consider the following image of the imprint for the second volume of Nawfal Niʿmat Allah Nawfal’s translation of Ottoman laws edited by Khalīl Khūrī and published by al-Maṭbaʿa al-Adabiyya in Beirut1.

  1. Nawfal, Nawfal Efendi Niʿmat Allāh. Al-dustūr: Tarjamahu min al-lughat al-turkiyya ilā al-ʿarabiyya Nawfal Niʿmat Allāh Nawfal bāshkātib kamāruk ʿArabistān sābiqan; bi-murājaʿa wa tadqīq Khalīl al-Khūrī mudīr maṭbūʿāt Wilāyat Sūriyya. Edited by Khalīl Efendi al-Khūrī. Vol.2. Bayrūt: al-Maṭbaʿa al-adabiyya, 1301. 

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Essay published in edited volume ‘Digital Humanities and Islamic & Middle East Studies’

After more than two years the proceedings of the conference “Digital Humanities and Islamic & Middle East Studies” including my methodological essay on mapping newspaper discourses on the topography of late Ottoman Damascus have been published under the same title with de Gruyter. Elias Muhanna, who had organised the conference held between October 2013 at Brown University, did a great job as editor of the volume which is now available online and—ironically—in print for the substantial price of € 99.95 / USD 140.1 It comprises essays by Elias Muhanna, Travis Zadeh, Dagmar Riedel, Chip Rosetti, Nadia Yaqub, Maxim Romanov, Alex Bley, José Haro Peralta and Peter Verkinderen, Joel Blecher, Dwight F. Reynolds, and myself.

  1. Muhanna, Elias (ed.). Digital Humanities and Islamic & Middle East Studies. Boston, Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016; Grallert, Till. “Mapping Ottoman Damascus Through News Reports: A Practical Approach.” In Digital Humanities and Islamic & Middle East Studies. Edited by Elias Muhanna. Boston, Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016: 175–98. 

continue reading ...’s failure as a source for digitsed imagery of Arabic journals

Recently, a colleague pointed me to yet another gray online library of Arabic material—one that was entirely dedicated to cultural and litrary journals. Arshīf al-majallāt al-adabiyya wa-l-thaqafiyya al-ʿarabiyya ( presents a large number of Arabic journals over very long publication periods, providing:

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The historian’s puzzle: various differences between copies of printed periodicals that ought to be similar. The case of Dūstur

During the last years I have sprodically written about the various surprises of early Arabic and Ottoman printed books and particularly the vast differences in pagination, spelling, and even content between copies that ought to be identical if one was to believe the information on the cover or the metadata provided by library catalogues (on this blog: here, here, and here). This post is a first attempt to summarise my findings on the publication history of the first series (tertib-i evvel) of Düstur, the officially sanctioned collection of Ottoman laws and regulations, published in Istanbul between 1872 and 1879.

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Majallat al-Muqtabas: one of the most important journals of late Ottoman Bilād al-Shām as open, collaborative, scholarly digital edition

[Update: the project has it’s own blog]

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Middle Eastern Graffiti

Thanks to the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme (EAP) we have not just access to the collection of late Ottoman periodicals from the library of al-Aqṣā Mosque (EAP119) in Jerusalem, but also to more than 3.000 photos of Maison Bonfils from the Fouad Debbas Collection in Beirut (EAP644) that were made available to the public in 2014.

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Überlegungen und Material für den Editionsworkshop im März 2015 am OIB

Technische Aspekte, oder: the D in Digital Humanities


  • wenige und simple Formate / Programmiersprachen, die mit einfachsten Texteditoren bearbeitet werden können, damit sie von den Nutzer_innen, und das sind in der Regel Geistes- und Sozialwissenschaftler_innen, gebraucht werden können. D.h. im besten Fall wird ein einziges Format und eine einzige Sprache für den gesamten Editions-/ Publikationsprozess verwandt.
  • Formate / Programmiersprachen müssen menschen- und maschinenlesbar sein. Damit wird sichergestellt, dass sogar ein plain-text-Ausdruck auf Papier prinzipiell verständlich ist, auch wenn dabei natürlich viel, wenn nicht gar sämtliche, Funktionalität verloren geht.
  • Sämtliche Sprachen und Programme sollten open source und etabliert sein, mit einer großen Community. Das verhindert einen lock-in und Abhängigkeit von einem einzelnen Abieter.
  • Sprachen sollten im Publikationsgewerbe und Editionsprojekten weit verbreitet sein.
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Thesis: German abstract

To whom belong the streets? Property, propriety, and appropriation: The production of public space in late Ottoman Damascus, 1875–1914

Die vorliegende Dissertation untersucht die Produktion von öffentlichen Orten und Öffentlichkeiten während des Übergangs von einem vor-nationalen osmanischen ancien régime zum Paradigma moderner eindimensionaler Identitäten aus vier verschiedenen Blickwinkeln und greift dabei die programmatische Terminologie des Titels und Henri Lefebvres analytische Vorschläge auf: öffentlicher Diskurs und Begriffsgeschichte; die Transformation der materiellen Umgebung und die Frage nach öffentlichem Besitz; soziale Normen von Anstand und offizielle Grundregeln zu Zugang zu und Bewegung im öffentlichen Raum; und die Inbesitznahme von öffentlichen Orten durch öffentliche/staatliche Rituale und contentious performances. Die Leitfrage, “wem gehört die Straße?”, zielt auf eine Untersuchung des angenommenen epistemischen Wandels von einer Vielzahl sich überlappender Öffentlichkeiten, in denen sich permanent wandelnde soziale Gruppen politische Forderungen verhandeln, zur Dominanz und schließlich Hegemonie der Öffentlichkeit, die dann die Sphäre legitimer politischer Partizipation auf bourgeoise Landsmänner beschränkte.

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The puzzle continues II: in addition to al-kabīr and al-ṣaghīr, al-Muqtaṭaf published slightly different editions in Beirut and Kairo

I am just about to fix the references in my thesis, and a possible reason for differences between available copies of al-Muqtaṭaf, which I had briefly mentioned in my first post on the issue of differences between copies of printed periodicals that ought to be similar. As I wrote some eight months later, the scholarly community had just not read al-Muqtaṭaf close enough to discover the existence of a long (kabīr) and short (ṣaghīr) for Volumes 6 to 9, which were most likely targetted at two different markets (the long version at Egypt and Europe and the short one at Beirut, Lebanon, and surrounding areas).

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New XSLT stylesheets for calendar conversion on Github

A couple of months ago a posted a short note on my XSLT stylesheets to convert the various calendars at use in the late Ottoman empire at will. Now, I have improved the functions and added the Ottoman fiscal calendar (mālī, sene-yi māliye) to the brew and uploaded everything under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license to GitHub. Feel free to fork and tinker with the code. Enjoy!

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The puzzle continues: al-Muqtaṭaf was printed in two different and unmarked editions

As I noted at the end of last year, Ottoman and Arabic periodicals of the late nineteenth and early twentieh century appeared in different editions. Print-runs differed in spelling, pagination, lay-out, and content. However, I was not aware of the extend of this phenomenon.

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XSLT functions for converting calendars

Recently I came across the necessity of converting Islamic hijrī dates to Gregorian dates in order to automatically harvest data from the Baṣbakanlik Osmanli Arṣivi’s catalogue into my research database. Unfortunately the database I use (the reference manager Sente) is proprietary software that can only deal with Gregorian dates. Thus, I needed to translate a certain string through XSLT in order to produce the correct XML for import into the database. I soon discovered that even though, formally the specifications for the format-date() function in XPath 2.0 include the hijrī calendar (labelled “Islamic”) and even Arabic month names, this specification was never actually implemented. As I could not find any available code on the net, I adopted the javascript conversion between Gregorian, Julian, and Hijri calendars provided by John Walker’s Calendar Converter for XSLT 2.0 and decided to share the functions on GitHub for reuse.

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Historical Currency Converter

Conducting historical research, one often encounters odd currencies, measures, and calendars, all of which are bound to space and time. Calender conversion tools can be readily found on the internet (a good example is CalendarHome’s adaptation of Fourmilab’s code), but converters for non-metric currencies and weights are a bit trickier to come by. As I found myself repeatedly computing exchange rates between Ottoman Lira, British Pound Sterling, US Dollars, and French Francs, I wrote a simple javascript and html frontend.

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Solution to the historian’s puzzle?

This post is a short update to my recent post on different versions of Düstur

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Update to the historian’s puzzle

This post is a short update to my recent post on different versions of Düstur

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The historian’s puzzle: various differences between copies of printed periodicals that ought to be similar

Over the course of the recent days I discovered that contrary to my expectations libraries around the world hold numerous unmarked editions and print-runs of the first series Düstur (tertib-i evvel). Copies vary in pagination,spelling, and content. Yet, neither the people I asked nor the scholarly works citing copies of Düstur, seem to be aware of significant differences between copies of the same volume. In consequence, it isalmost impossible to confirm references found in scholarly literature. Over the past years I had come to consider the many seemingly wrong references in Aristarchi and Young as, well, erroneous references by careless printers, copy-editors, even the translators themselves, but as it stands, they could have just used a different copy.

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Project Jaraid: our new chronology of nineteenth-century Arabic periodicals is online

After some time out, I return to this blog to announce yesterday’s publication of my first ever paid-for website and digital humanities project. Called “Project Jarāʾid – A chronology of nineteenth century periodicals in Arabic” the website is hosted by the Zentrum Moderner Orient Berlin. Based on a simple analogue table provided by Adam Mestyan and Philip Sadgrove (both nowadays in Oxford), I developed a static HTML page that provides the chronology in tabular form, including information on date of first publication, names of publishers, places of publication, and known holding information. In addition, we provide indexes of persons, organisations, places, and holding institutions, as well as a density map of all periodicals we could trace. As a further experimental feature, we included an index of all languages besides Arabic, such as Ladino, Ottoman, French, English, Spanish, various Arabic colloquiuals etc. The website, we hope, will help all those researchers interested in periodicals als a source for their historical accounts to a) establish possible sources, and b) to locate them for their actual research.

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Digitised books, newspapers, and maps at Düsseldorf

Today, I discovered that the Heinrich Heine Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek in Düsseldorf provides a growing body of currently 8.000+ digitised items, including metadata (METS XML), and adhering to the URN scheme of the Deutsche Nationabibliothek for public use.

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Digitised German newspapers

After the relaunch of the Staatsbibliothek Berlin’s website, I stumbled over the ZEFYS project or Zeitschrifteninformationssystem, a very long and technically sounding German composite term. Newspaper Information System is, at least to me, a bad choice, when it comes to a digital humanities project and possible search strings needed to be found on the internet. Despite being oddly named, it is truly brilliant: out-of-print German newspapers are digitized and provided through a unified interface to manyfold repositories (i.e. co-operating libraries). In addition, viewing software DFG Viewer and metadata structure (METS, MODS XML) are open source and provided under GPL. Thus, a high level of interoperability is provided.

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Ottoman newspapers and periodicals online for all of us

After posting the last comment on the exclusive and excluding collections of Ottoman yearbooks, I just found that the Hakki Tarık Us collection at the Beyazit Devlet Kütüphanesi made large parts of its holdings available online in a cooperation with the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. Yearbooks, private newspapers, and official gazettes are available in the superb DjVu format, free of charge to every member of the public, and with no restrictions on downloads and further use. All you need is the open source DjVu browser plug-in, which has the somewhat undocumented limitation to run only in 32 bit mode. If one happens to run the latest OSX iteration this is achieved by ticking a box in the application’s (Safari, Firefox, etc.) information dialog inside the finder.

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Ottoman yearbooks online … for the lucky few (and the ones with US IPs)

After receiving replies on the availability of digitised Ottoman yearbooks, I thought I’d share the links here.

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Current projects

In the future a section of this website will be populated with some information on research related projects. But for the moment I will briefly introduce a few of them .

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