Editing Modernism in Canada


June 13, 2011

The Agony and the Ecstasy of XSMLT

This year I took the workshop on XSMLT. It was probably the most useful of the three workshops which I have so far taken at DHSI but by far the most frustrating — one might almost say agonizing. Since returning from DHSI I have been generating, through XSLT, exactly the HTML files based on TEI-conformant transcriptions of some very complicated revised manuscripts. Though I am sure my coding will increase in efficiency and elegance as time passes, I really am fully confident for the first time that I have exactly what I need for my project — and that I have the wherewithal to explain my needs to the research assistants who will be encoding texts for me. I therefore would strongly urge anyone who is going to be involved in digital editing to take this course — even if they entirely lack a programming background, which I do . You may end up hiring someone to design your XSLT stylesheets, but even so, it is very important that you have some sense of exactly what it is you want them to do.

The experience, however, was definitely not fun. In fact, you might characterize it at times (and with a bit of exaggeration) as agony. This had nothing to do with how the course was actually designed and taught. What it did have to with was the fact that people taking the course came from very different backgrounds, with varying degrees of programming skills. As one of the least skilful people in the course, I found the going very rough. I have written a detailed assessment of the workshop from this point of view for its two instructors, Martin Holmes and Syd Bauman — who did an absolutely first-rate job — and I hope that some of my comments might help future instructors make the workshop less stressful and more appealing to people without backgrounds and programming — but I thought it might be a good idea, in any case, to share my experiences with other EMICites. My aim is both to encourage people to take the course, and to give them some sense of its challenges and how they might prepare for them.

The workshop was billed as being about XSLT, but in fact, virtually all of it was about XPath, for reasons I will explain in a moment. An XSLT file instructs your computer to go to a particular point in your XML file and to do something to it. I use XSLT exclusively for presentation purposes. That is, I may want it to present revisions in a certain colour, to centre headings, to indent the final couplet of a sonnet, or whatever. To do this you need to put directions in your XSLT file so that it will know where to go on the XML “tree” to find the part of the file you want it to transform. XPath is the language you used to do this, using terms like siblings, descendants, ancestors, parents, etc., informing you how to get where you want to go. I had no problem with the principles of XPath which are very simple, but I don’t think like a programmer (and I have a terrible sense of direction, which didn’t help) so I quickly found myself getting lost in the maze of any but the simplest XPath paths. I simply did not have the time to absorb and retain all the details of XPath syntax, even though I worked away in my room like a demon after classes, making this the least sociable DHSI I have attended. The difficulties were all the greater because by the end of the week Syd and Martin — and a number of the more advanced students in the class — were performing all kinds of magic tricks with their documents, which seemed to me totally irrelevant to anything I would ever want to do with mine.

What made the workshop extremely useful though, was 1) the very lucid account we were given of the basic principles of XSMLT/XPath and 2) the very very valuable hands on help I got from both instructors, not only with details of XPath that I had failed to grasp in class, but also with my attempts to work with a TEI text I had prepared in anticipation of the workshop. After talking to the two of them about these matters, I was encouraged that two of the most knowledgeable experts on TEI thought my approach to encoding my project, though not particularly sophisticated, was fully adequate to my needs and perfectly kosher TEI, without any need for “tag-abuse” or re-configuring the TEI schemata for my own purposes. Syd suggested a somewhat different kind of approach which would be somewhat more flexible but considerably more complex, and we agreed to continue discussions about it. But I was left with a strong sense that the choices that I had made early on in my project were reasonable and justifiable. By the end of the course I had accomplished what I had hoped for and I was kind of ecstatic.

What could have been done to make the experience of this workshop less frustrating, though? I would make the following suggestions:

1. If you happen to be one of those rare but not quite extinct DHSI birds who uses a PC, practice on a Mac before you start your class. I know this sounds trivial, but I wasted a huge amount of my time, as well as the time of my fellow students and my instructors, trying to figure out how to find my way around the Mac.

2. We used Oxygen for editing our files. Oxygen is a wonderful program and very easy to use. But you still need to learn how to use it. The instructors provided good instructions, in the course material and in their presentations, but with so much else to absorb I kept getting snarled up in technicalities until well into the 3rd day. Another enormous source of frustration.

3. Do some preparatory work before the workshop. Syd and Martin provided useful slides but they would have been vastly more useful if I had had access to them before the class. I suggested to them that they send a list of materials online, as well as of books, to all of the students enrolled in the course a few weeks ahead of time. With some of this behind you, you will be able to take full advantage of the many examples, exercises, quizzes, and discussions of basic principles that went on all week and which were received with great enthusiasm for those who were prepared, by their past experience, to fully appreciate them.
If this course is offered again, I think I may take it. With more experience I am sure I will have a much better time and learn a lot of things that were over my head this time around. — and I fully expect the ratio of agony to ecstasy to shift in my favour.

One Response to “The Agony and the Ecstasy of XSMLT”

  1. Anouk says:

    Just wanted to say that this is a really helpful summary of the XSMLT course for those thinking about whether they should take it at DHSI in future years (and whether they have the necessary internal fortitude to survive it!). Thank you, Zailig!

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