Digitalising Our Cultural Heritage

Interview with Claudine Moulin, scientific director of the Trier Center for Digital Humanities

27.11.2012 | Claude Moulin holds the chair of Historical Linguistics at the German Department of the University of Trier, Germany, and is scientific director at the Trier Center for Digital Humanities. Her work covers immense time spans from early medieval manuscripts to present-day interlinked dictionaries.
AcademiaNet: Prof. Moulin, the Trier Center transfers methods from computer science to the humanities. How does this work?

Claudine Moulin: For more than 15 years, we have been developing digital concepts, methods and research projects in several fields of the humanities. Additionally, we have created virtual environments where scientists from different disciplines and universities can work on the same project, for instance within an international cooperation. These environments comprise the entire project, from data collection to data evaluation, and finally to the publication of the results.

We have projects that we developed ourselves, and we cooperate with other researchers or institutions like the German Academies of Science or the German Historical Institutes abroad. Our priorities are digitalising our cultural heritage, the evaluation of large amount of data, defining new research questions and the visualisation of our results.
Professor Claudine Moulin
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Professor Claudine Moulin

You are a classic scholar, you have published on the grammar of Old and Middle High German. When and how did the new media become important for your work?

When I took the chair of Historical Linguistics in 2003. Kurt Gärtner, my predecessor at this position, was one of the pioneers of digital humanities in Germany. He was also the founder of the Trier Center for Digital Humanities. Naturally I had used digitalised documents and collections in my work before, but in Trier I found this wonderful team developing and implementing innovative digital solutions. Together we could actively help shape and develop the digital humanities in Germany in the last two decades.

In fact, some of the early milestones of digital humanities in Germany were projects in the field of older philology and lexicography – my original speciality! These include interlinked dictionaries of Middle High German and the digitisation of medieval manuscripts. Because these projects are connected to my own speciality, the work in this "digital laboratory" sometimes almost feels like a scholarly paradise to me.

At some point, did your digital work develop a momentum of its own? From actual research to structural analysis at a higher level?

During my work at the Trier Center, we have not only focused on single projects, but we have always looked for comprehensive as well as international approaches, for instance with research environments allowing scientists to cooperate and share their work with other researchers all over the world. The structural analysis of these processes makes us evaluate our tools: What is currently lacking? What kind of tools do we need in the future? To follow up on these questions has proven to be very productive.

Was there one specific digitalisation project that was near and dear to you personally?

I think it's marvellous how interlinked dictionaries developed, the idea of the dictionary network evolved from the first digitised dictionaries we made. These are unique information systems storing our entire knowledge about words. An early example of an enhanced online dictionary was the German dictionary of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. For the development of digital humanities in Germany, this was a crucial project. From the start, its philosophy was that of enabling an interlinked network, at a time when "interlinked" and "network" had not been fashionable words yet. This project was in fact a milestone for all subsequent lexicographic projects. With the Grimm Brothers project, we were also able to reach out to the broader public: Not only because we have a six-digit number of users, but also because the artist Ecke Bonk used it on the Documenta11 in Kassel.

A project I am concerned with currently is the Correspondencies Network that will be launched early next year. Among other aspects, we will create a research platform where thousands of letters can be analysed, interrelated and semantically visualised. We will start with correspondencies of exiled German writers during the Second World War. For this project, we cooperate with partners in Marbach at the German Literature Archive and with the Martin-Luther University in Halle.

You are a founding member of the professional organization "digital humanities deutschland", or DHD. What is the aim of this organization, and what is your function?

This organization was founded last July during the international conference on digital humanities in Hamburg. Digital humanities are a very new field, and we needed an organization to formulate our field's academic interests to policy makers and the broader public – notably beyond the Anglo-Saxon context. We want to demonstrate that DH is an innovative approach to research, and that it constitutes an independent research paradigm. I will commit my work to these goals, especially in promoting the careers of young researchers as well as the internationalisation of our field.

This winter, you are a visiting professor at the Sorbonne in Paris. What do you have in store for your French students?

At the Sorbonne, I will be working with doctoral students, and my work will have an emphasis on interdisciplinary exchange. I will definitely talk about my most recent book project: The cultural history of annotation. We will discuss why humans since the early Middle Ages have obviously enjoyed marking the texts they read – adorning them for example with underlinings, additional texts, doodles or drawings. I will also talk about another project, the Baroque language of architecture. And we will discuss new forms of scientific communication in the digital age like Twitter and Blogging. By the way, some of these topics sound much nicer in French: French researchers have "un carnet de recherche" instead of a "blog", literally a research notebook, that may also be used as a medium for scientific exchange.

Your work consists of numerous tasks – what do you like doing best? And how do you regain your strength?

I really enjoy giving lectures even if the topic is challenging, for instance topics from historical linguistics or cultural history. I enjoy to awaken the students' interest and I am thrilled when they are eager to discuss these topics. But most of all I enjoy showing them that history is present all around us.

And I like to sit in the manuscript department of a library and I become completely absorbed by the medieval manuscript I am working on. The library is absolutely quiet, my thoughts can unfold and travel and even "meet" the scribes and readers who studied this manuscript more than a thousand years ago.

I usually regain my strength when I spent time with friends and family. I have been very lucky inasmuch I was able to balance work and family throughout my career – I think this should be a self evidence in the academic world. My children are almost grown up now, and they are among my closest companions and my greatest source of happiness.

Dear professor Moulin, thank you very much for this interesting interview.

Interview: Stephanie Hanel
Translation: Susanne Dambeck
  (© AcademiaNet)

More information


  • Arianna Ciula, Claudine Moulin, Julianne Nyhan (et al.), Research Infrastructures in the Digital Humanities, European Science Foundation, Science Policy Briefing 42, Strasbourg 2011


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