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Humboldt’s Journey into the Digital World – From a Hand-Written Diary to a Digital Edition and Back to Printed Paper

Prof. Dr. Ottmar Ette (links) und Dr. Tobias Kraft. Photo: Karla Fritze.

Prof. Dr. Ottmar Ette (links) und Dr. Tobias Kraft. Photo: Karla Fritze.

2019 marks Alexander von Humboldt's 250th birthday – a good reason to look at the comprehensive academy project of editing his travel diaries. Romance scholar Ottmar Ette, who is scientific director of this project, and Tobias Kraft, the project coordinator, talk about the new perspectives that are opened up for research by digitizing Humboldt’s writings. They also explain why there is no way around the printed book.

“Caribe. Three types of this terrible species. Big middle and very small, about 4 inches long. This middle genus and the small one the cruelest,” wrote Alexander von Humboldt in his journal in 1800. In ink, he added an image of the “caribe fish” called piranha, and took the pencil to add the animal's sharp teeth. A deluxe edition published by Prestel brings together all the drawings and sketches that the explorer made on his great American expedition for the first time. Romance scholars Ottmar Ette and Julia Maier have arranged and annotated the illustrations in the original format according to subject areas. A graphic treasure, printed on fine paper, carefully stowed in a decorative slipcase.

But why a book? All the pages of Humboldt's travel diaries acquired in 2014 have been digitally recorded and are freely accessible on the worldwide web. Ette explains the motivation. “It is a collector’s edition for classical readers who love the feel of printed paper, who want to delve into the pages and follow a linear narrative style.” The Berliner edition humboldt, led by Ottmar Ette, publishes Humboldt’s writings and travel journals to the Americas and Siberia not only online but also in print. When it comes to concentrated, persevering reading, the book is superior to the digital reception, he says. The digital version meets other needs. As a freely accessible research platform, it primarily serves research and academic exchange across disciplines and national boundaries.

Into unmapped territory

The 18-year project of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities started in 2015. The Cuban journal fragment “Isle de Cube. Antilles en general” was published as a pilot project, thanks in part to the Biblioteka Jagiellońska in Krakow, where part of Humboldt’s written legacy is located. It is a first example of a digital edition giving an idea of the possibilities offered by this type of publication. When the computer mouse moves over unknown plant names, places, or units of measurement, an explanation appears next to the text. You can also click on Humboldt's margin notes, calculations, and pasted notes. The scientific classification is based on a research dossier with annotations by specialists. For this pioneering achievement, the project team received the Berlin Digital Humanities Award in 2017. “We are honoring the will, the preparation, and the beginning of a journey into the digital world,” said the Berlin philosopher Gerd Graßhoff in his laudatory speech. “This journey leads from the homeland of the classical edition to the hybrid digital edition. It leads – to stick to this metaphor – across dangerous fords into partially unmapped new territory.”

Science for the digital age

One who does not shy away from the imponderabilities of terra incognita is Tobias Kraft. He completed his doctorate in Potsdam at the chair of Ottmar Ette on “Tropes of Science: Essay, Tableau, and Atlas in Alexander von Humboldt’s Opus Americanum.” Today, he coordinates the edition humboldt digital, which he describes as a “work-in-progress publication”. Every six months, they publish new texts and letters and develop functions that make the books, which are in fact not really books, more readable. “We work accumulatively, so the edition is getting bigger, wider, and more profound.” Kraft and his team see themselves following Humboldt’s footsteps, whose journals do not follow a strict chronology, but are a collection of nature observations, sketches, series of experiments, calculations, scientific essays, and literary reflections, which were later rearranged and annotated. “Humboldt's way of writing is relatively concise,” says Kraft. The “text islands” that he has connected with each other correspond to today’s data structure and could be taken over in exactly the same way. “A science for the digital age,” Ette confirms. It is possible to visualize the complexity of the manuscripts very well in the online publication. Depending on their needs, readers are able to delve deeper into a topic and create new connections opening up completely new perspectives for Humboldt research. This represents Humboldt's dynamic and networked thinking, where everything is related to one another. Ette sees how young researchers around the world take up this network idea and address the scientist’s work from the perspective of art, mathematics or even climate change. The digitization of his travel journals gave the research on Humboldt a new impulse, says Ette, and is pleased that coming generations perceive Humboldt not as a “scientist of the past” but as a contemporary due to his global perspective. His multilingualism certainly contributes to this.

Which in turn is a challenge for the digital edition. In addition to German, French, and Latin, Humboldt's manuscripts contain Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Greek, and English entries. There are also notes in Chinese, Persian and various Amerindian languages. “A complex system of text segments. That will take a long time,” says Kraft, who sees this as a field for using artificial intelligence. Every translation is qualitatively inferior and can only approximate the original. A radical multilingualism, however, would produce a different understanding of the text. “Artificial intelligence is a promise. It will open more doors.”

Open science in Humboldt‘s tradition

Kraft frequently uses the metaphor of the house with many doors when it comes to making knowledge public and freely accessible. Humboldt already strongly advocated the open science concept, says Kraft, reminiscent of Humboldt’s overcrowded lectures at the Berlin Singakademie. Knowledge was not to be locked up in archives, but available to everyone. “In Humboldt’s tradition, we feel very comfortable,” explain Ette and Kraft in unison. Since they do not just want to reach a professional audience with the digital edition, they also provide access at different levels. The easiest way is to follow the chronology of travel. “Today we are able to reconstruct what Humboldt did and where he was on almost any given day.” Jürgen Hermes, a colleague at the University of Cologne, developed a Twitter robot (@AvHChrono) in a seminar on digital information processing together with students that reported every day in Humboldt’s life more than 200 years ago, says Kraft. That does not seem so far-fetched. If Humboldt went on an expedition today, he would surely keep an online blog.

The original journals are repeatedly interrupted by anticipations and recourses, inserted essays and page-long digressions, and were bound together by Humboldt only much later, towards the end of his life. The printed version of the edition humboldt tries to reconstruct the chronology of the journeys – among other things, for better readability. The necessary emissions in the print edition will be marked and can be read in their original context in the digital edition on the Internet. This is how the print and online editions are usefully combined.

The aura of the artifacts

Neither the print nor digital version can exude the aura that surrounds the artifacts. “It is fascinating to see the original manuscripts and drawings. When the box was opened and the leather-bound journals came to light - it was a very special moment,” Ette recalls. The Romance scholar, who regards Humboldt’s thinking and writing as a “science on the move”, wishes that the American travel journals will once go on a journey, back to the sources of their origin, for example to Mexico. Currently, they are securely locked in the Berlin State Library and a smaller, unbound part in Krakow. But perhaps they will soon find a home in the new Humboldt Forum in Berlin’s city center. Hermann Parzinger, President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, has already declared them to be its “communicative center”. Fortunately, they are now completely digitized, which takes the pressure off the original, Ette says. On the State Library’s website they are available as digital facsimiles for the worldwide research community.

For almost 20 years “Humboldt in the Net”

For a long time, the Potsdam Romance scholar had used the unrestricted possibilities of academic discourse on the Internet like almost no other. In 2000, Ette founded the digital journal “HiN - Alexander von Humboldt in the Net”, demonstrating his courage to take a risk. Initiated as a low-budget project, it was first published in cooperation with the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, later with the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities. It publishes the latest current studies in the field of Alexander von Humboldt research twice a year in four languages – English, German, French, and Spanish. “An advantage, particularly for our colleagues in Latin America, who are able to access up-to-date material free of charge at any time,” explains Ette. So far, the editorial board has counted over 20,000 - 30,000 downloads per issue. Modernized bit by bit, the open access journal has become increasingly elaborate and professional. “It not only reflects the development of Humboldt research, but also the history of digitization,” says Kraft, who “has grown into” the topic through his work on the journal and has brought about several changes over the years. The open-journal system they use not only enables the desired multilingualism and the uploading of metadata but also a web-based editorial system. Each article goes through a three-stage review process, Kraft explains. What is more, the layout has changed, became more reader-friendly and clearer.

Digital journal goes to press

When Ette views himself in the mirror of the publication, it still amazes him how they managed to gather contributions from all over the world and establish an international team of authors with an “unbelievably small” editorial staff, which has sometimes consisted of only two persons. Currently the 37th issue is being published. This time, not only digitally but also as a printed booklet – 100 pages to touch, browse, study, and to look at. Almost 20 years after its founding, the online journal is now taking the opposite route: from the Internet to print. A gift for the Humboldt Year 2019. Thanks to a grant from the President of the University, the digital data could be translated into print versions – a collection of 35 volumes, published by the Potsdam University Press. “The people are surprised and are happy to suddenly hold the things they know from the Internet in their hands,” Ette describes the reactions, and proudly presents the big slipcase. As much as he appreciates the advantages of the digital periodical, the concentrated reading of a book and sinking into the printed text are irreplaceable.

HiN - Alexander von Humboldt in the Net. International Review for Humboldt Studies

HiN is an international open-access journal and, since 2000, has regularly published current studies in the field of Alexander von Humboldt research in German, English, Spanish, and French. The digital periodical is published twice a year by the University of Potsdam and the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities. Since 2018, the journal has been published online and in print (ISSN online 1617-5239, print 2568-3543).


The project of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities comprises the complete edition of Alexander von Humboldt’s manuscripts related to his travels. It focuses on the American and Russian-Siberian travel diaries. The edition will have eleven volumes that will be published as a hybrid project both as a print version and digitally. In addition, extensive material from Humboldt’s legacy at the Berlin State Library – Prussian Cultural Heritage and the Biblioteka Jagiellońska in Krakow will be indexed by content and edited according to main topics. The research and editing project is performing its tasks in cooperation with the University of Potsdam, the Berlin State Library – Prussian Cultural Heritage, Technische Universität Berlin and other research institutions in the region of Berlin-Brandenburg.
Start: January 2015 (planned duration: 18 years)

The Researchers

Prof. Ottmar Ette is director of the research project “Travelling Humboldt – Science on the Move” at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities. He is Professor for French and Spanish Literature at the University of Potsdam.

Dr. Tobias Kraft studied Romance and German literature and languages, and media studies at the universities of Bonn and Potsdam, where he also earned his doctorate. Since 2015, he has been research coordinator of the academy project “Travelling Humboldt – Science on the Move” at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

Text: Antje Horn-Conrad
Translation: Susanne Voigt
Published online by: Marieke Bäumer
Contact to the online editorial office: onlineredaktionuni-potsdamde