From Source to Document: “Key Documents of German-Jewish History”

Many German projects are making new text corpora available in digital form, complete with transcriptions, facsimiles, and English translations. Much can be learned from the work of our colleagues, in this case historians from the Hamburg-based Institute for the History of German Jews.  — Editorial note, Href

By Daniel Burckhardt and Anna Menny

The bilingual (German/English) online source edition “Key Documents of German-Jewish History” (, which is published by the Institute for the History of German Jews (IGdJ) in Hamburg (, uses primary sources, so-called key documents, to highlight central aspects of Hamburg’s rich and multifaceted Jewish past from the early modern period to the present. The project currently includes seventy-five sources with new materials being added on a regular basis. The project focuses on Hamburg but is outward- rather than inward-looking. Put differently, the project uses the city as a case study to examine topics and trends whose significance is not just local but also national, transnational, and even global. Generally speaking, the “key” sources featured in the project are meant to “open doors” to understanding larger developments and issues in (German-) Jewish history.

The target audience for this source edition is students, researchers, and teachers, as well as the interested public. In keeping with the broad nature of the audience, the edition includes a wide range of secondary-source texts and commentaries: general texts, for example, offer background information on important topics, such as “Memory and Remembrance” or “Family and Everyday Life,” whereas source-based interpretative texts develop argumentation on the basis of close textual analysis. All of the materials can be accessed in three different ways: by subject, through a timeline, or on a map.

"Key Documents of German-Jewish History" poster for DHD 2018
“Key Documents of German-Jewish History” poster, DHD 2018. Please click for an enlarged version.

The poster ( that we presented at the annual conference of digital humanities in the German-speaking realm (DHd2018) describes the basic conceptual idea of our online source edition: to explore “the digital” in its entirety while also viewing it as a supplement to (rather than a competitor of) the analog original.

The poster illustrates the steps leading from an archival source to an online document. Insofar as our work process may be of use to students and scholars who are interested in publishing their own online source editions, we have outlined the main steps below.

  • The first step is to scan, photograph or digitize the document, artwork, sound recording, etc., in order to obtain a digital image (JPG or TIFF) or audio/video (MPEG) file.
  • The second step is to transcribe textual sources using a word processor (DOCX).
  • The project staff then creates a structured TEI P5 file in the Oxygen XML Editor. Since we tend to focus on shorter documents or excerpts from longer texts, the transfer from Word is mostly done using copy and paste.[1] We use a relatively flat TEI schema that is limited to the essential text structure (such as document type, page, paragraph and line) according to the “Base Format” of the Deutsches Textarchiv (DTABf). Emphasized passages as well as insertions and deletions are recorded and abbreviations are expanded. Text passages are commented on in cases where it is necessary for comprehension.
  • All references to persons, institutions, and places are tagged with authority data according to the Integrated Authority File (GND) or the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names (TGN). This forms the basis for generating the corresponding indexes as well as for locating such references on a map. Additional information (such as biographical dates, short biographies, and geo-coordinates) are then automatically supplemented from the linked data services of the German National Library and from Getty. So called BEACON-files[2] make it possible for us to link dynamically to materials by third-party providers, such as biographical articles in the Allgemeine and Neue Deutsche Biographie (ADB/NDB), or relevant personal papers, manuscripts, and print publications catalogued by Kalliope and library networks. In the same way, third-party providers can easily incorporate links to our entries into their displays.
  • In an automated final step, the header and the page structure of our TEI transcripts are analyzed to generate a METS container. This XML file contains all the information for a source viewer[3] to present the digital facsimile, the transcription of the text, and possible translations side by side on the screen. This allows for individual verification of all editorial steps, and it supplements the transcript with additional visual information (page layout, type face, subsequent additions or corrections) that would be lost in a purely alphabetical linearization of the source. By tagging norm data for persons, objects or dates as well as the structure of the text, new layers and information are added to the transcripts that will hopefully allow for new research questions.

Since the digitization and online publication process always involves separating a source from its traditional context (and thus leads not only to de-contextualization but also dematerialization), the project makes a point of including provenance and other contextual information along with each source. The accompanying source interpretations and background texts provide historical context, critical commentary, and information on current research findings, thereby ensuring a connection to contemporary debates within the historical profession. On the whole, the project is motivated by a desire not only to enhance the visibility and accessibility of selected texts, images, audio and video recordings, and material objects (through digitization and publication), but also to preserve these historical sources for the future. Lastly, the project seeks to digitally reunite pieces of Hamburg’s Jewish heritage, which is now scattered all over the world.

[1] For longer documents, freely available solutions for converting DOCX/ODT to TEI such as Pandoc (, OxGarage ( or Odette ( can at least partially automate this conversion step.
[3] We embed the MyCore-Viewer ( into our website but also support  the DFG-Viewer ( as a reference implementation for the digitization standards of our funding institution, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft.

Daniel Burckhardt (M.A.) studied in mathematics in Zürich and the history of science and technology in Berlin. He has been a Research Associate at the Institute for the History of the German Jews since 2015. In April 2018, he joined the staff of the German Historical Institute, Washington, DC, as a technical developer to support the relaunch of the German History in Documents and Images website. He is a member of the editorial board and the steering committee of H-Soz-Kult which is based at Humboldt University.

Anna Menny (Ph.D.) is a Research Associate at the Institute for the History of the German Jews, where she is responsible for coordinating the online source edition “Key Documents of German-Jewish history.” She studied history, political science, and media studies in Hamburg. She wrote her dissertation on Spanish-Jewish history at Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich. She is the spokesperson of the “Jewish history digital” network in the digital history working group of the German Historical Association [Verband der Historiker und Historikerinnen Deutschlands] and member of the editorial board of the online-journal Medaon (

Cite this blog post
Daniel Burckhardt & Anna Menny (2018, May 1). From Source to Document: “Key Documents of German-Jewish History”. h r e f. Retrieved May 27, 2024, from