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Response to Review no. 569

As editor of The Narrative Sources from the Medieval Low Countries, I can only be very grateful to Elisabeth van Houts for bringing this electronic repertory to the attention of the English research community in such a constructive way.

The Narrative Sources database has a history which goes back to 1986, when L. Milis (Ghent University), W. Verbeke, and J. Goossens (both from the Catholic University of Leuven) started a research project in order to map the medieval narrative sources from the old Southern Low Countries, and to supply ‘Belgian’ information to the huge, and as yet still unfinished, international project of the Repertorium Fontium Historiae Medii Aevi. Initially, there was no intention to develop a database to be published on the Internet. It was only after the beginning of the 1990s that this option surfaced. When the first version of the database was launched on the Internet in January 1997, it was still one of the first of its kind in the field of medieval studies. The response from the majority of users was very positive. Although the information in the database was—and is—not perfect, this was forgiven because the database gave immediate access to a ‘work-in-progress’, and because those who used it quickly discovered that it offered them completely new research possibilities. In the slipstream of the publication of Narrative Sources, a series of new PhD projects was initiated, and several of these have already resulted in successful doctoral dissertations. However, notwithstanding a few remarkable exceptions, we have never received a lot of user feedback in the form of corrections, additions, or submissions of completely new records. Any kind of ‘wikification’ has consequently never happened. The annual updates made since 1996 have remained, for the most part, the result of contributions by the original collaborators on the project.

One very important new step was taken between 2001 and 2003, when the geographical scope of the database was enlarged to cover the whole of the medieval Netherlands, thanks to the addition by R. Nip (University of Groningen) of the updated information originally gathered in 1981 by M. Carasso-Kok in her Repertorium van de verhalende historische bronnen uit de Middeleeuwen (The Hague, 1981). It would be very nice if the geographic coverage of the database could be further extended in the future, but, at this moment, our focus is on improving the cataloguing of the sources from the areas that are already covered. The listing of the hagiographical sources from the Southern Low Countries, for example, is still very inexhaustive, but should be completed in the next few years.

Although ten years ago Narrative Sources was still a forerunner in the field of online database publishing, it has now begun to suffer from what the Dutch historian Jan Romein has coined the ‘law of the retarding lead’. The database system, in particular, has become somewhat outdated. The powerful search syntax, for example, could be made much more user-friendly. The database sometimes becomes unstable, with, as a consequence, occasional breakdowns. Also the procedure to update the information is still very complicated, and could be facilitated enormously by today’s new technologies. That is why we are currently planning the development of a completely new database system, sponsored by the Belgian Royal Historical Commission and in cooperation with the Department of Telecommunications and Information Processing of Ghent University. The new system should not only allow easier searches and guarantee more transparency to the users, but it will also be equipped with an application for easy continual updating. Another extra feature that we will include is the possibility of immediate cross-referencing to other information elsewhere on the Internet, for example to translations of sources offered by other scholars, or to full-text editions on websites like the electronic Monumenta Germaniae Historica (URL: http://www.dmgh.de). The software we will use will be as independent as possible from any commercial provider, and the programming will be according to the international database standards in order to make it possible to link the database with any other similar instrument in the future. This new stage in the Narrative Sources project will also provide an excellent opportunity to reorganize the structure and the content of the database. I am, therefore, very grateful to Elisabeth van Houts for indicating some areas of potential improvement. Her suggestion, for example, to allow for searches for authors under their modern names, and not only under their names in the language in which they composed their texts, is certainly worth taking into consideration. She also justly regrets that the transition from the provision of information in Dutch to English is, as yet, not really indicated by clear visual markers. We will try to resolve this problem by offering a language choice before consultation. A last important improvement of the database will be that we will completely reorganize the manuscript information, the importance of which is also underlined in the review. At this moment, Narrative Sources is still exclusively ‘text-oriented’. This means that texts are presented as rather isolated from the manuscript context in which they have been preserved, with a manuscripts field listing only (and not always very consistently) the codices in which these texts can be found. In the new system, it should also become possible to reconstruct the composition of those manuscripts, in order to check immediately which texts were copied and hence used and read together in one and the same codex.

The development of this new database system, the launch of which will be accompanied by a newly-designed website, is scheduled to begin in October 2007 and take two years. In the meantime, the ‘old’ database as described by Van Houts, will remain accessible. Questions and comments on the exisiting database and its future development should be directed to the author of this response, Jeroen Deploige (University of Ghent).