A Personal Testimony


by Xavier Bouvier

My first encounter with Hubert Wenger was in 1983. At that time, I was a trainee working for IBM in Geneva. The firm had marketed its Personal Computer, or PC, in 1981 and was just announcing a new model, the PC-XT (featuring 128 kb of random access memory and a 10-mb hard disk drive). I was in charge of leading a one-day seminar for clients acquiring this revolutionary machine.

Hubert Wenger was by far the most original and engaging individual among those clients. He was very likable and capable of communicating his passion for his own field of endeavor. He asked me to help him with the technical aspect of his work, and this collaboration did not end until his death in 1995.

Allow me to remind you of some of the basic concepts behind Beatrice’s and Hubert’s project:

Having a real passion for the Arctic, and more specifically for the anthropology and ethnology of Eskimo populations, Hubert and Beatrice were acting quite independently. They were not from the academic world, even though they had many good friends there. They had accumulated, after years of research, a great many notes on the first encounters between Euro-Americans and northern cultures. It was their firm belief that these first observations, despite their inaccuracy and ethnocentrism, constituted an essential patrimony for those northern peoples without an extensive written record of their own history and culture. As Beatrice was finding and classifying new texts, Hubert was developing a way to index them. The ultimate goal was to make these data available to everyone, especially those far removed from the major repositories of this information.

It is amazing how precisely the project was defined from the very beginning. Hubert knew exactly what he needed and wanted. Although forced to adapt himself to the limited capabilities of the personal computer at the time, he was very reluctant to let the machine delimit the parameters of his project and ideas.

What he was looking for was a technical tool that would allow him to record as precisely as possible, hundreds of references about these ethnographic observations.

If these goals were well defined, the road was long finding an overall technical solution. Even before he used computers, Hubert had devised various manual techniques for classifying and indexing text (such as the wonderful punch-card system used by the French Army that made possible retrieval of data by multiple criteria simultaneously). The next step was to acquire a text-processing machine. VisioText generated very satisfying indexes through its mailing facilities.

Technological innovations resulted in changes to the project many times. A major development was the appearance of full-text retrieval tools, and a crowning achievement was the ability to search a document by means of an independently generated, searchable index.

The questions raised by Beatrice’s and Hubert’s project are very topical in our early stages of the age of the Internet. Search engines indexing the World Wide Web are saturated by an enormous amount of unstructured information. The problem of subject indexing, long recognized in the field of Library Science, has now, of course, become universal.

Systematic indexing was at the core of the project. Hubert was fully aware of the tremendous problems associated with creating a subject thesaurus that attempted to cover all relevant aspects of an entire culture. I remember many conversations along the way about how to maintain specificity-generality relationships, cross-references, equivalencies, place names, and multi-lingualism—just to name a few. The subject thesaurus, which Hubert planned and began to build, was a multifaceted approach comparable to more recent efforts in other fields (for example the Art and Architecture Thesaurus from the Getty Foundation).

While still living in France, Hubert mined all of the European libraries. The need eventually arose, however, to call upon the facilities of the Elmer E. Rasmuson Library in Alaska and its outstanding collection of materials pertaining to the Arctic. The Wenger Eskimo Database project was established through an agreement with the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1988, and with this technical support, a large-scale project for scanning texts and systematic indexing was made possible. The declining health of Hubert did not allow him to become as much involved as he would have wished. For everyone who knew his lively nature, his charm and generosity, the long and painful illness that was his fate during his last years was very saddening. Just before he left us, Hubert was able to see demonstrated the first publication of his database—the concrete result of his lifelong efforts.

Geneva, 2000

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