reStructuredText – XML with a smiling face?

I always wonder why in Digital Humanities everybody has to use XML, although in Computer Science it has in many areas been superseded by alternative technologies.  After all,

  • XML is complicated (especially TEI)
  • XML is hard to read
  • XML is difficult to edit. (Well, an editor like oxygen can make editing XML a lot easier, but then you need a technician to prepare oxygen for you, before it actually does…)
  • XML is somewhat difficult to learn and not easy to remember if you do not work with a particular DTD all the time.

Surely, XML is a great format for the internal representation of document data, but it is much more suited to be read and written by machines than by humans.

This is where simple markup languages come in. Simplified markup languages are frequently used as substitute for html (e.g. Markdown), for data definition (e.g. YAML) or for technical documentation with multiple output formats (e.g. reStructuredText, texinfo). The great advantage of most of these matkup languages is that they come with a very natural and intuitive syntax that is as easy to read as to use and remember.

reStructuredText (http://sphinx-doc.org/rest.html) seems to me to be a particularly strong candidate for a markup language that could be used (or at least be turned into something useful) for the Digital Humanities. It has proven to be strong enough for different sorts of technical documentation. It allows semantic as well as presentational markup (which some may consider as an impurity). It is extensible ( http://sphinx-doc.org/domains.html) It has excellent tooling support, especially if the presentation in the web is concerned (e.g. https://docs.readthedocs.org/en/latest/index.html).  And it supports cross-media publishing seamlessly. It may require further extensions, before it can be employed for ambitious edition projects and there may be an upper limit for what can be done with it. But it is easy to learn and easy to use. So why not use it for the next online edition project. Or, at least for the next lecture script.


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