From Classic to Modern

Forthcoming digital version of the Loeb Classical Library will aim to make the treasures of ancient literature easier to find for non-classicists.

August 2, 2011

"Fortune favors the bold” is one of those phrases that are quoted so frequently that they bear none of the weight of their original contexts. The appeal of its underlying message — luck is not something that merely happens to people, but rather the other way around — ignores the fact that it was originally written, by the Roman poet Virgil, as the battle cry of a fool whose boldness shortly leads to his death.

There is a pause on the phone line as Richard Thomas, a professor of classics at Harvard University, attempts to locate the original passage. “I know this stuff, but for some reason I’m not…” Thomas trails off, preoccupied by the search. After a minute, he says he'll e-mail it to me later.

Which he does, in short order. But the classicist’s brief struggle to unearth an original translation of that axiom — which now serves, without irony, as the slogan of various modern military brigades — shows how difficult it can be to quickly fact-check those purporting to draw upon ancient wisdom to reinforce an argument. Or sell beer.

Granted, Wikipedia does give a pretty good account of the origins of that particular phrase. But not every ancient saying is so pervasive as to have earned its own Wikipedia entry. And for students and academics combing ancient texts for quotations, relying on general Web searches is bold indeed. For the most part, when it comes to seeking out specific passages of ancient texts alongside their English translations, fortune favors the patient.

But Thomas and his fellow trustees of the Loeb Classical Library — a 515-volume series of essential Latin and Greek texts with their English translations — are hoping to make things a little easier for non-classicists to mine the literature of the ancients. Along with the Harvard University Press, which publishes Loeb's compact, colorful print volumes, the Loeb trustees recently announced that they are preparing to convert the Loeb series to a digital format that would allow any authorized user to search the English translations of the Loeb works for specific words, ideas, and phrases. Libraries would buy licenses to provide students and other authorized users to the digital Loeb, which is expected to go live in 2013. (The Harvard press will continue selling the print versions.)

The goal of the digital iteration of Loeb, say several academics involved with the project, is to allow students, scholars, and others to draw out themes from ancient literature even if they don’t know where to look and don’t speak the languages. A religion scholar who wants to learn more about Greek and Roman conceptions of the soul would be able to search the entire body of ancient literature for soul references, says Thomas. The scholar could also refine their search for references to the soul by specific authors or time periods, he says.

Being able to search within the confines of the ancient canon will give users more breadth than searching digitized versions of individual texts while avoiding the detritus that tends to accumulate in searches of less well-defined vaults, says Thomas. A general Web search of “Homer” and “soul” might turn up some relevant material, he says, but “I would probably get Homer Simpson and soul music.” Google Book Search, meanwhile, turns up a slew of secondary literature.

The forthcoming Loeb digital library will not be the first digital database devoted to the classics. For a field that deals in old forms and dead tongues, the classics adjusted to the medium rather nimbly. Projects such as the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae and the Perseus Project already provide digital versions of ancient texts. But those projects focus primarily on the original language, and do not always include translations. This is fantastic for classicists, says Thomas, but not so good for everyone else.

James Loeb, who endowed the Loeb Classical Library in the early 20th century, wanted classical literature published in a way that would be “portable, affordable, and pitched to both scholars and any reader,” says Henderson. In the 21st century, that means digitally, says Jeffrey Henderson, a professor of Greek at Boston University who serves currently as general editor of the series. It also means publishing in a way that is amenable to the keyword-search method ascendant in the modern era of overabundance. Henderson guesses that the majority of the 515 volumes of the Loeb Classical Library, a mainstay of libraries worldwide, are rarely used. With the inclusion of the ability to search the whole collection by keyword, he hopes some of the more obscure books will become more than just $24 shelf ornaments.

The digital version of Loeb will come with other features, too. The interface — which has not yet been built — will include virtual “workspaces” for scholars and social features that will let them share annotations with other scholars, says Henderson. And unlike many digitization projects, including the controversial Google Book Search project, Loeb will not just be scanning pages and making PDFs, he says. The volumes will be entered into the content management system by hand and meta-tagged in a way that should be forgiving to readers using imprecise search terms, says Henderson.

There are, however, limits to Loeb’s accessibility. The blueprint Henderson describes will be expensive to build, he says. Consequently, the Loeb and the Harvard Press will charge libraries for institutional licenses, much like pay-walled databases such as JSTOR and Project Muse. (The price has not been decided.) Alas, those not affiliated with subscribing institutions will have to settle for Wikipedia’s account of the origin of “Fortune favors the bold.”

Gregory Crane, chair of the classics department at the nearby Tufts University, says that the Loeb’s continued insistence on a paid-access model puts it behind the curve by today’s accessibility standards. Crane, who also holds an appointment in computer science department, is editor-in-chief of the Perseus Project. Perseus offers free access to ancient works via the public Web — including every work in the Loeb collection, says Crane.

While Perseus does not provide English translations for all these works yet, Crane says it would be fairly straightforward to incorporate them in a way that could be searchable. “It’s in the pipeline,” he says. As for the other possible features Loeb is touting in its initial blueprint — virtual desktops and shareable notes — Crane says, “It’s one thing to build an annotation and editing environment, and another thing to get people to use it.”

Still, Crane says he is curious to see what Loeb is able to build. “It may well be that the proprietary service offered will be useful,” he says. "If the Loeb can advance the state of the art, that will be of interest.”

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