How is Digital Humanities Saving the Past for Our Future?

Three exciting new digital humanities projects may change the way modern scholars approach ancient materials.

Perhaps one of the most refined traditions of data curation in the humanities is the publication of evidence in the form of scholarly editions.  In the last decade, the digital environment has been enabling scholars to extend the form and function of this essential tool.  Mellon’s grantmaking seeks to assist in accelerating some of these changes.

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The next generation of digital edition-making in the humanities projects funded by the Mellon Foundation includes breakthrough endeavors such as the Integrating Digital Papyrology (IDP) project and its offshoots—the Papyrological Navigator (PN), a navigational interface, and Son of Suda Online (SoSOL), an editing platform—which have made Greek papyrological documents digitally available and annotatable.  With the success of the IDP platforms, three exciting new ventures seek to create new possibilities in the way modern scholars approach ancient materials, including some that have never been studied before.


The Papyri of the Early Arab Period Online project, based at the Austrian National Library, aims to apply the digital approach of the IDP to a vital but little-studied area of ancient history.  Led by principal investigator and ancient historian Bernhard Palme, the team has been preserving, curating and cataloging unpublished papyrological material from the library's huge repository, most of which has been virtually untouched until now.

The Austrian National Library houses an astonishing collection of approximately 180,000 ancient papyri, out of which about 80,000 are written in Arabic.  These papyri provide rare and unedited contemporary evidence of a particularly exciting time of regime change for the region, with the formation of the early Arab empire.  Moreover, these papyri give us a never-before-seen glimpse into the domestic, economic, and social lives of that time, not just the macro concerns of political or military history.

ap_01762_r.jpg__5349x3939_q85_crop_upscale.jpgPapyrus fragment, Egypt (circa 3rd-9th century). Courtesy of Austrian National Library, Arabic Papyri Online.

"What is preserved on papyrus is the handwritten document of the ordinary people,” according to Palme.  “We have private letters on papyrus written by people like farmers or craftsmen talking about their faults, their fears, their hopes... showing us a very vivid and colorful side of ancient life."

Palme hopes that with the progression of the Early Arab Period project, these heretofore untold stories may soon be told by the scholars and editors collaborating on the publication of these ancient texts, now that they have been given new digital life.

Thanks to the efforts of the project team, the most important documents of the Early Arab Period are being sorted, curated, and digitized for preservation, and made available to scholars for review much more rapidly than before.  More papyri will be digitized through the project than have been published on paper over the past 130 years.


At Tufts University, the challenge of nurturing the next generation of language experts is being met head-on in an innovative way.  For Marie-Claire Beaulieu, the co-director of the Perseids Project, the early training of Classics students is crucial to the large-scale collaborative work of moving the Classics into the digital age.  If the lack of trained specialists is now a bottleneck for the rapid processing of ancient materials, it might soon be less of a problem thanks to the Perseids' “lab” environment.

tufts_perseids_lab.jpgTufts' Perseids Project Lab at a Workshop in Lyon, France. Photo courtesy of Bridget Almas.

With the aid of the Mellon Foundation, Beaulieu and her interdisciplinary team have enthusiastically incorporated the methodology and pedagogy of science research into the world of Classics scholarship with the creation of the Perseids digital platform, developed from SoSOL. This platform allows users to edit, annotate, and translate classical texts with ease—collaboratively and even remotely.

"We are emulating the best practices of the sciences and lab culture," Beaulieu says. "This is hands-on work where we're solving real problems."

Passionate about teaching and motivating her students, Beaulieu has ensured that the productive contributions students can make are a core part of the Perseids educational environment. In place of what was once a long and repetitive training process that involved translating the same canonical texts—a pedagogical method that might well have caused student enthusiasm to atrophy—the Perseids Project offers a remarkable and motivating teaching aid for everyone involved. Students are having a profound effect on the work being done as they engage with new texts at the level of discovery while at the same time gaining valuable experience “in the field,” as they learn practical methods in research, scholarship, and problem-solving.

perseids_project.jpgThe Perseids digital platform allows users to collaboratively edit, annotate, and translate Classical texts. Courtesy of the Perseus Digital Library Project.

"The project has revitalized scholarship in Classics,” Beaulieu says. “Instead of repeating the same work with just translation, we're renewing teaching methods and empowering the students.  In the past, Classics students couldn't publish until they got a Ph.D.  Here, as a citizen scholar, your contributions are valuable."

The Perseids Project has been enthusiastically received, with a user base that has grown to more than 500.  This success ensures that many more source texts will be well on their way to being translated, annotated and published for a wider audience, with a growing phalanx of well-trained, next-generation scholars to support them.


As the number of available digital texts increases from all corners of the scholarly world, new challenges arise for scholarship.  Most basic of these is the question of how a reader would find a text online, or even know that it exists?  Once a text has been edited, it often seems in danger of being buried in a remote corner of the Internet.  For a language like Latin, which has been intensely studied, there may also be multiple versions of a given text, translation, or critical edition for a reader to choose from.  How could a reader trust that a digital version adheres to a high standard?  It is important to consider how to make those texts and their associated scholarly materials available and accessible in a central online location, as well to ensure that publishing standards and formats are met across the board.
 Under the auspices of three major academic societies—the Society for Classical Studies, the Medieval Academy of America, and the Renaissance Society of America—and with the support of the Mellon Foundation, the Digital Latin Library (DLL) project was proposed to answer these concerns.

"There were silos of Latin text," says Samuel Huskey, the principal lead on the project, "that were unconnected in any meaningful way, covering their own specific periods, with different formats and varying reliability... It wasn't easy or even possible to associate a critical apparatus with an online text."

The DLL is an ambitious project to bring all these scholarly threads together.  Collaborating with colleagues from Computer Science and Library Science, Huskey seeks to build a unified online catalog of all the available Latin texts that have been published by multiple organizations, using standards drawn from library information science.  Once DLL is complete in 2017, people of varying levels of interest and expertise in Latin will be able to use it to find, read, discuss, study, and teach Latin texts of all types and eras.  Unlike a research library, Digital Latin Library will provide tools to edit, annotate and facilitate the creation and publication of open, born-digital critical editions and other scholarly and pedagogical resources that take full advantage of powerful technologies and techniques such as Linked Open Data, information visualization, and visual data analysis.

For the DLL, there is a separation between the citizen scholar's annotations and the editorial notes that are prepared for eventual digital publication with a DLL imprimatur.  When it comes to digital publication, the DLL plans to provide a way for critical scholarly materials to be submitted for peer review, backed by the authority of the three learned societies at its foundation, so that a reader may be sure that quality has been maintained.