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Digits and Dactyls

When I was invited to participate in APA’s first set of blog posts, it was suggested I might concentrate on digital classics, fitting the message to the online medium. Haud mollia iussa!, I thought. The topic was pleasant, but the scope daunting.

Let me start by assuming you are a budding or established classicist who is not particularly invested in emerging digital methods. Why should you care? The honest answer is, not everybody needs to. There are good folks in computer science, humanities, library science, and other fields already creating digital techniques to answer research questions and better explain classical antiquity. The Orbis website developed at Stanford can now give you a pretty good estimate of how long it took to travel by foot, cart, or ship from one point in the Roman Empire to another, and how much shipping by these modes would cost. Our Tesserae website helps you to find intertextual parallels between Greek, Latin, or English texts. The venerable Perseus Project continues to lay the foundation for digital textual research and develop new resources.

If you find such tools useful, you might want to acquaint yourself with their methodologies so you can use them knowledgeably. After that, there's no reason you can’t just grab the results and be on your way, pausing only to consider sending an email of support to help sustain the project, and citing it in your work wink. You are no more required to dwell on the construction of digital tools than you are to contemplate the art of lexicography when consulting LSJ. As you go about your busy life, in all likelihood a stable set of commonly used resources will eventually emerge for you to use (provided the classics community generally invests in supporting them). By then we won’t think of these resources as “digital” any more than we think of using a laptop as a digital approach to writing.

Having sufficiently undersold my subject, let me now try in good Gorgianic fashion to make the contrary case. For those with the time and inclination, there are good reasons to take a greater interest in emerging digital classics methods.

  • Advancing your research. You may be well served by a Fabian strategy, but getting involved has advantages. By contacting a developer with comments, you may get advice on how to better use a tool, or discover a new angle on your subject. Partnering with a project that needs an area expert (whatever their computing abilities) can give you an entrée into digital work. For those prepared to get more deeply involved, there is the enticement of novel perspectives. Putting humanities problems in computational terms requires wrestling with fundamental questions: What is literary style? How do we define a geographical place? How do we represent a historical event richly and accurately online? Within their limits, digital methods give you the ability to test out comprehensive answers to these questions. But even just staying current with such work (see below) will allow you to participate in shaping any new understandings that emerge.
  • Camaraderie. DH projects are often of a scale that necessitates collaboration. Crowdsourcing is a key strategy in efforts like the Suda Online, epigraphical database construction, and Pleiades. Faculty, staff, and students tend to work together across (sub-)disciplines, creating the potential for genuinely new perspectives that is one of the most exciting aspects of digital classics. Collaboration leads to an enjoyable culture of research, mentoring, and teaching. Involving students in efforts like the syntactical markup of Greek and Latin via Alpheios can be rewarding for them and their instructors.

If you have read this far, no doubt you are ready to rush praeceps into the exciting world of digital classics. Oh, wait: we're classics scholars. Let's say you've gently lifted one eyebrow. Where do you go next?

You could start with the 2014 APA / AIA meetings in Chicago, since this year they will host the first digital classics panel in recent memory, “Getting Started with Digital Classics.” For a more immediate fix, you can proceed straight to the Bamboo DiRT site, with its curated list of general digital humanities resources. For classics-specific tools, starting points are the relevant digital classicist wiki page, as well as the proceedings of seminars held in London, Berlin, and Leipzig and the 2013 Digital Classics Association conference. To keep your fingers on the pulse of digital classics, subscribe to the digitalclassicist discussion list.

Those still interested in a guided tour from a fellow classicist through the land of digits and dactyls are invited to join me for the rest of this blog series. eamus in novam silvam.

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