Digital Humanities: How Everyone Can Get a Library Card to the World’s Most Exclusive Collections Online

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What would happen if the Pope’s library were accidentally burnt? Or what if the Dead Sea Scrolls were damaged in some way? That’s why the Huntington Library in Pasadena had a set of microfiches of the Dead Sea Scrolls—just in case. Today digitization and the Internet make microfiches obsolete. Digitization, or the scanning of each page of these documents and books, is a way to preserve our knowledge for the future.


In 2003, Jewish Iraqi manuscripts were discovered in a flooded basement in Baghdad. Seen here is an early effort to dry the books and documents. The collection has been digitized and can be viewed at Photo: Harold Rhode, courtesy U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Something similar actually did happen in Iraq in 2003. Soon after the beginning of the Iraq War, soldiers in Baghdad stumbled upon a treasury of Jewish Iraqi manuscripts in a flooded basement. The collection consisted of 2,700 books and tens of thousands of documents chronicling the 2,500-year-old Jewish community. The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration restored the physical documents, digitized the pages and published them online with little fanfare. A curated exhibit of the physical objects was shown in New York at the Museum of Jewish Heritage between February 4 and May 18, 2014.
But preserving the texts is only part of the picture. Making these texts accessible is another part. Can you imagine being allowed to browse for as long as you want in the Pope’s personal library? The Vatican Apostolic Library, founded in 1451, houses some 82,000 manuscripts and books and is considered one of the world’s most important collections for Biblical studies and the history of religion. Last year, the Vatican agreed to let a Japanese firm, NTT Data, scan every single page—that’s called digitizing the collection—and the Japanese are paying for the work to be done, for a rumored cost of $20,000,000. Later this year the first 3,000 documents should become available to the public: an online collection of Medieval and Renaissance illuminated texts by Greek and Latin authors. And how many pages do you think they will have to scan—very carefully—to digitize all 82,000 manuscripts? 30 million pages!
This is the other miracle of digitization. In the past, even as recently as a few years ago, only one person at a time could look at a manuscript or papyrus, and only if one had the money to travel and the right credentials to show at the archive or museum. Today, however, anyone anywhere with Internet access can browse these parts of humanity’s cultural heritage. For example, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) recently announced the expansion of its website to allow visitors to the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library to search images of the texts online. As they say on their website, “Using the most advanced and innovative imaging technology, each Scroll fragment is imaged in various wavelengths and in the highest resolution possible, then uploaded to the Digital Library. For the first time ever, the Dead Sea Scrolls archive is becoming available to the public online.”

The Dead Sea Scrolls have been called the greatest manuscript find of all time. Explore the BAS Dead Sea Scrolls page for dozens of articles on the scrolls’ significance, discovery and scholarship.


What Are the Digital Humanities? How Can You Help?


The IAA, in collaboration with Google, has launched the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library, a new website that allows visitors to view high-resolution images of the complete Dead Sea Scrolls archive online. Pictured is the Great Isaiah Scroll. Photo: © John C. Trever, Ph.D./Digital image by James E. Trever.

If you are interested in this sort of thing, then you are interested in the Digital Humanities. The Digital Humanities is an emerging field of study in which scholars are engaged in collecting and preserving cultural heritage and also analyzing these texts and artifacts using computers. Digital Humanities is by nature collaborative and is about extending access to the humanities to anyone with Internet access. New research tools can scan large amounts of text very rapidly, searching for a phrase or word through centuries of literature. Digital Humanities faculty work closely with librarians, archivists, computer scientists and experts in photography, scanning and digitization to curate and display texts or manuscripts that are currently in libraries or boxes in basements. But the general public can get involved as well.
To give just one example, in the 1890s archaeologists in Egypt found a cache of over a million fragments of Greek writing on papyri, some 2,000 years old, and as of 10 years ago, only one percent had been published. Now thousands of people, including school children, have been helping them publish the papyri. If you have some facility with ancient Greek, you can not only see some of the Oxyrhynchus papyri online but actually help with the digitization. In order to do computer analyses on texts, the scrolls and papyri need to be transcribed—that is, typed out—so that the computer can read it. Handwriting right now is beyond a computer’s capabilities. The Ancient Lives project on Zooniverse invites you to help with the transcription. On screen one sees a photo of a papyrus fragment—some as small as a postage stamp—or a piece of wood with writing on it, and citizen-scientists key in Greek letters right on top of the photo. It is a method called “crowd-sourcing,” where the public helps with the work, greatly accelerating the amount of time it will take to type out all that Greek.
Another example of crowd-sourcing comes from the Logos Bible blog, which reports that in just 18 months, 40,000 books have been tagged by the public.
Many other digital history projects actively recruit the public to get involved as well. One can donate physical objects to a history exhibit, be interviewed or write a narrative that becomes part of a collection. The Internet also allows smaller collections in obscure locations to be seen by a much broader audience, giving the world a more diverse set of voices to listen to.
These apps and websites take time and money to develop, but the end result is that more people feel connected to their past and more committed to preserving cultural heritage for the next generation. There are many ways to get involved. You can help with transcription or tagging, you can supply your own stories and histories and you can help fund these kinds of projects. Check out a great variety of digital Biblical humanities projects at Digital Humanities for Biblical Studies.
To find out how to volunteer as a citizen-scientist in crowd-sourced projects, start with the Smithsonian Digital Volunteers Transcription Center or Zooniverse’s Citizen Science projects.
And, don’t forget to support the National Endowment for the Humanities Office of Digital Humanities.

Technology is changing the way we study and preserve texts and artifacts. Visit the BAS Scholar’s Study: Digital Humanities and the Ancient World for more articles on this emerging field.

Diane-ClineDiane H. Cline is associate professor of history and an affiliated faculty member of the Digital Humanities Institute and the Capitol Archaeological Institute at the George Washington University. She teaches courses on the history of ancient Greece and a seminar on digital cultural heritage called “Digital Humanities and the Historian.”

1 Responses

  1. Rosalie V. Grafe, Quaker Abbey Press, LLC says:

    I have been transcribing a very large archive of Humanities quotes collected over many years by Dr. Carl E.W.L. Dahlstrom (Strindberg’s Dramatic Expressionism, Sent to Hell from Ann Arbor: A College Student’s World War One). The cards from which I copy the quotes sort them by the subject and sub-category he assigned to them. I hope to publish the collection as a sort of quotes-encyclopedia if I live long enough to finish the project…or when my health becomes too impaired to continue. Might this be of interest to you?

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