Conversion Is Dirty – 2300 Years Later (Part γ of γ)

ScriptoriumTech / News1 Comment

by David Kelly

In previous installments I gave a worm’s-eye look at the details of our work with papyrological texts, and a satellite-level thumbnail sketch of the history of the documents and their contents. Now it’s time for a street-level view of how our work fits into the present.

From the point of view of the texts, the definition of “audience” has made an extreme shift. Tax records, contracts, letters, and so forth, long ago lost their primary audiences, but now scholars are interested in the documents. For some of those scholars, the degraded texts represent a challenge for reconstructing the original content. These are the papyrologists, the people we have been engaged to help. Once the texts have been reconstructed as much as possible, other students of Classical times use them for a variety of purposes.

The condition of the papyrus is only one of the problems faced by papyrologists. Questions of provenance, poor handwriting, faded ink, and access to remote storage locations are other issues. And then there are the publication methods used to engage the academic community in discussion and consensus about a given scholar’s results.

We learned, for instance, that since the late 1800s when the transcription of papyri started being addressed by the academic community, only 60,000 documents have been transcribed. It is a slow, painstaking process that requires special training at graduate levels in Classical Literature. Funding is spotty, but the need is still significant. At the University of Berlin alone there are 50,000 papyri waiting to be addressed.

The publication cycle for transcriptions and commentary on papyri is slow. In the Papyrology Room at Duke, the shelves are filled with academic journals, some of which are published on an annual basis, many less frequently. Publication of a document consists of the scholar’s transcription from the original papyrus (or a high quality reproduction) to the typographical format using the Leiden conventions mentioned earlier. It is a highly specialized publication process. Once a document is published in a journal (after, one imagines, years of waiting), other scholars examine the document and, if possible, compare it to the original or to a facsimile. (Facsimiles are seldom available in the journal containing the transcription, presumably because photographic reproductions are expensive.) If there are corrections or commentary to add to the transcriptions, it may be years before they are published in another journal.

Surely there must be a better way to make this information available to the scholars and interested parties of the world.

The IDP initiative was conceived to address many of these problems. The target of this initiative is to have a web location where transcriptions, translations, and digitized images of the original papyri are available and indexed against each other. Existing publications are in the process of being converted and cleaned up. (This is where Simon and I came in.) In addition to the primary sources, the website will include facilities for commenting on the texts, adding new documents, and having the ability for a community of scholars to participate in reviewing and publishing new or changed materials. Publication cycles may be reduced from years to days. And instead of having to travel to select universities with papyrology programs and cloistered libraries, anyone with Internet access would be able to read and view the most recent advances in papyrological scholarship.

You can get a preview and a feel for the information system by looking at a predecessor system, APIS ( new prototype interface is available at

Toward the end of the project, Simon and I discussed the feelings we had about participating in the present phase of an information chain that went all the way back to ancient Greek civilization. For one thing, there was an enormous feeling of responsibility to get it right. There was also a sense of honor and humility in being included in the history of these texts. These documents came long before us, and now they will bear some (hopefully transparent) mark of our impact on them. For a long, long time.

We have learned a dramatic lesson that the records we generate or pass along may have a life that persists long after we are gone. As we manipulate information with various tagging schemes, as we choose storage media and identify audiences for our delivery methods, it may be helpful to reflect on time scales that go beyond our immediate deliverables.

Someone a few months – or a few millenia – down the road may thank you.

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