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Navigating Ancient Worlds

By Sara E. Wilson | HUMANITIES, September/October 2000 | Volume 21, Number 5

Armed with winged sandals, a magic sword, and a cap of invisibility, Perseus set off on a quest to slay the Gorgon Medusa, a monstrous woman whose head was encircled by writhing snakes.

The Perseus project at Tufts University is a digital library that provides its users with the winged sandals of technology to aid them in their pursuit of knowledge. The project is named after the hero from Greek mythology, says Editor in Chief Gregory Crane, because he wanted a character "who reflected going out into the greater world of gods and monsters."

Designed for the general public as well as students and scholars, Perseus can be accessed by CD-ROM or on the Internet at "Perseus is like a library that belongs to all of us, to students and faculty and to scholars and students who are not affiliated with any university," says Laura Gibbs, assistant professor of classics and letters at the University of Oklahoma. "And it is open twenty-four hours a day."

Containing more than thirty thousand images and five million words of text, the Perseus project offers a number of innovative tools that change the way students approach ancient languages, literature, and archaeology. Users can read English translations of the plays of Euripides, the poetry of Homer, or the history of Thucydides. Students of Greek and Latin are able to "flip" back and forth from the original text to the English translation, reinforcing their understanding of the ancient languages. "Perseus has allowed people to look at more and different kinds of primary materials," Crane says. "People can use the texts even if they don't know the languages very well. And the project has vastly increased access to visual information." Viewers interested in sculpture, for example, can see large, color photos--sometimes even twenty or more shots of the same object--taken from different angles.

In addition to advanced search tools, the Perseus staff has developed browsing tools to orient the reader within a document. The navigation bar, the horizontal equivalent of the elevator bar, indicates the reader's location at the top of the screen. "This gives people the sense of place they have with a physical artifact," says Crane. "Although we can't mimic the heft of a book in your hand, we're not far from flipping through pages."

Since its inception in 1992, Perseus has kept pace with changes in computer technology, expanding the ways in which a library gives access to information. "By integrating visual and textual information, we're solving the very concrete problem of materials being physically far from each other," says Crane.

A person interested in the character of Medusa from the Perseus myth, for example, may go to a library and look up "Medusa" in an encyclopedia. The encyclopedia entry might contain unfamiliar terms or references to other books, resulting in a good deal of legwork within a library or between several libraries.

Perseus simplifies the process. A user who types the word "Medusa" into the Perseus search engine elicits the following list of information available on the website: three coins, twenty images, five Perseus encyclopedia entries, six sculptures, four source citations, and twenty-four vases. Visual and textual, and literary, historical, artistic, and archaeological materials are all cross-referenced together, making them easy to locate. Clicking on the topic "encyclopedia entries" leads to a list of online texts that includes authors such Apollodorus, who wrote Library and Epitome, the only extant chronological narrative of Perseus's life.

But when a user opens Library and Epitome, Apollodorus's words do not simply appear on the computer screen--because it is hyperlinked, the text acts as a portal to other resources. Clicking on an unfamiliar term in the story brings up a lexicon window explaining the term; choosing "plot sites in this book" generates an interactive map of the locations mentioned in Apollodorus's book; and clicking on a footnote calls up a reference to scholarly commentary or another ancient text. In this case, Apollodorus's tale is linked to Ovid's blow-by-blow account of Perseus's battle with Medusa:

As the swift bird of Jove, when he beholds a basking serpent in an open field, exposing to the sun its mottled back, and seizes on its tail; lest it shall turn to strike with venomed fang, he fixes fast his grasping talons in the scaly neck; so did [Perseus,] the winged youth, in rapid flight through yielding elements, press down on the great monster's back, and thrust his sword, sheer to the hilt, in its right shoulder--loud its frightful torture sounded over the waves--

Crane got the idea for the Perseus project when he was a graduate student in classics at Harvard University. "I had access to the best university library in the world," Crane recalls. "It had gotten me accustomed to making connections between documents, in the traditional sense of tracking down footnotes and running around the library. I realized that not everyone could do that and even there, at this excellent library, it didn't work very well. I got interested in information retrieval and it became clear that we could put everything--text and pictures--in a digital library." With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Crane has continued to add to Perseus's content and refine its capabilities. With the tools Perseus has developed over the past year, users can now steer through one million documents in the time that it took to navigate one hundred documents. More than one hundred thousand browsers take advantage of this enhancement each weekday.

Writing in 1998 about computer technology, Crane explained that the ultimate goal for humanists ought to be to "make accessible, both physically and intellectually, to every human being on this planet, the complete record of humanity." Even though their area of study is far removed from modern times, classicists have been in the forefront of efforts to bring the humanities into the computer age. In part, this is due to the relatively few resources available to classicists. Because extant texts and objects from the ancient world are limited, classicists have always been interested in examining their sources in creative ways.

In addition to learning to use computer technology for the study of classics, the staff of Perseus has dealt with other computer-age issues such as copyright law and the dissemination of information over the Internet. To protect the rights to the texts and objects, some of Perseus's content is only available on CD-ROM. Another way that Perseus protects its contributors' property is that the website itself is formatted to prevent full texts and images from being downloaded. In this way, Perseus is able to provide its users with an enormous amount of information, securely, around the clock.

The Perseus website calls itself "an evolving digital library," referring to its continually increasing selection of offerings. Originally containing information about ancient Greece, Perseus's topics have expanded as a result of an NEH/NSF digital demonstration grant to comprise Rome, ancient science, the nineteenth-century City of London, and the complete works of Christopher Marlowe. By the end of 2000, Perseus will house more materials from the English Renaissance, including the complete works of William Shakespeare, and soon Perseus's content will expand further to include text and images about ancient Egypt and the American Civil War.

Integrating technology into the study of classics permits scholars not only to search databases more rapidly and thoroughly, but to discover unexpected correspondences between information. "We're trying to take a time-based view and provide both geographic coverage and temporal coverage," says Crane. "There is a relentless pressure to compartmentalize research. Perseus opens the door for more comparative studies."

Students of many disciplines are using the Perseus project as a guide through the vast maze of information about the ancient world, much like Theseus, who threaded a ball of string behind him as he wandered the labyrinth in search of the Minotaur.

Randy Hoyt, a junior at the University of Oklahoma, says his interest in classical culture and computer technology was sparked by the Perseus project. A philosophy major with limited formal training in Greek and Latin, Hoyt uses the Perseus morphological tool to read the ancient philosophers in their original language. Perseus inspired him to create his own website on the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, and to plan a reading group to study Plato's Dialogs with some fellow students. "I know everyone will benefit from wrestling with the Greek and with the philosophy and that all our minds together--with Perseus as a major tool and resource--can figure out what's going on in any particular passage," Hoyt says.

"My students and I use Perseus as we would use the library, if it were accessible instantly from our desks," says Christopher Blackwell, assistant professor of Greek at Furman University. "They love it. The study of classics is an extended process of looking things up again and again until you remember them. Perseus takes a lot of the hassle out of that, and not only allows, but encourages students to investigate broadly and deeply."

Sara E. Wilson is a writer in Falls Church, Virginia.

The NEH has provided $815,000 in funds to develop the Perseus Digital Library of Greek and Roman Culture.