Democratising the Resources for Classics

by Lucia Vannini, PhD student in Digital Classics, Institute of Classical Studies, London


It is now usual for memory institutions to digitise their holdings and to capitalise on the immense opportunities this practice offers from multiple points of view: research, teaching, documentation, and public engagement (Terras 2012, 49-50). If we focus on the role of digitisation in the humanities, we can say that scholarly practices are becoming more and more digital, not just because technology is speeding up existing methodologies, but also because it is encouraging new ones. Digital Humanities (the application of digital methods to humanities research, as a means of both inquiry and dissemination; cf. Warwick et al. 2012, xiv-xv) play an important role in fostering this shift. Also, they have impacted on scholarly practices by contributing to the blurring of disciplinary borders and hierarchies (Barker 2013, 413-14). This effect is particularly visible in “crowdsourcing” initiatives, which leverage public participation in and contribution to academic projects. Participants require a passion for the subject and a willingness to learn new skills, but not specific knowledge or a qualification – even though users can become more familiar with the material during their activity; therefore, people who are not professionals in academic environments can also take part in the research process (Dunn-Hedges 2014, 232).

As participation is open to anyone, we find contributors from different backgrounds, interested in diverse subjects, who may encourage academics to go beyond their own pre-defined disciplinary goals (as shown by the history of the Old Weather project: Dunn-Hedges 2018, 81-82). Although for a long time, the public was only involved in the dissemination of a project’s results, it is now participating more in the development of resources (Barker 2013, 414). Firstly, crowdsourcing helped to facilitate the work on substantial bodies of texts. Secondly, it has achieved another critical objective: strengthening a sense of community and collaboration between the academic environment and their audience, and facilitating the communication of research to the public, thereby democratising the creation of humanities resources and the research process (Flinn 2010; Ridge 2014, 1-2; Terras 2016, 430, 435; Dunn-Hedges 2018, 147, 154). Crowdsourcing has also influenced research practices in the domain of classical scholarship, as the public has been asked to help transcribe, edit and “annotate” primary sources. This is done in order to enhance digital collections of Greek and Latin texts: a web-based text annotation is the addition of information that is also machine-readable, so that automated analysis can be performed (a typical example is linguistic annotation, that is, encoding a textual corpus by tagging words with syntactic, morphological and semantic information).

We can observe that crowdsourced resources for classical scholarship present two peculiarities. Firstly, rather than crowdsourcing proper, they mainly utilise the “community-sourcing” model, which appeals to specific groups of participants, namely, communities of scholars or students, rather than the general public. Although anyone can become a contributor to a resource, requirements like knowledge of Greek and, sometimes, of papyrological conventional signs represent a barrier, so that the contribution of specialists is in fact necessary to have valuable content. Resources based on this model include (an extensive database of documentary papyri), Sematia (a database of annotated documentary papyri, digitally enhanced with linguistic information), the Perseids platform for editing and annotating ancient texts, the Homer Multitext project (a collection of manuscripts of the Iliad, realised with the collaboration of undergraduate students), and Words in Progress (where users can point out Greek words not registered in dictionaries, or new attestations of rare words).

On the other hand, it is important to mention that there is a significant exception to the community-sourcing trend: the University of Oxford’s Ancient Lives project. This resource (which ran between 2011 and 2014, and has just been relaunched) is expressly designed for non-experts and devised to involve any interested individual, even those with no training in papyrology and Greek, in the transcription of Greek papyrus fragments. With the aid of a virtual keyboard with Greek characters (and Coptic, in the newly developed version), which help the recognition of the shape of the letters on a papyrus, users attempt to transcribe the letters they see on the digital images of the fragments. As well as the creation of a database of unpublished Greek texts, Ancient Lives has provided public access to data that, for a century, were only viewed by few scholars, thereby proposing a different model from traditional scholarship (Brusuelas 2016). These open collaborative transcriptions are of course subject to the project editors’ vetting, as happens in the other open collaborative platforms previously mentioned; however, Ancient Lives presents a strong example of social engagement that is unique among digital resources for Classics (Reggiani 2017, 152-54, 167-68).

There is unfortunately no evidence of the formation of communities around the Ancient Lives platform, based on its older version, nor in Classics community-sourcing projects. We can say that these tools address already existing communities of scholars and students, but we do not witness the formation of new ones, whether online or offline, as in the case of other Digital Humanities projects. As has been underlined (Dunn-Hedges 2018, 23-24), crowdsourcing fosters communication among volunteers, and between these and the academic team who designed the resource. Therefore, we have recently started seeing the formation of communities, both of participants alone and of participants and providers, who may work together as a group and communicate about the content of the primary sources involved or problems like reading difficult handwriting. I would suggest that, in order to facilitate new connections between users, resources for Classics should provide more space for discussions and comments. The model they are now following is the same as in printed editions, with an editorial board of experts that votes to accept or reject submissions. Although this is significant, a digital review could take full advantage of the new methods and could differ from mere replications of the traditional peer-review model – a problem common to other Digital Humanities resources as well (Smith 2004, 317-18). Today, digital editions allow for a more collaborative critical engagement between readers and editors than in current scholarship, as it is possible to create a space where editors and readers interact, to store users’ comments in a searchable database, and to integrate user feedback into the editorial process.

Despite this issue, crowd- and community-sourcing resources for Classics are not merely used as a cheap way to speed up the process of digitisation. The different viewpoints of the crowd (be it the wider public, the scholarly community or university students), and their creativity and enthusiasm are an added value that comes with using crowdsourcing as a research method, and which also enables the production of reliable academic knowledge.


Ancient Lives. 2011-2014, 2018-present. University of Oxford.

Barker, Elton. 2013. “All Mod Cons? Power, Openness and Text in a Digital Turn”. In Classics in the Modern World: A Democratic Turn?, edited by Lorna Hardwick and Stephen Harrison, 411-426. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brusuelas, James. 2016. “Engaging Greek: Ancient Lives”. In Digital Classics Outside the Echo-Chamber: Teaching, Knowledge Exchange & Public Engagement, edited by Gabriel Bodard and Matteo Romanello, 187-204. London: Ubiquity Press.

Dunn, Stuart, and Mark Hedges. 2014. “How the Crowd Can Surprise Us: Humanities Crowdsourcing and the Creation of Knowledge”. In Ridge 2014, 231-246.

Dunn, Stuart, and Mark Hedges. 2018. Academic Crowdsourcing in the Humanities: Crowds, Communities and Co-production. Cambridge, MA-Kindlington: Chandos.

Flinn, Andrew. 2010. “An Attack on Professionalism and Scholarship? Democratising Archives and the Production of Knowledge”. Ariadne 62.

Homer Multitext. 2010-present. Center of Hellenic Studies (Harvard University).

Old Weather. 2010-present. Met Office, and National Maritime Museum. 2010-present. Duke Collaboratory for Classics Computing, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, et al.

Perseids. Tufts University.

Reggiani, N. 2017. Digital Papyrology. Vol. I: Methods, Tools and Trends. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter.

Ridge, Mia, ed. 2014. Crowdsourcing our Cultural Heritage. Farnham: Ashgate.

Sematia. University of Helsinki.

Smith, Martha Nell. 2004. “Electronic Scholarly Editing”. In A Companion to Digital Humanities, edited by Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth. Oxford: Blackwell.

Terras, Melissa. 2012. “Digitization and Digital Resources in the Humanities”. In Warwick et al. 2012, 47-70.

Terras, Melissa. 2016. “Crowdsourcing in the Digital Humanities”. In New Companion to Digital Humanities, edited by Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth, 420-438. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell.

Warwick, Claire, Melissa Terras, and Julianne Nyhan, eds. 2012. Digital Humanities in Practice. London: Facet Publishing.

Words in Progress. Supplementary Lexicon of Ancient Greek. 2000-present. University of Genova.

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