BMCR 1994.02.14

Accessing Antiquity: The Computerization of Classical Studies

, Accessing antiquity: the computerization of classical studies. London: University of Arizona Press, 1993. x, 186 pages. ISBN 9780816513901.

The powers of memory are vastly over-rated. It is now eleven years since I bought a computer, nine years since TLG announced its CD, four years since I found the Internet, and I simply cannot remember how we ever lived without these tools. What dark hovels did we dwell in? What vast caverns of ignorance did we patrol in search of elusive scraps of information that now leap to our call and dance in serried ranks before us?

And with feebleness of memory comes lack of prophetic vision as well. The transformation of our worlds by information technology that looms before us beggars all description, but the most timid ventures in projection are chided as unrealistic.

Thought-experiments help: imagine the transformation of the world that this year’s new emeriti have seen in their lifetimes, from Coolidge to Clinton, and then imagine the acceleration of that rate of change that we now see extrapolated however conservatively you wish. Look carefully at the next blue-haired nose-pierced fresher who comes into your office and think that she could retire from a classics department somewhere (if classics departments still there be) around the time the ENIAC computer becomes the first hundred-year old computer anywhere.

So how do we make sense of where we are? This volume stakes out a precise piece of territory and does a good job. It contains reports from the field from all the major American projects applying information technology to datasets from classical antiquity. There are natural delays in publication (at one point I noticed a future tense speaking of something that would happen in 1990), but all the projects are still very much in business and on course.

So Ted Brunner writes with abundant detail of the outer history of the TLG project and its relations with the American Philological Association (APA), and includes a survey of APA-related activities in a wide range of computer projects. (There is a separate inner history of TLG which is not here.) Brunner’s colleague Luci Berkowitz has very little to say about computers at all, but her piece is important nonetheless: it is an account of the history, travails, and bibliographical adventures of that part of the TLG operation that set out to define and identify the extant corpus of Greek literature to be added to the database.

You would think that we knew c. 1970 what there was of Greek literature to know: but it is astonishing to see how scrappy and haphazard were our bibliographical resources. The Berkowitz-edited Canon makes a quantum leap past what any other reference source has ever been able to do.

Further articles outline other projects. John Oates writes of the Duke Data Bank of Documentary Papyri, Jocelyn Penny Small of the computer index for the Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, Carolyn Koehler and Philippa Matheson of the AMPHORAS project registering tens of thousands of Greek wine-jars, Dee Clayman writes of the project to produce an electronic version of L’AnnĂ©e Philologique, and a group of authors who are well accustomed by now to hearing of themselves as the “Perseus Gang” outline the history of that project. A final essay by the polymath Jay David Bolter is in quite a different vein, discussing the theory and practice of the classicist’s traditional commentary and arguing that it already provides a model for hypertextual access to information, one readily (more or less) transferrable to the new information environment.

Bolter’s article is the least well-assorted with the others, addressing the substance of things we might do with the data rather than describing ways of creating useful sets of them; his books, notably Writing Space, have done similar things in similar ways.

There are several audiences for this work. The most important, perhaps, is posterity. This will be an extremely valuable record, written by the people in the best position to know, of where we came from and where we had gotten to by 1990.

The next audience will be individuals interested in humanities computing outside classics who want to be briefed about what the Greeks and Romans and the students thereof are up to. Among classicists, the primary audience will be those who are already a little bit smitten and eager to know more, while patient to sit through discussions of SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language). For the approach is not proselytic but homiletic, preaching to the choir or at least the congregation already in the church. The subtitle alone will have an apotropaic effect on those idling in the street outside wondering whether to come in.

Indeed, in two ways, this book is the last gasp of a phase of classical scholarship that is now past. It belongs to the period when “computerization” was something that the few did and the many admired. There is hardly a mention anywhere here of network access to information resources, for indeed it is just since 1990 that this possibility has suddenly opened up for serious scholars. We ought to begin phasing out the word “computer” as anything except a neutral descriptor for the glowing boxes that we use for our work. This is no longer a business for hobbyists or specialists. Rather, the combination of computers and the wires and fibers linking them has created what should already be seen as a new environment within which we must work if we are to be taken seriously and (more importantly) one in which our traditional expertise as manipulators of words and images becomes the most important relevant skill. “Computer” skills per se fade in importance. In this light, the Berkowitz piece in this volume is in a way the most important precisely for the way it shows the enhancement and transformation of traditional forms of scholarly activity by the mere fact of assuming an electronic environment.

Soon enough we will tire of showing off all the neat tricks our gadgets can do and discover that what we do with them will be judged by the same standards that have been used for our books and articles in the past. But at the same time, all will be changed, changed utterly . . .