Study made easier as ancient texts enter cyberspace

October 14, 1994|By Nathaniel Sheppard Jr. | Nathaniel Sheppard Jr.,Chicago Tribune

Washington -- Until recently, scholars looking for obscure details on medieval currencies, fragments of works by Dante or third-century theological discourses had to slog through dusty, aged texts. Now, increasingly, they have a new research vehicle: lightning-quick computer databases, many of them on CD-ROM.

Technology is revolutionizing the humanities, widely expanding the reach of researchers, and allowing students and faculty in the United States to exchange information in real time with experts anywhere, from Toronto to Togo.

Electronic archives are providing a lode of historical and literary data, opening doors too overwhelming or just inconceivable a decade ago by cutting down search time from months, even years, to hours, perhaps minutes. They may change how scholarship is practiced more than anything since the printing press.

nTC If there were any doubt that the revolution is here, it may have been dispelled yesterday when the Library of Congress announced the National Digital Library Project, an ambitious effort that could send electronic images of extremely rare American artifacts to institutions around the country. The project will make works previously kept under lock and key widely available.

The primary users of advanced databases until now have been university students and teachers, using the Internet. Now, commercial computer services -- such as America Online and CompuServe -- are making the Internet available to a far wider audience. And publishers have started putting much of the data on CD-ROMs that can be searched by people using computers in their homes.

For example, overwhelmed by the gargantuan amount of text that researchers of Greek classics had to plow through, then-University of California doctoral candidate Marianne McDonald helped build a database that contains every single word of Greek literature, a total of 66 million words by 3,000 authors. Scholars no longer need to read all that material; they need only order the computer to search for key phrases or concepts relevant to their particular research.

What has emerged, some 23 years later, is the Greek Language Thesaurus, available on CD-ROM for about $300.

Among the growing list of electronic archives are the English Poetry Full-Text Database, the entire canon of British poetry before the 20th century (it's on four compact discs but costs over $46,000); Bibles with full concordances and indexes; the soon-to-be-released 221 volumes of Migne's Patrologia Latina, a collection of theological texts from the third to the 15th centuries; and the Oxford English Dictionary.

Some archives are compiled with the use of electronic scanning equipment, but in many cases the material has to be typed manually into a computer. This work is most often done in Korea, China or Singapore, where labor costs are low. Rows of typists with little or no knowledge of Greek or English spend the day feeding data into computers. The data are entered twice to allow for computer comparisons to detect mistakes.

Once compiled, the electronic archives significantly shorten the time researchers need to identify and find study materials, says James O'Donnell, professor of Latin and history at the University Pennsylvania.

But electronic archives are no cure-all for researchers.

"These programs do not replace the critical eye," says Mr. O'Donnell. "They only do the donkey work -- getting up to fetch materials and bringing them back."

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