The Perseus Digital Library Project

Sara Sutschek

Planning for the Perseus Digital Library Project, which is a non-profit located in Tufts University’s Department of the Classics, began in 1985, back when the personal computer was just beginning to become reality. Since then, the Perseus Project has evolved as libraries and books have gone digital. Past work has focused on building and linking together collections; current work considers ways of developing and refining tools for presenting materials. "Our larger mission is to make the full record of humanity – linguistic sources, physical artifacts, historical spaces – as intellectually accessible as possible to every human being, regardless of linguistic or cultural background," according to its website, "Of course, such a mission can never be fully realized any more than we can reach the start by which we guide the twisting paths and blind allies through the world around us." The project focuses on the Greco-Roman world and classical Greek and Latin, but also includes works in early modern English, the Civil War, the history and topography and London, and customized reading support for the Arabic language. Funding for the Perseus Project comes from several different sources, including the Alpheios Project, which makes software for reading and learning languages, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education and private donations.
The Perseus Digital Library goes beyond what a person can do while sitting in a library with a printed document. It provides many resources all in one, such as several different translations and a dictionary – the latter of which can be particularly difficult to do when using the Greek alphabet. At first glance, the Perseus Library website can be overwhelming, which the staff acknowledge by saying that new users can have trouble accessing it all. They make it clear that they encourage use of local libraries and libraries when doing research projects. "We at the project are committed to providing resources and tools to use these resources to as many people as possible," they say. "We are not, however, a research service and we cannot answer specific questions or perform customized searches for information."

Within its larger mission, there are three categories of access that the Perseus Project focuses on: Human-readable information, machine-actionable knowledge, and machine-generated knowledge. How can one access a physical artifact as described in the mission statement without it actually being present? The Perseus Project is calls this "human readable information" and includes digitized images of things, places, inscriptions, printed pages and geographic information. "In some cases (such as high resolution, multi-spectral imaging), the digital sources already provide better physical access than has ever been feasible when human beings had direct contact with the physical artifact." An example of a piece of art included in the Perseus Project collection is the Bartlett Head, which can be found at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. A person from Milwaukee can simply go online to this website and see several different images of this piece of art from the front and back, but also a three-quarter view from the back right and left, as well as details on the hair and eyes. There are 15 thumbnail photos available. There is also information on where it’s from (Athens), what it’s made out of (marble), who the sculptor is (unknown, but in the style of Praxiteles). There is also a description: “This tilt [of the head] as well as the softness of the carving on the skin and the heavy lids, impart a certain gentle nature to the goddess, so that connoisseurs have been inclined to interpret her as Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty.”
The second area of access is "machine-actionable knowledge," or the catalogue records, encyclopedia articles, lexicon entries and other similar sources. This helps put the physical items in context and retrieve information about what is being viewed. “Thus, if we encounter a page from a Greek manuscript of Homer, we could at this stage find cleanly printed modern editions of the Greek, modern language translation, commentaries and other background information about the passage on that manuscript page. If we moved through a virtual Acropolis, we could retrieve background information about the buildings and the sculpture.”
The third area of access, machine-generated knowledge, is the production of new knowledge by analyzing existing information. This is how the computer is able to recognize to which tense a verb has been conjugated and provide reading support when the translation didn’t already exist. An example is recognizing whether “orationes” in a given context more likely corresponds with “speeches,” “prayers,” or some other word in English.
The dictionary is part of the "word study tool" and can help translate Greek words. However, because users can't enter a Greek font, there is a guide for which letters to use for each character. For example, βάρβαρος , according to the chart, would be entered as "ba/rbaros". The search function then gives us the term "barbarous," i.e. where we would usually use the word "barbarian." It also tells the user that it is an adjective and gives both the feminine and masculine forms, which in this case are the same. By clicking on the links available next to "show lexicon entry," the user can find out more about the word. In this case, βάρβαρος originally meant "not Greek" or "foreign." Other forms of the word are also just a click away, such as βαρβαρόομαι (to become barbarous) and βαρβαρόω (to make barbarous). Taking this a step further, users can also look at the word frequency statistics, or how often it is used in the texts available through the project. For example, this word is most often used in Procopius' (a Byzantine scholar from Palestine) de Bellis (which translates to "On the Wars") (Halsall). This allows the user to not only see the translation of the word, but also to find a document where it is frequently used and see the word in context.

There are several different ways to access items through Perseus. First is through the Collections/text tab on the home page. This allows users to browse the collections, which are broken down into topics that include Greek and Roman Materials, Arabic Materials, Germanic Materials, 19th Century American, Renaissance Materials, and Humanist and Renaissance Italian Poetry in Latin. There is also the Richmond Times Dispatch, which may seem out of place until one realizes it's a publication from the mid-1800s (certainly one of the more modern collections in the Perseus collection, though). In each collection, the works are listed by author names.

What about searching for a known work rather than browsing? The search box to the upper right of the homepage screen is there for this purpose. One thing to take note of is that the results are metadata searches of things like titles and headings; it is not a collection-wide search. Say someone wanted to search for a copy of Plato’s Republic. A simple search for “plato republic” returns 24 author and title results including commentaries on Plato, but also a work on The Life of General Albert Sidney Johnston: His Service in the Armies of the United States, the Republic of Texas, and the Confederate States. But at the bottom is the text we are looking for: Plato’s Republic, both in Greek and English. With one click, it brings you to the beginning of the text. At the top of the page is a marker that indicates where, which book and which section, the reader is in the text. Within the text, there are footnotes; a click brings the reader to what each means. For example in opening of Republic, “I went down yesterday to the Peiraeus with Glaucon,” there is a footnote following “I” that shows that it is narrated in the first person. There is a second footnote after “Peiraeus” which indicates that the distance referenced is about a five-mile walk. The general search tools allow users look up information with Boolean search functions, such as “containing all of the words,” “containing the exact phrase,” and “containing at least one of the words. There’s also an English –to-[Language] Lookup, and a Dictionary Entry Lookup. Searches can also be done by places, people and dates.
To the left is a box that gives the collections and classifications of the document (it’s part of the Greek and Roman Materials Collection), text chunking options (Do you want to read it by page? Section?) and a table of contents. To the right are more available tools, such as links to alternate editions or translations. There is also a notes function to the right, which summarizes what is going on (i.e. “Socrates describes how he visited the Piraeus in company with Glauco, and was induced by Polemarchus and others to defer his return to Athens.” Other information includes “places,” which names the places mentioned in the document and a link to a Google map of the most frequent ones. The document is also cross-referenced for people and dates.
In addition to the Perseus Project itself, there are also side projects that enable documents to be analyzed in new ways the otherwise are difficult to see when simply looking at a printed version. For example, one of the most recent additions is the Thematic Index of Classics in JStor, an automatically generated index of themes in a collection of more than 130,000 research articles archived in JStor. For each theme, users can browse articles associated with that theme, with links directly to the text of the articles in JStor. It also includes a time plot of how many times a theme is used in a given year, broken up by decades.
Through the Perseus Digital Library Project many documents have become digitized and available on the Internet for public use that may not have been otherwise; this includes literary works and art. “Scholars can now also include full citations for the primary sources behind their statements, knowing that electronic publications do not have the mechanical space limitations of print and that even primary sources available only in research libraries are or will soon be available to the world and will contain links to basic background information.” Perseus users can not only read texts but also use the tools provided to find what they are looking for, despite language barriers that may exist ­– including if there are different inflections of a word. Searches can be performed by subject, title or even word or phrase. One of the most important aspects of Perseus is that it provides connections or links among documents that are unavailable when looking at the printed text. Because many documents from the ancient Greeks and Romans did not survive, most of the classical authors exist in a “fragmentary state.” “In most cases … our surviving fragments are … passages where surviving authors quote, summarize, or simply allude to authors and works that have not survived,” the project’s creators state. In this digital world, these “fragmentary editions” are now linked through projects like Perseus.

Works Cited

Halsall, Paul. “Medieval Sourcebook: Procopius of Caesarea: The Secret History." Internet History Sourcesbooks Project. Fordham University, n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2011.<>.
Perseus Digital Library. Tufts University. Web. 23 Oct. 2011.