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The role of Digital Humanities in Papyrology

Citation: Vannini, Lucia (2022) The role of Digital Humanities in Papyrology. Doctoral thesis, University of London.

Lucia Vannini_revised_dissertation.pdf

Creative Commons: Attribution-No Derivative Works 4.0

My dissertation investigates the impact of digital resources and methods on papyrology, the study of the production of Greek and Latin books and documents as directly witnessed by archaeological findings. This is an extremely fruitful discipline to survey for insight into the changes that digital and Internet technologies have brought to humanities research, because of its long-standing and intensive adoption of diverse resources. The goal of this thesis is to understand to what extent digital humanities methodologies have influenced the papyrologist's work, in terms of both changes in their research practices and evolution of their instruments. This has been achieved by contextualising papyrological resources against the backdrop of digital progress in other classics and humanities disciplines, and by placing them within the framework of digital humanities scholarship. It is the first systematic attempt to carry out a comprehensive analysis of papyrological projects from this perspective.

First, I present the reference methodological framework, illustrating the key characteristics to accessibility, usability and sustainability of digital humanities efforts to be evaluated in the resources under scrutiny (ch. 1). Then, I analyse a diverse range of collections, starting from the most common type, corresponding to the most familiar way in which humanities scholars and libraries interact with and organise digital content, namely, by making primary materials directly searchable and browsable. These projects were split in two groups: digitised collections that arise from material ones (ch. 2) and corpora and databases relating to a text category or a theme (ch. 3). The thesis then moves on to examining the less usual type of initiatives, but one that prioritises advanced modalities of access to papyri, through interrelationships among primary sources, derivative information and functional layers (ch. 4). The final chapter draws the conclusion of the dissertation by discussing opportunities and current issues of digital papyrology efforts as a whole.

Overall, it can be said that among the strengths of digital papyrology is the remarkable work already carried out. Many institutions have made available online high-quality digital surrogates and catalogue information, to enhance access to their items and encourage understanding of them. Several other types of digital resources for the discipline have been provided by classics departments and papyrological research centres, in form of theme-based collections of digital texts and data, despite the complexity of this damaged and lacunose evidence. Benefits brought by digital methods to papyrological science often concern enhanced access to items and to their components through digital surrogates, digital editions, metadata catalogues and reference works. On the whole, the processes of text digitisation and image capture have been well-exploited in papyrology, although access to papyrus texts would benefit from a more extensive use of deep markup to enable more complex and semantically rich queries. Also, more granular access within items might be provided by allowing navigation not only within text but also within images, with the help of automated alignment techniques. Additionally, there is another opportunity for amelioration by resorting more often to visualisation techniques, for deeper integration between written content and external evidence. Another effect of the digital medium in papyrological research practices is that it has provided the means to virtually assemble many different types of objects, viz. diverse primary sources and scholarly aids, which tend to be scattered across libraries and museums, and analytical tools, so as to construct environments with supportive context for the research process, as is typified by the and Trismegistos platforms. Nevertheless, an important research challenge will be to interlink papyrological textual databases with the available online lexical tools, for instant access to more updated information than in print reference works.

Although increasing amounts of digital content for papyrological research are being published, it is worth recognising too that there are questions about their sustainability, which may hinder their maintenance in the long term and investment in further digital projects. While some initiatives have taken steps to ensure ongoing availability, others do not show clear planning that will enable long-term access and curation. Even though issues remain regarding the vulnerability of some resources to future funding, digital papyrology efforts have provided a very valuable contribution to substantively improve modes of research and communication in the discipline, as I hope I have shown. At the same time, I have delineated the challenges that need to be addressed so that the resources may not only continue to aid in the research process, but also, increasingly, be themselves the expression of new research.

Creators: Vannini, Lucia and
Subjects: ?? dh ??
Keywords: Digital Humanities, Digital Classics, Papyrology, Classics, Digital Libraries, Digital Scholarly Editions
Divisions: Institute of Classical Studies
Collections: Theses and Dissertations
  • 30 April 2022 (completed)


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