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Mellon Grant Supports Digital Classics at Duke

Duke will use new technologies to analyze some of the world's oldest documents and artifacts

A fragment from Duke's papyri collection. The Mellon grant is supporting making much of this and other ancient collections available in digital form.

Duke University will use new technologies to analyze some of the world's oldest documents and artifacts through a new "Duke Collaboratory for Classics Computing (DC3)," a unit of Duke Libraries that will advance scholarship in both classical studies and the digital humanities.

Made possible by a $500,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the DC3 will be led by a faculty director, Joshua D. Sosin, associate professor of classical studies and history at Duke, who will also assume a joint appointment within the libraries. 

This is the first time a tenured faculty member at Duke has an appointment in both the libraries and an academic department. Sosin will continue to teach and serve as an active member of the faculty of Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, dividing his time between the Department of Classical Studies and the libraries.

"There is no precedent for what we're doing," said Deborah Jakubs, Rita DiGiallonardo Holloway University Librarian and Vice Provost for Library Affairs. "Librarians have been 'embedded' in various departments on campus for years, but we've never had a faculty member embedded in our work like this. This hybrid appointment will be a major step forward in establishing new roles and relationships among faculty and libraries that are the foundation for advancing scholarship."

Classics was one of the first disciplines in the humanities to embrace digitization and computational analysis, and Duke has long been one of the leading institutions in the field. 

In the 1980s, the late Duke professors of Classical Studies William H. Willis and John F. Oates  launched the Duke Databank of Documentary Papyri, which featured digital transcriptions of Greek and Latin texts written on ancient wooden tablets, papyri and pottery. Some of these transcriptions come from Duke's own collection of papyri, part of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The databank now includes some 60,000 published Latin and Greek texts preserved at Duke and many other institutions around the world. 

In 1996, Duke was among the first universities to digitize its papyri collection and make it freely available online, and the first to allow crowd-sourced editing of digitized texts by anyone in the service of scholarly knowledge. The online collection is widely used today by ancient historians, archaeologists, biblical scholars, classicists, Egyptologists and students of literature.

"The library is one of the few academic organizations with a core mandate to embrace both past and future," said Sosin. "That's heaven for an ancient historian, whose focus is ancient documents and the modern technologies we bring to bear on them. I’ve been collaborating with library colleagues for years, at Duke and elsewhere, and I'm thrilled now to be joining their team."

Sosin now co-directs the Duke Databank of Documentary Papyri and serves on the executive committee of the Advanced Papyrological Information System, a consortium of papyri-holding institutions working to digitize and integrate their papyri collections online. He is also associate editor of the online open-access journal Greek, Roman & Byzantine Studies.

Sosin's research focuses on the intersection of law, religion and the economy in ancient Greece and Rome as preserved in papyri and ancient inscriptions. But he has also been actively involved for years in the development of digital infrastructures for humanities research.

Sosin has led an international team of classicists, programmers and information scientists in another Mellon-sponsored project to bring four major digital resources in papyrology under a common technical framework ( and open them up to crowd-based, peer-reviewed editing. 

As faculty director of the DC3, Sosin will lead a team of two full-time programmers to enhance Duke's existing digital papyrology projects and design new technological experiments with broad applicability within and beyond the field of classics. The DC3 will act as an incubator for innovative humanities scholarship and complement Duke's other initiatives to re-imagine the role of the humanities in higher education, including the Franklin Humanities Institute's humanities laboratories and the five-year Humanities Writ Large initiative in undergraduate education (also supported by the Mellon Foundation). Duke President Richard Brodhead has praised the humanities as "the fire that never goes out." Interdisciplinary research is one of the priorities of Duke Forward, the $3.25 billion university-wide fundraising campaign launched in September.

The DC3 will officially launch in July 2013 and will be housed in Duke's Perkins Library. Its first major initiative, according to Sosin, will likely involve Greek and Latin epigraphy, the world of public documents inscribed in stone that have survived from antiquity.