The study of antiquity and the Classics gives us the best example of how we can merge one of the most ancient cultures with the very latest digital culture. In an article on Textualarc, I discuss why I think that the current literary culture, particularly children’s literature, is returning to a Homeric oral culture. But the technological advances of the digital age go beyond making a more interactive space, they can expand the study of the Classics on a global scale, granting anyone access to the integral area of study.

During my very first lecture in Greek and Civilisation ( my first lecture in University), our lecturer listed numerous areas of study such as literature, drama, mathematics, astronomy, philosophy etc. He went on to say that we have the ancient Greeks to thank for these areas. Nearly every discipline has its roots in Greek and Roman civilisations, yet it is a struggling discipline. T.N Mitchell of Trinity College discusses why the Classics departments of many universities are being pushed aside for modern areas such as technology and sciences. In 2012 only 628 students in Ireland sat a Higher level leaving cert exam in the Classics compared to 3804 students who sat an exam in Design and Communication Graphics. There is a definite drop in the study of the Classics but a constant growth in the study of digital technology and communication. The question we should be asking is if the digital world can preserve the classical world?

Classicists have been eager to take advantage of innovations of digital technology. But to make a real difference to how we access classical texts, we have to acknowledge where the real weaknesses lay. ‘ePhilology: When the Books Talk to Their Readers’ makes the point that we maintain the previous practices associated with the print culture such as publishing journals and writing definitive editions but we don’t take into account that these practices were developed to take advantage and compensate for the weaknesses of the print culture. This is a culture that was until recently enough, exclusive to the academic or upper-class world.  The problems, according to Crane, Bamman and Jones are that publications become static, cannot be adapted to different users and the ideas are embedded in a specialised language.

The problem of static texts is a difficult issue. It draws a fine line between the need to constantly update texts and maintaining the original form as long as possible. One of the biggest concerns people have about the marriage between literary and digital culture is that preserving anything online gives it an indefinite lifespan which the printed text is almost certain to outlast. We can’t guarantee how long something can survive in the digital world but this demand for longevity seems to clash with our expectations of the constantly modern digital text. We want the text to last indefinitely but we also want the text to be updated continuously and we are disappointed when we find texts or articles online that are out-of-date.

But the biggest issue facing a potential user is the exclusivity of the printed text. Classical texts or works based on them tend to be difficult to find and expensive. The dwindling study of the classics in second and third-level education only increases its exclusivity. It would be all too easy to blame circumstances and frown upon the new generation’s lack of interest in the area. Anyone might be interested but not anyone can have access to the texts related to the study. A lecturer may recommend primary sources required for study but the editions they recommend are costly and not readily available. Valuable or rare books are usually stored in the special collections department of the library which has restrictive opening hours and very strict rules regarding how you handle the book. This inaccessibility of texts extends to nearly every library which will safeguard their own collections of valuable books. Academic websites or catalogues usually operate on a subscription service with fees too high for anyone but an academic or specialist to invest in.

Most classicists agree that the only way to safeguard and further the study of classics is through the use of digital resources. However Crane, Bamman and Jones are keen to stress that the current framework we have is only the foundation for digital studies in the classics and the humanities and we are not sure what form this new study will take.  They list six advantages that digital resources can bring;

1. They can be delivered to any point in the world.

2. They can be fundamentally hypertextual, supporting comprehensive links between assertions and evidence.

3. They dynamically combine small, well-defined units of information to serve particular people at particular times.

4. They learn on their own and use as many automated processes as possible.

5. They learn from their human readers and can make effective use of contributions.

6. They automatically adapt themselves to the general background are current purposes of their users.

Many of these features are important in overcoming the exclusivity and elitism associated with academic studies. If these resources can be accessed by anyone in the world at any time, then an interest in the area can be cultivated by anyone, not only those with privileged access. But these features are not only concerned with making the material accessible, they make it easier to comprehend. The volume of information available about any given discipline can be overwhelming, particularly to a user who is interested in a specific area. Smaller units of information allow a user to delve into exactly what they are looking for and the use of hypertext with links allows their study to broaden when the need arises.

But for all this promising potential, there is distrust of the digital world. Open access sites like Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg and Librivox are called into question for their reliability. Academic texts are scrutinised several times by a committee before they can be published but there are fewer restrictions placed on open-access websites, allowing anyone with an interest but not necessarily a thorough knowledge to contribute.

Seemingly, the only solution to this problem is a collaboration between academics and open-access sites. This shouldn’t be difficult for the study of the classics when many of the primary sources are old enough to dwell within the public domain. Texts should also be preserved in a format that is open, adaptable to different networks, systems and can withstand developments in technology. The language for this format should be freely available and understood by machines and humans. Following the model set forward by the TEI and increasing the academically approved material available online, then the classics should be available to anyone who is interested in the area. It is this renewed interest that will ensure that the classics remain at the heart of our culture and guarantee its survival through the digital age.

Works cited.

Crane, G, Bamman D, and Jones, A. “ePhilology: When the Books Talk to Their Readers” A Companion to Digital Literary Studies. ed. Schreibman, S. and Siemens, R. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.

Mitchell, T.N, “The Classics in the Age of Innovation and Technology”, Classics Ireland 1 (1994). Web. April 4, 2013.

Leaving Cert Analysis, 2012.,2012. Web. April 4, 2013.