Navigating Ancient Worlds

By Wilson, Sara E. | Humanities, September/October 2000 | Go to article overview

Navigating Ancient Worlds


Wilson, Sara E., Humanities


Armed with winged sandals, a magic sword, and a cap of invisibility, Perseus set off on a quest to slay the Gorgon Medusa, a monstrous woman whose head was encircled by writhing snakes.

The Perseus project at Tufts University is a digital library that provides its users with the winged sandals of technology to aid them in their pursuit of knowledge. The project is named after the hero from Greek mythology, says Editor in Chief Gregory Crane, because he wanted a character "who reflected going out into the greater world of gods and monsters."

Designed for the general public as well as students and scholars, Perseus can be accessed by CD-ROM or on the Internet at www.perseus.tufts.edu. "Perseus is like a library that belongs to all of us, to students and faculty and to scholars and students who are not affiliated with any university," says Laura Gibbs, assistant professor of classics and letters at the University of Oklahoma. "And it is open twenty-four hours a day."

Containing more than thirty thousand images and five million words of text, the Perseus project offers a number of innovative tools that change the way students approach ancient languages, literature, and archaeology. Users can read English translations of the plays of Euripides, the poetry of Homer, or the history of Thucydides. Students of Greek and Latin are able to "flip" back and forth from the original text to the English translation, reinforcing their understanding of the ancient languages. "Perseus has allowed people to look at more and different kinds of primary materials," Crane says. "People can use the texts even if they don't know the languages very well. And the project has vastly increased access to visual information." Viewers interested in sculpture, for example, can see large, color photos-sometimes even twenty or more shots of the same object-- taken from different anlges.

In addition to advanced search tools, the Perseus staff has developed browsing tools to orient the reader within a document. The navigation bar, the horizontal equivalent of the elevator bar, indicates the reader's location at the top of the screen. "This gives people the sense of place they have with a physical artifact," says Crane. "Although we can't mimic the heft of a book in your hand, we're not far from flipping through pages."

Since its inception in 1992, Perseus has kept pace with changes in computer technology, expanding the ways in which a library gives access to information. "By integrating visual and textual information, we're solving the very concrete problem of materials being physically far from each other," says Crane.

A person interested in the character of Medusa from the Perseus myth, for example, may go to a library and look up "Medusa" in an encyclopedia.

The encyclopedia entry might contain unfamiliar terms or references to other books, resulting in a good deal of legwork within a library or between several libraries.

Perseus simplifies the process. A user who types the word "Medusa" into the Perseus search engine elicits the following list of information available on the website: three coins, twenty images, five Perseus encyclopedia entries, six sculptures, four source citations, and twenty-four vases. Visual and textual, and literary, historical, artistic, and archaeological materials are all cross-referenced together, making them easy to locate. Clicking on the topic "encyclopedia entries" leads to a list of online texts that includes authors such Apollodorus, who wrote Library and Epitome, the only extant chronological narrative of Perseus's life.

But when a user opens Library and Epitome, Apollodorus's words do not simply appear on the computer screen-because it is hyperlinked, the text acts as a portal to other resources. Clicking on an unfamiliar term in the story brings up a lexicon window explaining the term; choosing "plot sites in this book" generates an interactive map of the locations mentioned in Apollodorus's book; and clicking on a footnote calls up a reference to scholarly commentary or another ancient text. …

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