From ancient texts to maps (and back again): DigilibLT and GeoLat project

Alice Borgna
Università degli Studi del Piemonte Orientale

Comunicación larga
Bases de datos

Greek and Latin have played a vigorous role in the intellectual life of the West, but today this role seems to be in danger. One reason, among several, might lie in a certain immutability of the corpus of authors. In other words: how can Classics continue to play its traditional role if we persist in studying and teaching the same old anthology of authors and texts? And, in consequence, how we can avoid the risk of reducing research to a continuous debate with previous bibliography? My paper suggests how the interaction between Classics and Digital Humanities can reverse this negative trend by a broadening of perspective. Starting from the case-study of the Digital Library of Late Antique Latin Texts (, I will explain how this kind of project, can have a social (A), pedagogical (B) and, of course, a scholarly (C) impact. But there is also another question I’ll try to answer: once we have build a digital library, what we are going to do with it? (D)

A. Social impact

First, a digital library is certain to help the study of the Classics, because it provides scholars, teachers and students with free access to a wide range of material traditionally available only in highly specialized libraries (such as departmental collections and university libraries). This aspect could have a favorable impact on some of the social issues of our time, for example:

B. Pedagogical impact

DigilibLT can also play a strong role, both at secondary school (1) and university level (2), in helping the development of the pedagogy of Latin and Greek

  1. Since digital natives are often more fascinated by science and technology than past generations, late antiquity, rich in scientific-technical texts, offers materials suitable to their interest. It also includes texts with a strong interactive potential, like the astronomical treatises, often full of diagrams or schemas. With tools such as DigilibLT a teacher can offer innovative Latin classes, new both in content and instruments. For instance, it is possible to read an astronomical Latin text and, at the same time, show the original drawing on the IWB (Interactive Whiteboard). We are living in a world where the educational offering of the secondary schools is far less focussed on humanities than in the past; but, even if the curricula on sciences and technologies are the majority, this should not imply (as has been done...) an automatic reduction (or cancellation...) in hours of Latin, in Italy now almost relegated to the sanctuary of the liceo classico. With tools such as DigilibLT we can adapt the teaching of Latin to the new generations of digital natives. In addition DigilibLT, providing texts that are not usually included in the traditional anthologies, allows the creation of personal sets of teaching units, geared to student’s abilities and interest and also releases teachers from textbooks, a traditional barrier that can shrink Latin classes.
  2. At the university level DigilibLT shows that a digital approach can help to revive Classics programs, often avoided by students and families as offering a high risk of future unemployment. If we bring in undergraduates, graduates and Ph.D. students on large-scale projects, each according to age and experience, we can enrich the CV of a humanist graduate with significant technical competences (training in XML-TEI, editing softwares, etc.). Against a backdrop of deep economic crisis, with a dramatic youth unemployment rate, these new skills can make our graduates more attractive on the job market.

C. Scholarly impact

DigilibLT makes possible major achievements in ancient studies. For example, the creation of a digital library entailed a careful selection of the material to be included. As a result, a part of our team compiled a canon of late antique Latin literature, a catalogue that is going to fill an important gap. Moreover, the analysis entailed in the digitizing of the texts has also highlighted a wide range of linguistic usages peculiar to Late Latin. This precious material, which could contain new embryonic cells of the Romance languages, deserves deeper study in the future. Even the peculiar nature of late antique literature stimulates new research. In fact, it offers a mix of works of high literary value and technical and practical ones, not written for an audience of men of learning. As such, it opens up new questions for historical and sociological investigation. 

D. What we are going to do with it?

Once we have build a digital library, can we content ourselves to read the texts or can we use the factual information they contain and the possibility of linguistic annotation, in order to contribute to the Open and Citizen Science? Starting from the consideration that a lot of ancient text are both rooted in geographic space and contain references to geographical places, we have started the GeoLat project (Geography for latin literature,, evaluated by the European Science Foundation and founded by the Compagnia di San Paolo. The project aims to make the Latin literature accessible through a query interface of geo-cartographic type. It is based on a geographical ontology created ad hoc, a tool that does not existed before, due to the difficulties related with ancient texts (imaginary geography, disputed or not-named places…). The ontology is written in OWL and is freely accessible as RDF triples. The place-names are annotated in the texts (inline markup): the annotation connects the passage to the proper element of the ontology (standoff markup). The editing platform is collaborative: an interface (front-end) takes into account the different contributors. The GPS data are taken, thanks to the LOD mechanism, from Pleiades (, an authoritative gazetteer of ancient places. The web interface can start either from the selection of an area on the map, to discover which place-names are used by the ancient authors and reading the passages in the texts. Another possibility is starting from specific queries (e.g., “Which are, and where, the woods sacred to that particular divinity? Or how many Alexandria did exist in the III century AD?) and obtain a thematic map.The final platform will be a tool which is meant to be used not only for academic purpose but even by citizen at large, for example in tourism. It will also have predisposition for interoperability with devices for augmented reality (e.g. Google Glasses).