The joys of New York City had me sitting in a car, waiting for a 9-10:30am spot to become legal on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. No matter, I had my laptop and the BBC playing, where I learned of an Oxford University project to outsource papyrological work to the public. They have built a simply incredible website to invite the general, non-scholarly, non-Greek reading public to help transcribe the cache of Greek papyri found at Oxyrhynchus over a century ago. The tools are impressive, though I still find it hard to believe that most fragments will be properly transcribed by people untrained in the papyrological arts. Could we use this for talmudic research?
6 thoughts on “Outsourcing Scholarship”
Well Shai, what kind of texts do we still need to transcribe? Genizah? So much is already transcribed, and the field seems to believe that such transcriptions need to be done by experts. Most scholars are even careful do their own.
There is much much more geniza (of the Cairo and European varieties) to transcribe. As for the need for expert transcription, that was precisely my point. These Oxford scholars working on Greek Egyptian papyri seem much less scared, and much more open to outsourcing, networking etc.. I’m sure they’ll check everything triply once it comes in, but wouldn’t it have been nice if Profs. Shkulnik and Grossman a la Footnote were a little more open to outsourcing?
Genizah is immeasurably easier to transcribe, since there are people who actually write in a similar way. It takes about a semester to be able to read papyri properly (even living breathing papyrologists can’t all just read them off the page like that) – it takes about five hours to be reasonably competent with genizah.
What an impressive interface. A shame it doesn’t appear that it can be easily replicated as the site isn’t share any of the code it’s employed. Unless more code is shared, most digital transcribers will be limited to what’s being developed and improved by open source projects, e.g. ProofreadPage, the mediawiki extension used by Hebrew Wikisource, the Open Siddur Project, and other open source transcription projects.
Actually the Genizah is a perfect example of how a project like this would work, since this is precisely how some of the earliest important texts of the Genizah were published. One of the great injustices of history is the manner in which the Cairo Genizah, as such, is identified almost solely with Solomon Schechter, to the exclusion of others. Without taking anything away from Schechter’s astonishing accomplishments, the fact is that he was not the first to recognize the vast importance of the Genizah or attempt to systematically publish its contents. He was simply the first to do so with money.
Perhaps the earliest scholar to realize the enormity of the Genizah’s importance, and attempt to systematically disseminate its contents was R. Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (to be fair: just this year of “Rehov Shelomo-Aharon Wertheimer” fame – the street sign caption reading: “Dayyan ve-hoker; ha-rishon she-hotsi le-or mi-kitvei ha-Genizah ha-Kahirit”), whose wonderful “Batei Midrashot” project simply did not have the institutional (or otherwise) resources that Schechter brought with him. Instead, R. Wertheimer – dedicated to obtaining and publishing ever more texts from the Genizah – had to sell those he had already procured in order to finance his project.
Before Wertheimer, others as well (think Safir) recognized the importance of the Genizah and attempted to publish its contents (although none in quite the same persistent fashion as Wertheimer). None of these was a “specialist” in the sense that we imagine – some were simply adventurers, others religious scholars, still others amateur researcher-types, etc. – yet a perusal of, say, a work like Batei Midrashot is fascinating for its quality, and the sense of “what-if” it imparts.
All in all, the Genizah texts (and, contra Amit, probably papyri as well) likely would benefit from a more open attitude to transcription (at least!). There is no chiyyuv to rely wholly upon these transcriptions. Individual researchers (or editorial collectives, etc.) can always go back and double/triple check. But there’s no reason that scholars shouldn’t have help getting the seemingly endless grunt work out of the way.
Last time Oxford outsourced scholarship it gave us the OED. The website and the tools are fantastic and may appeal to a “madman”.