Mapping Ancient Lives & Social Networks: A Digital Workshop.

The Syriaca Reference Portal home page.

This past May, Raynor Library’s Digital Scholarship Lab was honored to host a digital scholarship symposium entitled Mapping Ancient Lives & Social Networks: A Digital Workshop. This workshop focused around Syriaca.org: The Syriac Reference Portal, a vast open-linked data repository hosted through Vanderbilt University. This project is dedicated to “the study of Syriac literature, culture, and history.” Participants, which included historians, theologians, librarians, and graduate students, attended from universities across the United States and abroad in order to learn about the project and how to contribute to its growth. Editors Daniel Schwartz (Director), Nathan Gibson, and Marquette’s Jeanne-Nicole Mellon Saint-Laurent (Assistant Director), ran the two-day program that included background information on the project, lessons in TEI XML coding practices, and a workshop day during which participants collaborated in groups to encode “Lives of the Eastern Saints” by John of Ephesus.

For those unfamiliar, Syriac is a dialect of the ancient language Aramaic, which was widely spoken in the geographic areas that are now the Mediterranean, Middle East, and Asia. Key moments in the development of major religions (including Islam, Judaism, and Christianity) are recorded in this language, so it is of interest to historians and theologians alike. Syriaca.org’s project team is especially dedicated to not only preserving Syriac research, but opening it up to the public. So far, Syriaca.org hosts continually growing information on Syriac places, persons, saints, authors, and hagiography.

Day 1 of the workshop participants, including several Marquette University librarians, learned about the goals of the Syriaca.org project, and how those goals are met using digital scholarship tools and techniques. The project depends on online published reference works to ensure the standardization of entries. Here is an example of how this could be useful: On the example entry “Abdelmasih,” users can see information on the person, spelling variations of his name, how his name is spelled in different languages, and his unique identifier number (1102). This standardization ensures that even though Abdelmasih’s name is spelled in several variations across Syriac texts, each one is referring to the same person involved in multiple events. Through the process of encoding, project participants enter information already associated with a unique identifier, or URI, to build more entries on persons, places, or events already established by the editors, and possibly link to other sites. The editors hope this will help overcome some of the access and discovery problems associated with current Syriac research.

To encode the data and utilize URIs created for persons, places, relationships, and more, project participants had to learn the basics of TEI XML encoding, a standard for the representation of texts in a digital format. To enter and format the code, we utilized the Oxygen XML Editor. Oxygen is an authoring and development tool for, according to their website, “creating, editing, and publishing XML documents.” Using a template created by Syriaca project editors, participants could enter relevant information and URIs in XML and TEI standards, and upload the finished XML document for final editing before it is added to Syriaca.org. Day 2 of the workshop was almost entirely dedicated to encoding. Groups were assigned different chapters in “Lives of the Eastern Saints” and then entered relevant names, places, relationships, events, and personal information straight from the Syriac text (or the English-version translation for those who do not read Syriac) into Oxygen XML editor.

This digital scholarship workshop occurred during an exciting time for Marquette Librarians. As part of a continuing upskilling project, Librarians in the Research and Instructional Services Department have been exploring and creating digital scholarship projects. Developing knowledge on TEI standards, XML language, linked-open data, and URIs are just some of the essential lessons in understanding how digital projects are built, maintained, and grown. Plans continue for Librarians Tara Baillargeon, Rose Trupiano, Elizabeth Gibes, and myself, along with Theology Professor and Syriaca Assistant Director Jeanne-Nicole Mellon Saint-Laurent, and Theology graduate student Sam Young, to encode information on more chapters from “Lives of the Eastern Saints.”

If you would like more information on this project, or would like to be involved in contributing, please check out the contact page on Syriaca.org.