The University Record, March 19, 1996

U-M's collection of digitized papyrus stands at 500

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

Preserving text and the ability to access that text goes back to the ancient libraries of Alexandria and Pergamum. But the Michigan papyri digital project and those that have stemmed from it are giving preservation and access a new twist.

"The Advanced Papyrological Information System (APIS)," says Traianos Gagos, curator of U-M's 10,000-piece papyrus collection, "will contribute invaluable knowledge and unders tanding of the ancient world. It is not a project intended only for the specialized scholar, but opens the gateway to the Internet and gateways into past civilizations and cultures that can be seen and learned only through the rich information provided i n papyri and other remains of material culture. "

The Michigan project led to other papyrus collections being made available on the World Wide Web through digital images and catalog records. Thus APIS, which originally consisted of Columbia, Duke and Michigan universities, grew to include the s ubstantial collections of the University of California at Berkeley and Princeton and Yale universities. APIS's "virtual" library will include the holdings from all these collections (and collections that might follow in the future) through digi tal images and detailed catalog records that will provide information pertaining to the external and the internal characteristics of each papyrus, corrections to previously published papyri and republications.

Although the implementation of digital technology was originally conceived within the library environment for the sake of preservation and access, the availability of new and improved hardware and software has made it possible to use digital techn ology for teaching and research purposes. This is especially important for papyrology, where so much of the decipherment relies on details and faded traces of ink.

Papyrology is the study of ancient Egyptian texts written in ink on a variety of surfaces including pieces of broken pots, wooden and wax tablets, parchment, lead, fabric, but primarily on papyrus. Though papyri have been found in Italy, Palestin e, Syria, Israel, Greece and Jordan, the bulk of the papyri in various collections around the world comes from Egypt, where it survived in the ruins and trash piles of ancient towns.

The experiments with digital technology on Michigan papyri began in 1991 in an effort to preserve the collection. With that technology it was possible to create digital images, and an electronic catalogue in searchable format. The U-M now has more than 500 scanned, gray-scale images of papyri.

The capture of digital images at the U-M papyrus collection is just one of the projects underway at the U-M papyrus collection and is part of a wider project to create an electronic databasea database of information about each individual papyrus f rom the scholarly, preservation and access points of view. Another database contains detailed information about publication rights for each individual papyrus along with information of exact location within the storage area. Yet another has detailed inf ormation about the publications or republications of the papyri, or relevant discussions of the piece in more general works, excavation labels where necessary, existence of negatives, plates in the original publication and physical locations. These data bases form a valuable tool in controlling the collection, retrieving material and accessing information relevant to research. At present, these databases together contain more than 4,000 records.

An article by Gagos explaining fully the details of this project will appear in the forthcoming issue of Library HI TECH News.