The Making of the Electronic Edition
e-GEDSH is an electronic representation of the Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage , a project that had a long history. (See The Making of the Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage .) Back in 1993—the project was then named the Syriac Hyper-text Project (SHT)—the aim was to produce an online encyclopedia with entries linked to each other via hyperlinks, but by 1998, the print edition took over and the online objective was but forgotten.
Things took a positive turn in 2011 when David A. Michelson of the Syriaca.org project approached Beth Mardutho to include the encyclopedia in what eventually became the Srophé App platform and Syriac Linked Data cloud. Together, Peter Brown and David secured funding from the Fondazione Internazionale Balzan and the National Endowment for the Humanities for the creation of the electronic edition. This was a dream come true. David took the initial steps in converting the electronic text of the print edition into XML and designed the initial schema for entries according to TEI best practices. Christopher Johnson worked as a postdoctoral research assistant in the earliest phases of the electronic conversion and a student programmer, Kim Kosta, provided scripting support. Michelson also advised on the structure of the database that holds the data behind the scenes as well as incorporating linked open data allowing the encyclopedia to link to other online sources. A graduate research assistant, Sam Peterson, assisted David in the subject classification mark up work, making the encyclopedia content harvestable by other projects.
Daniel L. Schwartz joined the project in 2016 and since then served as lead Technical Editor with primary responsibility for the conversion of the print edition into electronic format, customizing the TEI XML schema as a data model for the encyclopedia, integrating linked open data into the electronic version, TEI XML encoding of the front and back matter, and supervising the overall design of the user interface and database for the electronic edition. David and Daniel, as Technical Editors, undertook the design of the electronic version with an eye to ensuring that it followed current best practices in the Digital Humanities.
Transforming a print-edition text, even when the electronic layout files were available from the press, to a complex TEI XML structure poses many challenges such as converting implicit layout into semantic encoding and ensuring uniformity of data markup. The project needed a meticulous, digitally savvy editor who is also an expert in many sub-domains of Syriac studies. Ute Possekel joined the project in 2016 and served as Digital Edition Editor for the electronic edition. Her responsibilities included reviewing all entries of the encyclopedia in order to make typographical revisions to the print edition, to ensure uniformity of style in the digital edition, and to revise and augment the encoding of the TEI XML version of the electronic text. She went beyond these tasks and corrected any inconsistencies in the print edition.
None of this work would have led to anything without a specialized programmer who is responsible for the creation of the actual site. Winona Salesky, a uniquely skilled software developer who has consulted for the Library of Congress and other academic libraries, served as Senior Programmer for the customization of the Srophé App, the XML database containing the electronic edition. Her responsibilities included writing queries and transformations in XQuery, XSLT, and SPARQL as well as serialization of the encyclopedia data into various electronic formats. The process benefited from existing open-access software including eXist-db and Bootstrap.
The technology available for the encoding of this electronic edition has moved beyond what was available in the days of the SHT project. Had SHT gone live, each lemma would have simply been coded manually in HTML and the data would have been static. Advancements in Internet computing and the Digital Humanities now offer this project a set of rich tools such as TEI XML, XML native databases, and Linked Open Data, to name but a few.
Behind all of this work lies the continual encouragement of Syriac studies by the eminent historian, Peter Brown, Philip and Beulah Rollins Professor of History, Emeritus at Princeton University. Brown served as a senior advisor on the initial grant application to the National Endowment for the Humanities which envisioned the electronic version. It was also Peter who arranged for additional funding to bring the project to completion through the generous support of the Fondazione Internazionale Balzan.
A number of institutions provided infrastructure and administrative support to the project. Vanderbilt University’s Office of the Vice Provost for Research, Vanderbilt University Information Technology Division, Vanderbilt Divinity School, and The Jean and Alexander Heard Library at Vanderbilt University provides support for staff administration, hosting, and systems administration including hosting the Srophé web application. The Center of Digital Humanities Research at Texas A&M University hosts the encyclopedia images on its IIIF server and provided development support. The Ancient World Mapping Center at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, assisted in providing digital versions of the maps from the print edition.
The achievements of the digital edition team—David A. Michelson, Daniel L. Schwartz, Ute Possekel and Winona Salesky—will have rippling effects beyond this electronic release. Our task here was to produce an accurate digital representation of the 2011 print edition, but now the door is open, should the Syriac studies community be ready for such a task, to produce a new version of this encyclopedia that can grow digitally, for—in the words of al-Imād al-Iṣfahānī (1125–1201)— “no one writes a book on a certain day, but does not say in the next day, ‘if this were changed, it would be better; and if this were inserted, it would be commendable; and if this preceded, it would be preferable; and if this were deleted, it would be more beautiful.’”