Duke Classics Scholar Finds Another Home in the Library


Joshua D. Sosin will be the first tenured professor at Duke to have a joint appointment in the library and an academic department.
June 03, 2013

In high school, Joshua D. Sosin had two favorite subjects: Latin and biology. "In the end I decided that my Latin teacher was cooler, and if I, too, wanted to be cool, I should do Latin," he says. That led to a concentration in classics, philosophy, and religion at what is now the University of Mary Washington, where he studied not only Latin but also Greek and Egyptian Coptic. He got a Ph.D. in classics from Duke University in 2000. "At no point did I consider what I would do with any of this," he says.

What he did was go on to a career as a papyrologist and epigraphist, a scholar of inscriptions. Now Mr. Sosin, who is 40, is about to put that training to fresh uses in a job configured unlike any other at Duke. In July he will become director of the Duke Collaboratory for Classics Computing, a new digital-humanities unit of the Duke University Libraries.

An associate professor of classical studies and history, Mr. Sosin will be the first tenured faculty member at the university to have a joint appointment in the library and an academic department. A $500,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation will help support the work of the collaboratory, known as DC3.

The venture builds off work begun in part by the late John F. Oates, a Duke professor of classics and a mentor to Mr. Sosin, and the late William H. Willis, another Duke classicist. They led the university's early efforts to digitize the corpus of edited Greek and Latin documentary papyri—mostly business documents and other records of the daily life of antiquity—and post it online. Mr. Sosin now co-directs the results of that work, called the Duke Data Bank of Documentary Papyri, and has been closely involved with the Advanced Papyrological Information System, a collaboration among several institutions to make their collections cross-navigable. He led the work that built, a technical framework that brings together several major digital resources in the field and allows users to crowdsource scholarly contributions.

"What we've built is this version-controlled, peer-reviewed editorial environment," open to anyone with an Internet connection, Mr. Sosin says. DC3's first mandate is to tend the computer code that has built up around the project. One of his great ambitions is to expand into Greek and Latin epigraphy—"a much bigger enterprise," he says, given that hundreds of thousands of inscriptions from the ancient world have already been published, and many more remain to be collected, digitized, and transcribed.

As classical studies becomes more digitally driven and ever more specialized, Mr. Sosin says, it still faces a challenge as old as the field itself: how to create reliable, logical connections among very different materials and scholarly projects. "What is a reliable way to refer to a specific line of a specific poem? How do you thread connections between texts and nontext sources? Those are all 19th-century kinds of tasks, all seeming terribly easy but terribly difficult when you get down to them," he says. With the rise of digital humanities, "we're in a space where we're starting to see what can happen when you knit these specialized resources together."

Mr. Sosin is not a computer guy. The DC3 work will match his scholarly strengths with the computing skills of Hugh Cayless, a classics Ph.D. with a master's in information science, and Ryan Baumann, a computer scientist. "My role, as I see it," Mr. Sosin says, "is to develop a vision in concert with the people who can actually build."

He's also hoping to help change some faculty perceptions about the library's scholarly role. It is "not just a provider of things on shelves or in the digital space," he says, "but a partner in the core academic enterprise."

One of Mr. Sosin's hobbies is shade gardening. His advice on that endeavor could apply just as well to his digital-humanities work: Study the soil and the growing conditions and "get used to the idea of experimentation," he says. "Get used to the idea that an awful lot of what you do will fail, until you start to understand how your piece of land works."