Suda On Line: Byzantine Lexicography
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The History of the Suda On Line

In January of 1998, Jeffery Gibson posted a question to the “Classics-l” e-mail list asking if there had ever been an English translation of the Suda lexicon. The immediate response to the question was “no,” but since this list was a forum for academics, the discussion did not end there. An idea soon emerged that scholars might use the power of the internet to collaborate on such a translation. This suggestion generated a lively discussion on the list over the next several days, with seminal contributions from Patrick Rourke, Ross Scaife, Steven Willett, David Meadows, James Butrica, Joe Farrell, Tom Jenkins, Don Fowler, Gabriel Bodard, Michael Chase, Sean Redmond, Malcolm Heath, Anne Mahoney, and many others. People began volunteering to translate entries, debating the virtues of various file formats and delivery systems, and discussing the problems inherent in organizing such a massive task. David Meadows proposed naming the project Suda On Line (SOL), and the acronym stuck. You can read this flurry of e-mails here. All of this brainstorming occurred over a period of less than two weeks.

Eventually, William Hutton and Elizabeth Vandiver offered themselves as overall coordinators of the effort. Hutton produced and made available a simple html test-site (HELIOS) to visualize what the eventual SOL might look like and to aid in the forecasting of potential obstacles. That test site can still be seen in all its primitive glory. At about the same time, Patrick Rourke began compiling the SOLVL (Suda On Line Volunteer List) to keep track of the many people who had expressed an interest in participating in the project.

Soon thereafter, Ross Scaife contacted Hutton and Vandiver and offered to help develop the SOL under the aegis of his newly-formed Stoa Consortium for Electronic Publication in the Classics. This offer involved hosting the project at the Center for Computing in the Humanities (CCH) at the University of Kentucky, which remains SOL's home to this day. Scaife also secured permission of the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae for the use of their electronic text of the Suda and sought out the assistance and advice of Gregory Crane, editor of the Perseus Digital Library. Scaife rightly foresaw that the resources and expertise of the Perseus project would prove an immense boon to SOL’s development and success. Anne Mahoney, who would go on to serve as co-editor of the Stoa Consortium and a member of the Perseus team, also consulted with Scaife on the implementation.

Design and programming of the SOL system commenced under the supervision of Scaife and Raphael Finkel of the CCH, who also co-authored the Qddb database system used by SOL. The initial programmer was Desmond Huar En Ng, then a graduate student in Computer Science. Ng was responsible for creating much of the code for the SOL system as it exists today, though maintenance and important refinements have been carried out by his student-programmer successors, Mukund Chandak, Shahid Saleem Mohammed and Kamal Shah. Additional programming wisdom was provided at frequent intervals by Finkel, Rourke, and Mahoney. By late 1998 the software was ready, and the submission of translated entries commenced. By 2002 10,000 translated entries had been submitted and in October 2006 the 20,000 mark was reached.

On the editorial side, various schemes for coordinating the efforts of the many contributors to SOL were hatched and implemented. Eventually a board of managing editors was created, the initial members of which were Hutton, Vandiver, Scaife, and Rourke. Soon Finkel was added as a fifth member and has served up to the present as the project’s technical director.

In 2000 two important new contributors joined the SOL team: Catharine Roth and David Whitehead. For their energetic contributions to the project, Roth and Whitehead were invited to join the board of managing editors in 2001, and soon thereafter Whitehead was named to the newly established post of senior editor. The two of them have since become the most productive contributors to the content of SOL as both translators and editors.

From the beginning, the idea of SOL was not just to translate the Suda but to develop and test a new paradigm of scholarly publication. The innovative features of this paradigm include not only the purpose-built computational infrastructure for compiling and working with the submitted material, but also some unorthodox editorial principles. The entire editing process was to be open, open-ended, and crowdsourced (though that term did not yet exist). Nearly anyone who possessed the ability to translate ancient Greek, regardless of formal credentials and specialization, was eligible to apply to the project and request the assignment of any entry. Submitted entries, even ones that were very rough and mistake-ridden, would be instantly accessible on the site (though marked clearly as ‘draft’ until vetted). Vetting and editing would be done not by clandestine referees but by scholars whose real names would be listed on every entry they worked on; and no entry, however well translated and annotated, would ever be considered off-limits for future improvement.

The SOL has been the focus of numerous articles and conference presentations. In 2000 the Managing Editors jointly published an article “The Suda On-Line” in Syllecta Classica (11: 178-190). Papers about SOL were delivered at international conferences in Hawaii and Aberdeen, Scotland (by Scaife in 1999 and 2000) and in Newport, RI (by Hutton in 2000). In 2002 a panel about SOL was held at the annual meeting of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South in Austin, TX. The panel, entitled "On to 10,000: The Inexorable March of the Suda On Line," was organized by Hutton and Vandiver. The other panel members were Whitehead, Mahoney, and contributors Oliver Phillips and Jennifer Benedict. In 2007 Catharine Roth won a Titus Fellowship at the University of Cincinnati’s Blegen Library to study early scholarship on the Suda.

In March of 2008 the project suffered a tremendous loss with the untimely death of Ross Scaife, whose vision, expertise and persistence turned the SOL from a disorderly collection of translations into a groundbreaking model of digital collaborative scholarship. Those of us who continue work on the project hope that the SOL will be a lasting monument to Ross’s pioneering efforts. Ross’s legacy also lives on in a number of projects inspired and influenced by the SOL’s methods and principles, including SoSOL (Son of SOL), an adaptable system for the transcription and editing of source texts. In 2009 Anne Mahoney published an article, "Tachypedia Byzantina: The Suda On Line as Collaborative Encyclopedia," in a special issue of Digital Humanities Quarterly (3, 2009) dedicated to Ross’s memory.

At present (July 2014), the family of active and emerita/us SOL contributors comprises over 200 individuals from five continents and more than 20 countries, but geography is not the only aspect that makes this group diverse and eclectic. In addition to research-active university faculty, our roster has included retired professors, scholars in countries where the internet provides an invaluable supplement to meager local resources, and talented classicists who for one reason or another have ended up in careers other than higher education. One of the great benefits of SOL is the opportunity the project gives to such scholars to make a valuable contribution to the field. SOL has also been used to good effect in the classroom. Instructors at several colleges and universities have assigned entries to graduate and advanced undergraduate students for supervised translating and annotating, and hundreds of their contributions are now a permanent part of the database and can be listed as published scholarly works on the students’ CV's. One of our most prolific contributors, Jennifer Benedict (over 4500 translations), did most of her work on the SOL as an undergraduate at William & Mary. Several scholars, including Peter Green, Malcolm Heath and John Melville-Jones, donated translations of entries that they had done previously for other purposes.

A translation of the last of the Suda’s 31000+ entries was submitted to the database on July 21, 2014 and vetted the next day. This milestone is very gratifying, but the work of the project is far from over. As mentioned above, one of the founding principles of the project is that the process of improving and annotating our translations will go on indefinitely. Much important work remains to be done. We are also constantly thinking of ways to improve SOL's infrastructure and to add new tools and features. If you are interested in helping us with the continuing betterment of SOL, please read about how you can register as an editor and/or contact the managing editors.

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This document was last updated Tuesday May 14, 2019.

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