The Ovid Project: Metamorphozing the Metamorphoses

Hope Greenberg, Humanities Computing Specialist, University of Vermont

Why digitize primary sources?
When Isabelle d'Este sent letters to the artist, Perugino, describing in detail her ideas for an elaborate painting for the wall of her home, she spoke of images and stories drawn from the classics that formed a familiar language to her educated contemporaries. These images and stories played a role in art, music, and literature through succeeding generations. While the artistic, musical, and literary descendants of these works continue to be a familiar part of our culture, the original works from which they are drawn are often known only to scholars who specialize in their study. Yet knowledge of these primary sources remains important, not only to decipher works of the past but to add to and enrich new works in the present and future.

Exposure to primary sources adds depth to research and engages students' interest. While many University libraries have fine collections, these resources are often available on a non- circulating basis, limiting the number of people who can use them at any given time. Thus, a source that can and should provide inspiration to many is limited to access by a few. As new technologies develop scholars have used these technologies to attempt to provide new and better ways to access these materials.

Reproductions in books, prints and in slides extend the circulation of primary sources. However, these methods have serious limitations. Reproductions are expensive, which limits their purchase by individuals and libraries. Including images in a book is also expensive, which generally means that few images are chosen and many are cast aside. Slides are cumbersome and not very flexible to rearrange or to display. All these technologies also suffer from being available only on a limited basis, either to the few that have access to the book or reproduction or to the few who are present during the particular slide show. While we are not yet to the point of being able to produce lifelike three dimensional holographic images, recent developments in image technology have brought us closer to the goal of providing primary resources to many scholars easily and cost effectively. The World Wide Web provides an increasingly viable way to share those images with many scholars.

I would also like to propose that computer images themselves have more impact than an image printed in a book. Perhaps it is due to the mystique that still surrounds computer use. Perhaps it has more to do with the difference between electronically broadcast images and print, much as film is considered visually more compelling than video. Whatever the case, reactions to exhibits like "Rome Reborn" from the Library of Congress or the images from WebLouvre invariably elicit excitement and interest.

Why Ovid and why the Metamorphoses?
There were three primary requirements to be considered when undertaking this project. The resource chosen had to be owned by the University with no difficulty over copyright. The project had to get up and running with little or no funding, time, or staffing requirements. And the project had to use a resource that is not commonly available outside the University of Vermont. Initial discussions with the staff of the Rare Book Department of the Bailey/Howe library elicited several ideas. But it was a lecture by Professor Z. Philip Ambrose of the Classics department that proved most interesting. During that lecture Prof. Ambrose discussed and displayed several of the University's rare editions of illustrated works of Ovid, including a book of 150 engravings by Johann Wilhelm Baur (1600-1642). These engravings, which became the basis for many later editions and other works, contain images as well as German and Latin paraphrases of each story depicted.

The rarity of this work, the beauty of its pictures, the brevity of its texts, and its comprehensive yet simple portrayal of the stories it depicts made it an easy choice for the project. The next decision was how to put this resource on-line. In keeping with the requirement for containing costs, we agreed that special equipment would not be purchased for this project. Computing and Information Technology at the University of Vermont owns several flatbed color scanners. Our first impulse was to simply scan each of the 150 images. We quickly realized that there were two reasons for not using this method. The sturdily constructed Baur edition had already survived three hundred years in quite good condition. However, turning each page, laying the book on a scanner, and holding it firmly down to ensure that the entire page would be scanned evenly would prove too destructive. This method would also take a great deal of time.

The other major objection to a direct scan approach was with the resulting image. Scanner technology has improved greatly in the last few years as have graphic boards and monitors. Even so, an image scanned at a fairly high resolution with thousands of colors displayed on a monitor that shows only about 72-90 dots per inch does not produce a photographic quality image. It is also reasonable to assume that image technology will continue to improve such that the capture and display of images will become easier and produce higher quality images. Directly scanning images with today's technology will not result in a collection that will be as useful over the long term.

We next considered photographing the images and digitizing either the prints or slides that resulted. This method would avoid excessive handling of the book. It would also provide a photographic quality image that could be used for future digitizing projects. In other words, the primary image would be of good quality and could be re-scanned in future years as technologies improve. This method, however, has a major drawback. Any archivist would warn that color prints and slides are not stable media for long term storage. Colors deteriorate too rapidly. The negatives themselves have a longer life expectancy but are also subject to damage and deterioration.

We chose to photograph the images to avoid intrusive handling of the originals and to provide a good quality image. We also chose to store the images on Photo CD. Like many others, we question whether this medium will withstand technological changes and environmental stresses. The physical lifetime of a CD is not that of certain books or other storage media. Of more concern, though, is the viability in terms of technological changes. There are certainly enough tales of data stored on computers that becomes inaccessible when technologies change. How much information remains buried in punch cards? Will PhotoCD technology suffer the same fate? The question, while unanswerable at this time, is perhaps less important than previous experience would lead us to believe. While technology continues to change at ever increasing speeds, the lessons learned from the past have made developers aware of the need to make transfer of information from the old to the new easier. Transferring the images from a PhotoCD onto the next generation of image storage devices will be easier than re-scanning the entire collection from deteriorating negatives.

Enlisting the help of our Photographic Services department, we had each image photographed by a 35mm camera and processed locally, resulting in two PhotoCDs. Per image costs for this type of process currently range from $.80 to $1.50 per image. The total cost for the photography and processing was $329, or just over $2.00 per image. With the help of a $35 shareware product titled GraphicConverter, the transfer of the images from PhotoCD should take a matter of minutes.

Metamorphosizing the Metamorphoses
When I first broached the subject of the Ovid project to the director of computing, he enthusiastically gave the approval for a limited amount of funds to get the project off the ground. When he saw the first set of Photo CD's he conjectured that digitizing these sorts of holdings, of which the library has many, could become a massive project--one that might be more appropriately funded by the library. When I suggested the project to Z Philip Ambrose, Professor of Classics, whose lecture had been its original inspiration, he immediately asked if we could include all the slides he has been using for his classes and images from other books along with his syllabi and related documents. An art professor, seeing the images, has encouraged her students to use portions of them in their computer art works.

These three responses, one envisioning expanding possibilities, the other suggesting ways to utilize the project as a whole, and the third focusing on drawing from specific portions of the project images to create new works, show not only how projects such as this can be flexiblely adapted to many uses but how they also act as sparks to generate new ideas and new ways of looking at resources. While the Ovid project has begun with the digitization of 150 images it will expand with the transliteration and translation of the German and Latin texts, involving students and faculty in those departments. It will continue with the addition of illustrated works of Ovid by other artists including Vergilius Solis (1514-1562), Martin Bouche (1640-1693), Bernard Picart (1673-1733) and others. It will include other images and texts related to classical scholarship.

Become a part of the Ovid Project. Visit the project with or without your students. Allow us to create hypertext links to your projects involving works by Ovid or other classical scholars. Send us comments, papers, literary and artistic works resulting from these images to be included in the project. Working together across the Internet, we can continue the metamorphosis.

Hope Greenberg synthesizes her background in the humanities with her work in Academic Computing at the University of Vermont, continually introducing faculty and students to the resources and potential of the Internet. She can be reached at She and the Ovid Project can be visited at :