November 28, 2015

Five Questions with Joshua Sosin, a Library-Based Digital Humanities Scholar

Joshua SosinWe’ve heard a lot about embedded librarianship, but Duke University is doing it the other way around. Effective July 1, Joshua D. Sosin, an associate professor in Duke’s Department of Classical Studies, will become director of the Duke Collaboratory for Classics Computing, a new digital-humanities unit of the Duke University Libraries which is supported by a $500,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Sosin will be the first tenured faculty member at the university to have a joint appointment in the library and an academic department. LJ caught up with him to find out how and why this experiment got started, and what he hopes to achieve.

LJ: Why is your position jointly based in the library and in an academic department?

Joshua Sosin: These projects that I’ve been a part of now since graduate school [the Advanced Papyrological Information System,, and the Duke Data Bank of Documentary Papyri, aka DC3, which Sosin co-directs] have always been allied with the library. I’ve been collaborating with librarians here and elsewhere since 1996; for us the question would have been, why not the library? But there’s something a little deeper than that. Throughout the world, papyri tend to be owned by museums or the special collections arms of university libraries. In as much as a lot of this work grows out of these precious ancient objects, there is a natural, native, and necessary alliance between the body that has curatorial oversight over them, that mission of preservation and access, and the parallel track of scholars who are charged with bringing this to life for the scholarly and other communities.

Duke PapyrusWhat have some of the challenges been in getting it set up that way, and what are some of the advantages of such cross-pollination?

While this is the first time there’s been this kind of hybrid appointment, Duke is really excellent about thinking creatively about the way people cooperate across institutional boundaries I won’t say it was easy or happened automatically, but this is something Duke is very good at, so for me it was fairly seamless.

Does DC3 work much with other librarians and library staff, or make use of other library resources, or is it largely self-contained?

My two colleagues on the DC3 are library staff. We’ve already started the process of integrating me socially with other library units. This is a process we’re going to have to work out, but my hope and expectation is that we’re not going to be an isolated appendage but a working part of the library. That is part of my whole theory of what the benefits are going to be. For example, better integrations of text transcriptions and images so they can plot coordinates on the image and peg transcriptions to those coordinates. We mean to accomplish this for the papyri because it is a logical next step, but the library has loads of resources for which plug and play for this kind of capability would be really useful. We’re able to develop tools for our narrow audience but which also satisfy demands for much broader audiences. We imagine it going in the other direction as well: puzzles that we’re working on that, somewhere in the large and skilled organization that is the library, someone will be able to help us.

How much of your current work is based in the library’s special collections?

I now direct an effort to create digital text of already published Greek and Latin documents regardless of who owns them. There are about 60,000 objects in the database, and the number actually owned by Duke is very small. That project doesn’t have a component that captures digital images and surface curatorial data. The library happens to own 1,400, a modest number. It is part of Advanced Papyrological Information System [APIS], and its mandate very heavily has been preservation and access. APIS is an effort by pushing two dozen institutions to put online digital images of their papyri and curatorial records., which has wound down and which  I directed, brought these two together under a common interface, such that where they overlap so that where we have a text, image, and records we are able to put them together. We allow users to edit the data in either source through a single interface. The overlapping part of the Venn diagram is something like 5,000 to 6,000.

I saw in the Chronicle of Higher Education that you’re hoping to help change some faculty perceptions about the library’s scholarly role. How do you think that could happen?

We’re trying to do good work that is of service to the scholarly community and beyond. My primary objective isn’t trying to change anybody’s opinion; this is just a broader narrative of which I hope to be a part. The three of us [Sosin, Hugh Cayless, a classics Ph.D. with a master’s in information science, and Ryan Baumann, a computer scientist] occupy a single office. We intend to publish together and teach together.  I hope we do a good enough job that people will see the virtue of working that way. I don’t mean to suggest this is how everyone should work, but there are some activities that an amenable to this kind of deeply collegial style of work. Things that would make a particular project amenable to this way of working [include] scale, or projects with very high computational demands. Not all projects need such a robust institutional backing such as we enjoy. Some people do a project together and then split up, but we have developed a project on which an entire institution depends, so we have an obligation to stick around and support it.

This article was featured in Library Journal's Academic Newswire enewsletter. Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to your inbox for free.

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz ( is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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