Digitizing the Loeb Classical Library

The digitization project will make these valuable resources more widely available

UPDATED: September 24, 2014, at 11:42 p.m.

The Loeb Classical Library Foundation and the Harvard University Press announced last week that the entire Loeb Classical Library would be digitized and put online for a fee. Their efforts to make these resources more widely available are commendable and show the potential for future digitization projects.

The original intent of the Loeb Classical Library, which contains a series of 520 volumes of ancient Greek and Roman literature, was to improve accessibility to the works of classical authors – the great historians, poets, philosophers, playwrights and orators of antiquity. To this end, each book, with either a red cover for Latin or green for Greek, contains the original writing on the left-hand pages and the English translation on the right. The series was a success from the very beginning; not long after the original publication of the books, Virginia Woolf wrote in a 1917 review for The Times Literary Supplement that “the Loeb Library…comes as a gift of freedom.”

The move to digitize the Library advances the original ideal and intent of the library. By placing the entirety of the Library’s texts online for subscribers to enjoy and introducing the capability to annotate and search the texts, the Foundation has brought these texts to an even wider audience. Furthermore, the texts that have been now made available online through the Loeb generally contain translations of a higher quality than what can be currently found on the internet, while also costing less – for individuals or for institutions – than the price of the hard copy of all the books in the Loeb series. In fact, the efforts by the LCL Foundation and the Harvard University Press to ensure the affordability of the digital Loeb deserve recognition as well. 

And while we often lament the decline of the humanities here at Harvard, the digitization of the Loeb Classical Library represents the ideal for the future – one where science and technology can be used to benefit and advance the study of the humanities. Whereas we generally focus on the marginalization of the humanities due to increased emphasis on the sciences, the Loeb Classical Library Foundation and Harvard University Press have managed to marry the two. The new online version of the Library – especially the tools for annotation, note-taking, sharing, toggling, and highlighting – would not have been possible without the technological advancements of the past few decades.

A quotation often falsely attributed to Cicero (one of the ancient Romans whose writing is preserved in the Loeb) reads, “A room without books is like a body without a soul.” Regardless of the origins of the phrase, its spirit resonates loud and clear and the digitization of the Loeb embraces that spirit, that love of books and literature; it embodies and enhances the original mission of the Library. 

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: September 24, 2014

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the red and green book covers signified Greek and Latin books respectively.  In fact, Latin books are bound in red and Greek books in green.  

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