College of Arts & Sciences


They Say There'll Be an Evolution

Classical App

Digital makeover of 100-year-old Loeb Library

By Lara Ehrlich

Scholar and philanthropist James Loeb founded the Loeb Classical Library of Greek and Latin texts in 1911 “to put the greatest literature in the hands of people,” says Jeffrey Henderson, the library’s general editor and William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of Greek Language and Literature at Boston University. Published by Harvard University Press, the distinctive green and red books were designed to fit “in a gentleman’s pocket.” Today, Henderson is shepherding the series into a new format that will allow all 520 volumes to fit in that pocket at once.

In fall 2014, the library will be available digitally with a single subscription accessible on computers, tablets, and mobile devices. “Who has the whole printed Loeb Library lying around?” Henderson asks. “Even if you did have it, you’d have to go through all 520 indexes to find what you’re looking for.” Now, the library will be searchable by keyword, so if you’re looking for everything the ancient writers said about virtue, for instance, you can search the Greek, Latin, and English simultaneously—in mere seconds. You can save your searches and favorite texts in the “My Loebs” section of the library, which also features a discussion area where you can connect with other Loeb lovers.

Harvard University Press is using the Loeb Classical Library, its most complicated series of texts, as its entry into digital publishing. “They figure if they can digitize the Loeb, they can learn everything they need for other projects,” Henderson says. “It’s cool that the oldest literature will be the stalking horse for new technology.” Ironically, technological overhauls are nothing new to the series’ authors, who survived a similarly dramatic shift more than a thousand years ago.

“Most Loeb authors never held a printed book,” says Sharmila Sen, the library’s executive editor-at-large. Texts were handwritten on scrolls, a format that persisted for thousands of years until the Romans developed the more portable and accessible codex (book) format. “It sounds so high-tech now to say that about a simple old book, but the codex was revolutionary. The idea that you could open a book at page 51 or 167—you couldn’t do that with a scroll. Think about how much you had to unfurl!”

Now with a single click, you can view Loeb classics like a book with facing “Loeb-y looking” pages—or as continuous script. “Reading literature on your iPad is like going back to the scroll,” Henderson says. “We even call it scrolling.”

“The traditions that have evolved around classical studies were always linked to the format in which these words appeared,” Sen adds. “If we step back and think about the digital format, we realize that the basic concepts are not as radical as we might think.”