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Dante... on line

You might expect to find a scholar who specializes in the work of 14th-century Italian author Dante Alighieri poring over dog-eared volumes. But here at Dartmouth College, three Dante scholars can often be found peering intently at a computer terminal, rattling off such phrases as ``user interfaces'' and ``search software'' -- and offering a preview, perhaps, of the literary scholarship of the future.

Under their watchful eyes, a vast literary tradition -- thousands of pages of Dante commentary penned over more than six centuries -- is painstakingly being put ``on line'' at the rate of about 400 pages a week.

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Profs. Kevin Brownlee, Nancy Vickers, and Jeffrey Schnapp, along with colleagues Robert Hollander at Princeton and Margherita Frankel in New York are immersed in this enterprise.

The scholars' goal is to make at least 80 of the most valuable commentaries on Dante's ``Divine Comedy'' accessible to students and scholars via computer.

The end product, says the blond, goateed Dr. Schnapp will be ``an electronic superbook.'' He likens it to ``a 150,000-page encyclopedia -- but you can use it!''

``What you'll have is a qualitatively different kind of reading of Dante. In the past scholars would have concluded their labors at what will be today's point of departure,'' says Dr. Brownlee, whose enthusiasm for this project nearly gets the best of his quiet, scholarly demeanor.

Traditionally, he explains, Dante specialists logged hours upon hours thumbing through dozens of works, ancient and modern, to probe particular passages. A single library would seldom have all the needed commentaries.

Dr. Vickers offers an example. Suppose the question is: Why is Statius -- one of the 500 or so characters in the ``Divine Comedy'' -- crowned with myrtle? That, she says, would be a rather typical query from an alert undergraduate who realizes that heroes are usually adorned with laurel, not myrtle. In the past, students would round up what few commentaries they could lay their hands on, and, likely as not, would still come up empty-handed.

When the Dante Project is completed, says Dr. Vickers, a researcher could simply have the computer search through dozens of commentaries for the word myrtle, or for any other relevant combination of words. Hours, even days, of work get compressed into seconds. The slog work is gone, and the real work of understanding the text is enhanced.

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While the Dartmouth Dante Project is in the forefront of attempts to computerize large collections of literature, it's not the first such effort. Some years ago, scholars at the University of California at Irvine started putting the whole corpus of ancient Greek writings on line -- a massive endeavor that's 80 to 85 percent complete, according to Dr. Hollander. He notes that there are similar projects in the area of Biblical scholarship as well.

Drs. Brownlee and Schnapp underscore the possibilities of computerization in other literary fields that have substantial commentary traditions -- Milton, Cervantes, and the Christian Patristic writings, for instance.

At Dartmouth the transcription work is being done with the help of a device called the Kurzweil Data Entry Machine, which ``reads'' pages of text onto a storage disk. The material is then transferred into the computer's memory.

One of the remarkable things about the data entry machine, Dr. Brownlee says, is that it can be trained to recognize fairly obscure type faces. Once a correction has been made, the machine stores it in its memory and, gradually, makes fewer and fewer errors as it plunges through a text.

Smiling, Dr. Vickers says she can sympathize with the Kurzweil: ``I've read lots of 16th-century manuscripts, and it's no fun.''

The idea for the project was hatched in the summer of 1982, when Dr. Hollander was teaching at Dartmouth as a visiting professor. Finding a dearth of Dante commentaries in the college library, he says his thoughts turned toward a computerized method of giving the school's -- and the world's -- Dante scholars access to a wider range of materials.

As director of the project, Dr. Hollander has spent considerable time corralling funds. Currently, the work is drawing on a two-year grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) that consists of $120,000 in outright funding and $60,000 in matching funds. Some start-up money came from Dartmouth and from the Dante Society. A third year of NEH funding, plus additional support from private foundations, is anticipated.

Dorothy Wartenberg, assistant director for reference works at the NEH, says the experts who reviewed the project for the endowment were ``extremely enthusiastic.'' Some expressed the view that this kind of effort could revolutionize research in the humanities.

The project's schedule calls for completion by 1987. A working version, including some of the commentaries, is expected to be running by this summer, however, in time for a Dante Institute at Dartmouth.

Once the Dante project is finished, individuals or institutions wanting to use it will have a number of options: They will be able to ``plug in'' to the Dartmouth program through their own computers; in the case of schools or libraries, they may want to purchase copies of the data base and the search software; and some scholars may simply request a printout of specified computer searches. Still others, Dr. Schnapp says, will ask for full printouts of rare commentaries, books that are now virtually unavailable.

And ``Dantisti,'' as the scholars are called, won't be the only ones tapping the Dante project, Dr. Brownlee predicts. Medievalists and science historians, among others, will want to use it to mine Dante's encyclopedic grasp of the learning of his day, he says.

The soft-spoken scholar then pauses for a moment to observe that the ``Divine Comedy'' was written to be read by everyone, peasant to statesman. So, he comments, the pairing of Dante scholarship with the disseminating powers of today's computer technology would have pleased the Italian bard.

``In a kind of beautifully poetic way, Dante would have wanted it this way,'' he says.

And why is Statius crowned with myrtle?

Dr. Schnapp laughs and confesses, ``To tell you the truth, I don't know.''

Drs. Brownlee and Vickers are equally stumped, but, Brownlee suggests, ``Ask us again in three years, and we'll give you an answer in 20 seconds.'' -- 30 --