Computers & Texts No. 16/17
Table of Contents
Winter 1998

Review: Dead Sea Scrolls Electronic Reference Library

Douglas Mohrmann
University of Durham

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of a serendipitous discovery of ancient scroll remnants along the shore of the Dead Sea. In all, some 15,000 fragments from over 800 manuscripts were discovered at Qumran alone, making for one of the most exciting developments in theological studies this century. Yet, despite the initial thunderous clamour of interest in their discovery, only slight echoes of scholarly results resounded in the following years. The infamous censor and mismanagement of their publication has now become a well rehearsed story, and thankfully one that ended in 1991. At that time, the Israel Antiquities Authority decided to make public the official scroll photographs. The IAA, now under the direction of Emmanuel Tov, has subsequently shown a new resolve to promote greater availability. The first real sign of this came through a release of a microfiche edition of the photographs, also published by E.J. Brill (1993), and now with the release of The Dead Sea Scrolls Electronic Reference Library (DSSERL) we have the second. For a scholarly community starving for access to these once closely guarded photos, any project like this one would be welcomed, but the editor, Dr Timothy Lim, has developed a laudable research tool which exploits the manipulative powers of the computer over such images.

Content and Function

This CD-ROM edition of the scrolls combines two main research components: a collection of 2,700 images and an associated information database which includes bibliography, indices, biblical references, and cross referencing between groups of images. The program's working metaphor relates the image and information as if a card were attached to the rear of each photo. Therefore, if while working with an image, a need arises to check where this scroll or fragment has been published, a single click retrieves the related information card; conversely, an image can be immediately retrieved while viewing the card.

As the application is opened the Index screen appears, giving the user the option to retrieve a photo and its information card based on a several different labeling schemes: PAM (Palestinian Archaeological Museum) and SHR (Shrine of the Book) numbers; Cave numbers; Scroll Title; Inventory numbers; Brill Microfiche page numbers; Facsimile numbers; Biblical References. DSS scholars will immediately recognize the multiple indices as a convenience, since the first three especially represent the various and competing standards of classification which sometimes cause confusion. Once a particular index is chosen the scroll bar or Input Box can be used to find the desired scroll.

Fig. 1. Selecting and viewing a scroll's catalogue entry.

The heart of the program, of course, is the photo collection. Once selected, the photo appears in a special window with many editing functions. Due to the varieties of preservation over the past 2,000 years many scrolls and fragments have both legible and illegible sections as a result of rips or discoloration. The microfiche edition tried to compensate for a mixture of dark and light sections on a single parchment by shooting them with different aperture settings. Here with the marvels of imaging software the viewer may change the brightness and contrast levels to optimize readability. Images may be magnified from 1% to 300%. At the higher magnifications the user may navigate the screen with either the horizontal/vertical scroll bars or a special 'panning mode' which simulates the ability to move the document by hand beneath a magnifying glass. Brill has also added the functionality of rotating the images in 90º increments, as well as allowing users to print images or cut and paste them into other programs. As one works with the documents the program really shows it importance for the next generation of work on the scrolls.

A few scenarios may help to illustrate. I choose to compare the electronic images with the microfiche and hardcopy photographs for the following: 4QGen-Exoda (4Q1, PAM's 43.009 and 43.006) and 4QSerekh ha-milhamah (4Q285, PAM 43.325). In the first two instances the hard-copies came from the publication Discoveries in the Judaean Desert vol. VII, plates I and III respectively, while the third photo had been ordered and reproduced from the collection at the West Semitic Research Center. The lower portion of frag. 5 on PAM 43.009, for example is darkened, but after increasing the brightness and contrast and by magnifying the picture, it became clearer on the electronic version. Thus it was easier to confirm the editor's reconstruction of lines 18 and 19 (see p. 13, DJD VII) than by a viewing of the book's photographs. Likewise it was easier to identify the Hebrew letter peh on the fringe of the second line of 4Q285 with the electronic version than by the hardcopy color photograph. The 'miracle' of this technology does have its limits, however, as one finds while viewing the stubbornly difficult text on 4Q530 (PAM 43.568) The microfiche edition, though more comprehensive than DSSERL, does not have comparable image quality.

[Viewing an image of a scroll]
[Zooming a scroll image]

Fig. 2. Viewing and zooming in on 4QSerekh ha-milhamah.

While the main feature of the program is its photo collection, with 2,700 high resolution images (at 300 dpi), it should not be surprising that such a graphic intensive application would put significant demands on a computer system. The images are stored on two CDs, a total of 1,234 MB. Yet, the intensive nature of the graphics demands that forethought be given to its implementation on either individual workstations or on a network. Regarding the amount of data, DSSERL joins the growing number of large database applications that are emerging for theological studies. Thus the use of a CD-ROM tower becomes more advantageous -- as the legal and medical fields have already discovered. The program does, however, offer the flexibility of storing the contents of one or both CDs on a hard-drive. This eliminates the tedium of constantly switching between the disks, and it affords an institution the option of keeping the CD-ROMs in a secure place.
Two more elements of the computer system need to be considered briefly in view of the nature of this application. First, the system requirements published list 16MB of RAM. This should be understood as a minimum, since the promotional literature does not mention that at least 21 MB of virtual memory is also required. If I opened multiple applications (e.g., MS-Word and DSSERL) while cutting and pasting the images, the system slowed to a crawl. (The system took 1 hour 15 minutes to simply paste the image into a Word document, using 55MB of virtual memory.) Therefore, 32 or 64 MB RAM is highly recommended. Secondly, the system's video resolution settings also greatly impact on the use of the photographs. Since using 1024 x 768 resolution increases the amount of viewable image by about a third when compared to 800 x 600, a 17" monitor is recommended. The clumsy screen design in its viewing mode also adds to this equation. Much of the screen is taken up with menu and tool bars. Even after using the option of hiding as many bars as possible, over 30% of the viewing area was still wasted.

The second research component, the information database, is not nearly as visually dramatic, but is still important for both accomplished and aspiring scholars. In addition to the cross references among the indices, nearly every photo has bibliographic references and cross references to other photos of related content. The program has opened access to this database through a powerful search screen, offering up to five input fields and including options to qualify searches with the use of Boolean logic (AND/OR/NOT/NEAR). In every test it performed the search with impressive speed.

Some of the other functions can be briefly summarized. Brill has given the user the ability to 'bookmark' an image and information card so you can easily return to it later. A simple memopad is available for personal annotations, but unfortunately it cannot be attached to a specific document and must be retrieved separately. The program also has an online help facility.


Combining quick retrieval with improved viewing of these scrolls and fragments is the chief value of this new, electronic addition of the DSS. Yet, what is the monetary value of this new service? By comparison to the microfiche and printed media, this program comes at a premium cost. Although it takes no imagination to realize how expensive this project must have been, it nevertheless would be most interesting to know what marketing analysis went into determining the program's price schedule. Thus, if the selling price was £500 pounds, not £1,495, would the program sell in numbers of three or four times greater? Moreover, one must wonder seriously how many site licenses will be sold in Britain at £4,485. As marketed, this is clearly a program for departments and libraries, not individuals. It will be used by devoted scholars and it has potential for advanced students as well. It will open new opportunities to study this sample of early Jewish writing; it will offer a new resource for studying paleography; and it will enhance textual criticism of sacred and apocryphal texts. Thus the advent of the DSSERL is hailed on the one hand, while its premium cost must slightly mute its praise on the other hand. The project brings together the publishing quality of E.J. Brill and Oxford University Press with the official approval of the Israel Antiquities Authority, thus ensuring a first rate product. Perhaps the price also reflects a monopolistic privilege.

As part of a multi-volume work, the scholarly community can look forward to the upcoming volumes. Dr Lim and his team are to be thanked for bringing the scrolls and the mysteries of Qumran closer to our fingertips. Consequently, the next fifty years of research can hope for much greater progress because of the new openness to these original documents.

[Table of Contents] [Letter to the Editor]

Computers & Texts 16/17 (1998). Not to be republished in any form without the author's permission.

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