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Sarasota scholar helps make ancient history accessible through modern technology


Scribes of the ancient world may have etched the stories of civilization into tablets of stone, but today's ancient historian has a more lightweight tablet preference of his own: the iPad, that is, and a MacBook Pro -- modern convenience for the scribe on the go. 

Handling the social media presence for several millennia of antiquity requires a certain finesse -- but no one keeps track of time quite so thoroughly as James Wiener, the co-founder and communications director for the Ancient History Encyclopedia

Wiener creates his office wherever the nearest WiFi signal is -- be it in favorite spots like his home office in Sarasota or the academic library at New College, or in street cafes across the globe when he's on the road. 

While the 21st century buzzes around him in the coffee shops and high-tech modern libraries where he works, Wiener hops across time zones and plugs into the cloud wherever he goes, diving deep into ancient history to keep the past alive for modern scholars. 

Creating a modern resource for ancient history

Thanks to a small, global network of academics and historians, such as Wiener, who are dedicated to chronicling antiquity in the digital age, Ancient History Encyclopedia delivers the most comprehensive resource for world history ever created right to users' fingertips -- all via the cloud. 

Wiener describes the Ancient History Encyclopedia as "the nexus of all things ancient" -- a vast window into antiquity that spans the entire globe -- including Europe, east and west Asia, Africa, and the Americas. 

What began in 2009 as a niche passion project for founder, Jan van der Crabben -- a self-taught programmer with a background in war studies from King's College of London and journalism from the University College of London -- has in seven years grown into an empire of its own. When Wiener joined van der Crabben in 2011, Ancient History Encyclopedia averaged 3,000 visitors per month. The site currently averages about 100,000 visitors per day -- receiving upwards of 3 million page visits in a month.

"Initially we aimed to develop a tool for students, teachers, professors and researchers -- but our average visitor is what we call a 'history enthusiast.' They're everyday, ordinary people who are fascinated with some aspect of the ancient world," says Wiener.

"We attribute our rapid growth to quality in writing, excellence in research, and huge public interest: people want to read quality materials and engage with quality resources -- regardless of whether they're in academia, K-12 schools or just interested in ancient history."

Ancient History Encyclopedia is, indeed, an ancient history enthusiast's dream come true. The site includes thousands of images, articles, interactive timelines and maps of the ancient world, 3D models of historical artifacts, and antiquated measurement conversions for Egyptian, Greek and Roman liquids and dry items. To organize content and make information more accessible to the user, Ancient History Encyclopedia utilizes a tagging system. The site also features a blog that includes interviews with museum curators and authors, exhibition reviews, travel articles and other expository writing. 

Although the encyclopedic nature of Ancient History Encyclopedia's content may lend comparisons to Wikipedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia's heavily reviewed content sets it apart from user-edited online encyclopedias. Educators and history enthusiasts can rest assured: all articles and submissions to Ancient History Encyclopedia are peer-reviewed and evaluated by the editorial team to ensure high-caliber, accurate content, Wiener says.

"We look at curricula in anglophone nations and take notes on what we see--particularly research trends within specific disciplines, as well as school systems. For instance, anglophone nations are making a big push toward teaching a more global world history. This is why we make a more concentrated effort to include India, East Asia and the Ancient Americas in our content," Wiener explains.

As of 2016, Ancient History Encyclopedia has been endorsed by the European Commission as an e-learning tool, as well as cited as a historical reference in publications including The New York Times, BBC, Time, Smithsonian Magazine, and The Washington Post. Ancient History Encyclopedia is also often used as a resource for teachers in K-12 curriculums across the United States, Europe and Australia. 

"This is a great way to engage with people and take their pulse. The most surprising thing is that there's such a heightened interest in archaeology, art history, and ancient women's studies," Wiener says.

Collaborating across the globe using a cloud-based business model

Not only does Ancient History Encyclopedia revolutionize the way students can access and interact with the ancient world, but the organization's business model, itself, is on the leading edge of history as a purely 'cloud-based business.' 

Ancient History Encyclopedia's core team is scattered across the globe from London to upstate New York, Italy, Iraq, Australia, and Sarasota, FL, where Wiener resides. The Ancient History Encyclopedia team works from laptops and modern tablets -- all of which are equipped with desktop tools for time conversion -- to keep up with their colleagues around the world. 

From its outset, Ancient History Encyclopedia has been entirely grounded in online communication. Wiener -- who received his MA in world history from NYU -- was teaching history at the State College of Florida when he received an intriguing message on his LinkedIn account from a stranger based in London in 2011: Jan van der Crabben was seeking a writer to join his fledgling startup company, the Ancient History Encyclopedia. 

Wiener says he "took a gamble" that paid off when he joined van der Crabben and fellow Ancient History Encyclopedia founding members, Mark Cartwright and Joshua J. Mark, in their effort to launch the cloud-based encyclopedia.

The team, which currently includes approximately 10 contributors, operates entirely in the cloud via Google Drive, Skype, and other online communication and data-sharing platforms. Wiener manages Ancient History Encyclopedia's social media accounts, which to date have over 350,000 followers.  

"It works very well for us because we're all committed to the mission. We're very disciplined. We're independent workers, but we can still come together in a business meeting over Skype or Google Hangout and really speak with one another in a meaningful way," says Wiener.

In 2014, The Guardian profiled Ancient History Encyclopedia in its "Smarter Working" series for small businesses. On Nov. 17, 2016, Ancient History Encyclopedia was announced as the winner for the prestigious 2016 .eu Web Awards

"It's a testimony to the innovation we've seen in only a few years. It's unbelievable. Without the cloud we wouldn't have a business whatsoever," says Wiener.

Spanning the millennia -- from cuneiform-carved stone tablets to digital image libraries that are stored in the cloud -- the art of curating human history is an ever-evolving process. Only time will tell what the future holds for tomorrow's scribes and students of history -- but in the meantime, Ancient History Encyclopedia's modern-day Library of Alexandria in the cloud is a fascinating way to explore antiquity click by click.

Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

 Jessi Smith is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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