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University of Chicago's 'mystery text' contest goes global

(University of Chicago )
April 30, 2014|By Mick Swasko, @swasko | RedEye

The University of Chicago had a small mystery in its hands, and it got a global response to solve it. 

Written on a handful of pages of a copy of Homer's "Odyssey" from the 1500s were some cryptic notes, which appeared to have been written in the 19th century. The problem was, no one -- not even the donor who handed his collection over to the university -- knew exactly what they meant. 

So the U. of C. library turned to the Internet for help. With a $1,000 prize from the book's donor, M.C. Lang, backing it, the library put up a short post on its news site. The first person to translate the the mix of what appeared to be French script and shorthand in the margin of the book -- and back it up with some academic proof -- won. 

"Calling all historians of cryptography and stenography, Sherlockians (see “The Dancing Men”), and other amateur detectives!" the library's note, posted April 23, read. 

Alice Schreyer, the curator of rare books for the library, said she expected a small, local response to the literary mystery. Then the library's news site started to crash from the heavy load of intrigued eyeballs from around the world. 

"We were incredibly surprised on how fast it took off on the Internet," she said. "Never has the power of social media been clearer to me." 

In the six days the contest was up, 51,945 people had viewed the post, and suggestions and speculation about the mystery text rolled in from New Zealand, Taiwan, Italy and the United States. The cryptic text even made it to TV news reports in Seattle and Australia this past weekend. Additionally, several threads on Reddit and Hacker News were dedicated to solving it. 

"This definitely shows the power of the Internet to open up these rare books to a broader audience," she said. "What can [writing in the] marginalia tell us that a reprint can't?" 

By Wednesday, the library had closed the contest, satisfied with several correct responses it had received. Schreyer said she's not ready to reveal the winner yet, as their response is still being summarized before it's released to the public. She did hint, however, that the decription of the mysterious writing may not be an earth-shattering discovery, as the translation seems rather mundane. 

Still, as Schreyer is struggling to keep up with the flood of emails she has gotten about the contest, she remains astounded at the response. 

"This is really an example that there are people out there that will rise to the occasion and have a good time doing it," she said. 

Editor's note: RedEye originally published that 131,235 users had viewed the post in a six-day period. In reality, 51,945 users actually viewed the post, but 131,235 visited the library's website. The page-specific traffic still accounted for nearly 40 percent of the library's total web viewership in that time period.

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