Wrapping up the details for publication of my data in Open Context and pulling together the interpretive content to demonstrate the value of that data occupied most of my thoughts, if not most of my time, over the summer.
Negotiating with Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) administrators over the intellectual property licenses for the published data and images was not as straight forward as I expected. Providing open access to the data did not pose any problems; MNHS was already sharing collections metadata with the Digital Public Library of America under a CC0 license. The images did present a problem though because selling copies of collections images provides revenue to MNHS. I had to make a case that archaeology documentation photos constituted a separate class.. Eric Kansa provided a helpful explanation of the differences between Creative Commons Attribution, Share-Alike and Attribution Share-Alike, Non-commercial licenses for this case that ultimately won the day. I was able to secure a CC BY-SA license but it only applies to the Fort Snelling collections images.
I really enjoyed working with my partner Dr. Kathryn Hayes and her students over the last year. They created some wonderful resources for Fort Snelling research but an analysis of my sample data was not one of them. A number of factors conspired against us – the primary one being the publication process took longer than I planned. By the time the records were available, spring semester had ended. I tried to offset this problem by sending them a spreadsheet containing a version of the data before they were published but, because working with legacy data is time consuming, this was still not sufficient for their needs. In the end, the part of project designed to demonstrate the analytical value of the data was not possible. The good news is we are just getting started with our collaboration. Dr. Hayes made Fort Snelling her new research area. Over the next year I will have more (and better) data for her to work with, and we are both inspired by Barbara Voss’ “Curation as Research” approach to working with legacy collections.
I finally sat down to start building my proof-of-concept website in late June. When reviewing the Codecadamy tutorials I completed last summer, I quickly realized that I did not have enough time left to get up to speed on the skills I needed. I decided to call in the cavalry. A family member who is a programmer, Will Buck, helped me get my site up and running in a couple of hours on a Saturday morning – including the Open Context API I needed to display the artifacts! Before meeting with him, I used PowerPoint to create a storyboard to map out the content elements I wanted to include. The storyboard also served as a wireframe when we constructed the site.
I met regularly with education and interpretive staff at MNHS throughout the year to find out what they wanted. They asked for something that would work equally well on a desktop computer in a classroom and on a mobile device at the historic site. I used a Bootstrap Cascading Style Sheet template for the website to ensure that the display would look good in both environments. Because interpretive materials for MNHS programs have to be reviewed and sanctioned, I had to design my site for demonstration purposes only. I decided to use my GitHub account because anyone can look at it and fork the code but it is pretty obscure.
The web site we created starts with artifacts as a “hook” to draw visitors into a given topic. It takes advantage of resources MNHS already has but under utilizes, it gives a new context for existing online resources, and it takes advantages of public interest in archaeology. The role of music in the military turned out to be a rich avenue to explore through archaeology. The Short Barracks assemblage, which was my test case, had a fragment from a drum and some keys from an unidentified instrument. As I learned more about different types of music and its functions in the 19th Century US military, I realized I had to find an expert who could identify the kind of instrument the keys came from. An interpreter put me in touch with an historical wind instrument specialist who pinned the possibilities down to a couple of band instruments. This meant I had artifacts representing two different kinds of music in my sample data set. Fort Snelling already had a community built around a volunteer fife and drum corps, so I knew there was an interest in this topic. My website works as both an onsite and offsite visitor tool. Users can listen to military music, examine artifacts and excavation photographs, and explore relevant historic documents.
Thanks to the help I got from many quarters over the year, I was able to bring a completed website to the final week of the Institute: “Explore Fort Snelling Artifacts,” https://hoffmannbh.github.io.
I added more robust code to the API function while working with Eric Kansa and Sarah Rowe during the week in East Lansing. Eric also found a conversion function for an odd standard used by the University of Minnesota students when they digitized and geo-referenced excavation maps from the fort. I was able to add latitude and longitude points to my published data set once the original points were converted. I also realized I had the opportunity to ask for help with transcription of the original paper catalogs describing the Fort Snelling collections. I had already calculated that, at the rate we were going, the transcription would not be finished in the next year. Daniel Pett took a set of catalog scans and created a project in MicroPasts to help us complete this work.
Going forward, I am working toward publishing the entire Fort Snelling restoration research excavations data set. I have also started the process of talking with web content creators at MNHS to discuss how my project fits with institutional goals and initiatives. I plan to give at least one talk about my project in the next month to any interested staff. I will use my proof-of-concept site to cultivate advocates who understand the value of incorporating archaeological materials into an interpretive narrative. Because MNHS is looking to revise and expand its current interpretation of Fort Snelling, this is a great time to work with content development staff to ensure they are aware of the ways archaeological evidence can enrich those stories, even if they do not chose to use my project in its current form.
I passionately believe that the value of archaeology collections and research data lies in their use. Digital access enhances opportunities to make collections useful and I have tried to make sure I know about and use the best tools and practices to serve that end. It isn’t easy though. In larger museums, collections management and public interpretation don’t usually fall within the purview of the same department, let alone the same person. I jumped at the chance to participate in the Institute because I wanted to expand my knowledge and skills in both of these areas. I did learn to use some new tools – GitHub and Open Refine will help me do my job better and I couldn’t be more pleased to have contributed to the web of linked open data. More importantly however, I learned how to ask for assistance from a variety of sources. Working on a project for the Institute gave me an excuse to call upon, not only my mentors, but other helpful and generous people as well.
Wading into the gritty details of any project teaches you how to solve problems you don’t think about in the planning stages. In my case, intellectual property negotiations played a bigger role than I expected and I largely failed at fostering any kind of research. Every Institute participant who faced down a challenge modeled tactics and solutions for everyone else – and we got to see a lot of them. I feel more confident about taking on anything digital now that I know more about the ups downs of every project. Best of all, I have a great network of colleagues to call upon for support and who I hope will call upon me.