RECENT NEWS & UPDATES
KORA/MATRIX staff resolved the plugin issues, layout is complete, and the project is launched! I have very high hopes to build this proof-of-concept into something permanent for our agency. Thanks to all who helped.
A Note on Delay:
Unfortunately, bugs in the WordPress plugin interfered with layout and functionality, so I decided to pause site development after consultation with Ethan Watrall and Catherine Foley pending updates on fixes for the plugin.
At present, the site landing page displays an update about technical difficulties, although all pages are active. KORA/MATRIX staff members continue to work on the plugin. When an update or schedule is available, I will decide between three possibilities for continuing work on this project. In the best case scenario, the plugin layout issues will be fixed and I can proceed once again with finalizing the look, feel, and functionality of the site. I’ve identified potential workarounds for the lack of search capabilities that I can build into this site as well. Another option will be to connect a separate instance of WordPress and essentially “quarantine” the KORA galleries on their own pages to allow for more theme flexibility on other parts of the site. The third option is to abandon KORA for this particular project and shift my material directly to the WordPress site itself instead of using the KORA backend. I continue to weigh these options. Ultimately, however, this project is very scalable and there are many possible routes to reach a positive outcome.
This project had two main goals: to lay the groundwork for a larger digital archiving project at my state agency, and to re-package often dense, technical archaeological information and present it to the public in an engaging way. It was clear to me from the beginning that completely satisfying these objectives was beyond the scope and time frame of the Institute, so I chose to define this as a proof-of-concept project. This also allowed me to experiment with platforms and technologies that might be hard to adapt quickly through offcial state government channels. Essentially, this project is a demonstration of what the agency could do, and ideally adapt this into something more permanent and extensive in the future.
What I did
After presenting the project to my colleagues, work began to plan for the repository backend. I needed to work in our organization’s unique metadata structure and I also wanted to apply digital archives best practices. Content focused around 10 archaeological reports and their accompanying digital media to begin. This allowed for some geographic and content variety, while being realistic for this small-scale project.
Developing metadata schema was a much more challenging process than I had anticipated. As I ventured down the planning path, I began to realize how many important questions about access, intellectual property, and ethics of withholding versus releasing archaeological information still remained. From a practical standpoint, I had already decided to focus my project on “high interest, low risk” sites, meaning they are either publicly known or have been destroyed, but that didn’t speak to IP or traditional knowledge issues. For more discussion on this topic, read my earlier blog post.
I found myself working backwards to learn some of these skills. While I knew the kinds of metadata fields I wanted to have generally, I had to take some time to learn some digital library science basics in order to understand how to implement Dublin Core standards in combination with our agency’s legacy metadata. Input from staff at the Library of Virginia was invaluable.
In addition to perceived low-sensitivity status as described above, “showcase” projects for the site were chosen because a) the copyright/distribution rights were clear enough, b) the sites themselves were interesting beyond a professional level, meaning there was a lot of material culture to look at or compelling histories in the research, c) the sites were distributed to some degree across Virginia, and d) there was variety in cultural and time period representation.
An unexpected and very important issue arose surrounding cultural representation and sensitivity. One of the biggest challenges of this project, as well as broader online archaeological outreach efforts in general, concerns the tension between openness and representation on one hand and cultural sensitivity and security on the other. In Virginia, records of Virginia Indian human remains (and the sites that contain them) are treated with extra care and sensitivity. Since individuals were often buried near or within dwelling areas, this means that information pre-Colonial towns, villages, and settlements might be too sensitive to release. But this creates a paradox. Withholding information about these vibrant people and places perpetuates colonial erasure. If the “safe” sites are European, what about other cultures in Virginia? I was able to find two good candidates to feature in the collection that do not seem to trigger these issues. But we won’t be able to avoid confronting these ideas for much longer. I plan to devote significant consideration to this important topic in the future, as it extends well beyond the scope of the Institute.
With collections reasonably settled, I began to gather digital objects and ingest records into KORA. Although we had many of these materials scanned already, I found as I began processing files that a significant portion needed to be re-scanned. Text was not properly recognized, sections were missing from reports, and images were not scanned at adequate resolution. This was a very important discovery, especially as my agency moves forward with larger digital archives initiatives. Our existing digital collection will need to be quality checked and possibly re-processed in the future.
I also used Tabula and OpenRefine to extract and clean tables of artifact data from PDF reports, in order to allow for machine readability and data reuse in the future. This very small element of my Institute project is one of the most important facets with broad implications for Virginia archaeology data in the future. Tables were uploaded to the repository as comma separated value (CSV) files along with reports and other documents.
After the site domain for WordPress site through MSU was set up, I worked to troubleshoot the plugin installation as the first person to test beyond MSU MATRIX staff. I connected items and galleries to the site and began to build it out. The front page includes an interactive map made with Leaflet.js that allows visitors to navigate between the different galleries geographically. Additionally, each site gallery includes another leaflet map that shows the generalized site boundary, using the Open Context API to display the geospatial information for each. PDF reports were uploaded into Voyant Tools, an online text analysis and visualization application. While some of these visualizations are sophisticated and may not be readily understandable to the end user, visitors can manipulate the text and find their own relationships and patterns on their own terms.
In my project pitch at the end of the 2015 Institute working session, I defined several goals for this project, not knowing how technical pieces of the puzzle would come together over the coming year. These included laying the groundwork for a digital repository to archival standards, incorporating Linked Open Data, and presenting this technical material to the public in an engaging way. I’m happy to say I’ve either met these goals, or I’m very close.
Between general Institute activities and development of my project, I acquired new skills and knowledge in a way that would have been impossible outside of a formal academic setting. As I drafted my ideas for this piece, I began to mentally itemize skills and knowledge that I’ve gained because of the Institute. These skills are portable far beyond this project to meet larger agency digital archives, outreach, information analysis, and disaster planning efforts.
- GitHub/version control
- Leaflet.js web mapping
- RegEx (regular expressions)
- Data analysis (multiple tools)
- Accessing data through APIs
- WordPress theming and functionality
- Digital archives management
- Copyright, access, intellectual property issues
- Data visualization
- Crowdsourcing data collection
- Linked Open Data
- Digital exhibits/outreach
- Mobile data collection
[But, wait! There’s more! The list above only hits on topics I was able to really delve into through my projects. I learned so much more during the Institute that I’m banking away for projects in the future.]
One of the most valuable elements of the Institute has been the community it has created. As participants, we forged professional and personal bonds during the 2015 session as we worked together to wrap our minds around a torrent of new concepts and skills. We continued to work together and with our mentors on the Digital Archaeology Commons through the intervening year. Participants chronicled successes and challenges in monthly blogs, and others chipped in to help, commiserate, or celebrate often, even if we were thousands of miles away from each other. Meeting again this month allowed us to help each other with the final push toward finished products. From the perspective of an Institute participant who hasn’t taken a project like this from start to finish before, this kind of engagement and encouragement has been invaluable. It has allowed me to cultivate powerful skills and the confidence to push them further.
After the plugin/layout issues are sorted, I’ll post one final post and then work with my agency to determine what we need to do to make less “proof-of-concept” and more reality. But it’s not done (is it ever?). Here are my priorities moving toward the future. I don’t expect to implement all of this within this particular website, although it would be stellar if I could pull it off.
- Continue to research intellectual property and access.
- Learn more about implementing Linked Open Data on a wider scale.
- Integrate more ways for non-professional users to manipulate and explore data.
- Investigate integrating Traditional Knowledge Labels developed by Mukurtu and implementing a way for visitors to “flag” objects or sites that they might find sensitive. As our agency undertakes larger digital archives access projects, collaboration with Virginia Indian tribes and other descendant groups is essential to find a careful and considered way to present this valuable information to as wide a public as possible.
- Develop a public submission component where visitors can easily share information about sites or artifacts on their property. As I created this portal, the centrality of reflexive public engagement came to the forefront.
Regardless of what the long term future holds, this Institute project has planted the seeds for openness, engagement, and sustainable preservation of irreplaceable archaeological heritage. My professional growth over the past year has been profound and exponential. I can’t wait to find out how this project grows and where it takes me.
Many, many, many thanks to Institute faculty, participants, support staff, and the National Endowment for the Humanities for making this possible.
The Story of Cave Rock project began in February of 2015 and was the outcome of several events. A large scale rock fall from Cave Rock at Lake Tahoe, Nevada, had damaged US 50, and more events were likely in the future. The Nevada Department of Transportation was searching for a way to protect the public from future rock falls, and minimize visual effects to the landscape. At the same time, I was searching for a collection of glass photo negatives, rumored to contain photos from the earliest days of the Nevada Highway Department. The Story of Cave Rock website was created using the photogrammetry collected by NDOT to engineer a solution to the rock fall, as well as the historic photos of Cave Rock from historic archives. Fortunately the NEH funded Institute on Digital Archaeology Method & Practice was in the making, and I was lucky enough to be invited to participate at Michigan State University. The direction provided by the faculty, mentors and participants are what made the final website possible.
The challenges with creating the website were daunting; by profession I am an archaeologist, not a web designer. The photogrammetry data had not been collected for use in a cultural heritage project, and editing the data to recreate the historic appearance of the landscape in 3D required patience and effort, and a willingness to experiment with different digital solutions. The data had to be processed through numerous software programs to get to a format that was open source, editable, and could be embedded in the website. Scanning negatives with decades-old emulsion required research into techniques that would produce the best quality photo with the least risk of damage to the negative. The results were better than hoped for, and now 190 images are safely curated and available to the public and for future research and presentations.
The goals of the project were ultimately met: getting the 3D data into open source software, and the reconstruction of Cave Rock prior to the highway and tunnels. In addition to the 3D recreation of Cave Rock, a timeline has been created with a sampling of historic photos, and both are available at http:/storyofcaverock.matrix.msu.edu/ .
The guidance and exposure to all things digital were key in making the Story of Cave Rock project a success. Special thanks to the MSU Institute on Digital Archaeology Methods and Practice, Ethan Watrall and Lynne Goldstein. The project was a success largely due to the institute, the mentoring team (a special thanks to Shawn Graham), and the many discussions with other institute participants that were similarly challenged by their projects.
With a week of reflection after departing MSUDAI 2.0, I have come to realize that what I was able to create in the CopperMINeS Digital Atlas is nowhere near a finished product (not a surprise) but is actually a fantastic starting point from which I can build what I envisioned during the inaugural MSUDAI in 2015. Originally I had intended a very dynamic site, with search and filter functions that could group and display sites and artifacts by any number of different attributes. In short, I wanted to be able to query the website to show me Thule fish hooks from Coronation Gulf, Caribou Inuit spear points from the Barrenlands, or Dorset decorative objects from the Foxe Basin, and the website would produce a list of images and their associated sites, with contextual information for both and a geo-spatial display of the distribution of objects and sites. All of this would have been linked to a database that could be updated as new sites and objects were added, and would automatically update the the accessible information on the website as well.
Perhaps the greatest takeaway from MSUDAI over the past year, and during the second session in particular, is gaining an understanding of the correct questions to ask. Creating a digital product that is ‘linked’, ‘dynamic’, and ‘updates automatically’ are complex tasks that require significant amounts of time and effort (and failing, either in public or private). This does not put these features out of reach, but it does create a much better understanding of the digital infrastructure needed to accomplish these tasks, and the workload and workflow to get there. The CopperMINeS Digital Atlas will continue to grow, sometimes in ways that I intend and likely sometimes in ways that I may not have intended but are necessary nonetheless.
The state of the CopperMINeS Digital Atlas at the current moment provides users with the ability to explore the distribution of archaeological sites that have evidence of copper technologies. Interaction with the sites themselves is limited to generating a popup that has the site name and the number of copper artifacts that have been found at the site. A select few link out to an artifacts page that contains thumbnail and high-resolution images of a selection of artifacts from that site. The main page also contains tabs to link to contextual information about indigenous copper technologies from around the world, the geological formation of native (pure) geological copper, experimental archaeological reconstructions of production methods, and a linked bibliography of further resources for those interest in northern indigenous metallurgy.
As of the time of this writing, there are a few inevitable kinks that are being ironed out after the site officially launched at the end of MSUDAI 2.0. Currently the archaeological sites and images of artifacts have been removed from the website, although the archaeological sites will be put back up soon and I am confident that the images will be back up soon as well. In the spirit of publicly failing, I will briefly discuss the issues that I have run into. I left it until later than I should have to iron out copyright and use agreements with all of the various institutions that I have worked with for the past few years. It should be no surprise that individual institutions will have different requirements for different types of information, but I recently ran into an instance where I had explicitly conflicting requirements from two different institutions. Essentially, it boiled down to what information is deemed confidential (and therefore restricted from the site) and what information is deemed necessary to include for copyright (and therefore essential to include on the site). In some cases, a single type of information was determined to be both confidential and necessary by different institutions, resulting in my need to remove that data until specific guidelines could be established. Ultimately, I am very grateful to everyone involved who are working with me to find a way forward and facilitate this project. They could have just as easily resisted it, and I am happy they also see the value.
So stay tuned. More will be coming, and the CopperMINeS Digital Atlas will continue to grow and adapt, as all research does. I am looking forward to seeing where it takes me.
Check it out if you’re interested – http://wanderer33third.github.io/MINeS/index.html
I am so grateful to have experienced MSUDAI. What an amazing group of dedicated individuals! I am now back to the daily rush and hoping I can hang onto all that I’ve learned and absorbed over the last year. I’m not going to lie; I wish I was able to accomplish so much more, but after the final week of the institute, I feel much better than I did in the weeks prior.
I left the institute in 2015 with so much hope that I could master digital skill and build websites for various applications. The reality of my day to day work and the overwhelming frustration I faced just trying to create a personal website using WordPress really depressed me. I didn’t have anyone to turn to for help around my home institution, so I more or less gave up. I am sure I could have spent hours in WordPress forums trying to figure out what I wanted to do; I just didn’t have the patience or time and a personal webpage was definitely not a priority. When I finally conceded to the fact that my accomplishments might be much smaller than my original ambitions, I was able to embark on a worthwhile journey of learning how to work on crowdsourcing applications. I feel good to have developed and implemented something useful that didn’t feel like a waste of time and effort. Maybe one day I will venture back into the world of WordPress and/or building websites; this time way more humble and prepared to put in a lot of work, but for now I am satisfied that I have something to show for the year’s work at MSUDAI.
The Magic Mountain crowdsourcing project was created between February 24th and March 1st 2016. It was completed by the first week in May. The entire project was completed without any advertising of its existence to the DMNS community. I can only imagine what kind of a response we might have if people in the Denver region learn they can participate in helping the museum with certain projects. This case study proved to be very successful and we are motivated to develop more projects like this in the future. The project, although complete, can be explored here: http://crowdsourced.micropasts.org/project/magicMountain/task/59239
The Magic Mountain crowdsourcing project was created with a great deal of assistance from Dan and I was a bit confused on all the steps. When I returned to the DAI in 2016, my goals were to create more crowdsourcing projects and to really learn how to build a project on my own. The projects I chose to work on were not associated with Magic Mountain, but rather with other DMNS Anthropology needs. The first project I created was one using a photo-masking application. This past year I have been creating 3D models of the Egyptian mummies housed at DMNS as part of a larger project to update the science in the Egyptian gallery at the museum. When I came to the institute I already had photos and created models using Agisoft Photoscan. The problem was that my models required more editing to remove some of the background noise and masking each individual photo (roughly 150 per object) is very time consuming. Dan introduced me to the MicroPasts photo-masking application that addresses this exact problem. For this application, photos of the desired object are uploaded to MicroPasts and the general public digitally draws a polygon around the object to “mask” it from the background.
Photo-masking projects in MicroPasts are straightforward and I was comfortable using the existing code almost immediately. Since it was so straightforward and I already had the photos, I was able to launch two projects: one for the lid of a sarcophagus (http://crowdsourced.micropasts.org/project/MummyMes/) and one for the base (http://crowdsourced.micropasts.org/project/MummyMesBase/) while I was attending the institute in 2016. Definitely a confidence booster 🙂
The final project I created while at the institute in 2016 was similar to the Magic Mountain project. Prior to the institute I scanned ten old catalog cards from the DMNS Anthropology Department. These cards contain information on objects in the collection that has not been entered into the digital database (we currently use Emu). We have roughly 12,000 of these cards. While at the institute I learned how to edit and write code to create the digital forms to compile the information from these cards. This project was launched and completed in less than a week (http://crowdsourced.micropasts.org/project/DenverAnthro/). In the upcoming months we will be adding more catalog cards to this application, since the return on investment proved to be so worthwhile.
Overall, the Digital Archaeology Institute has taught me many valuable skills. I would still like to branch out in the future and create other digital projects. However, for now I plan to hone my crowdsourcing skills and make full use of the MicroPasts platform by continuing to develop and launch projects. In the immediate future, we plan to continue scanning the catalog cards and uploading them to the template I created. This will keep a number of volunteers busy over the next year and we are very much looking forward to the results. Thank you to all the participants and instructors at MSUDAI (especially Dan for all your patience with me!) for the amazing yearlong endeavor! I am humbled, motivated, and I have tremendous of respect for anyone working in the land of digital archaeology!
Last Saturday Katy & I officially launched TOMB: The Online Map of Bioarchaeology. TOMB is an interactive gazetteer style website providing case studies and examples from mortuary archaeology and bioarchaeology. The purpose of this site is to provide a place for students and the public to learn more about the amazing diversity of mortuary research that is occurring in the world, but also about variation in funerary methods. The project began by adding sites from around the world that are organized based on broad topics, such as type of disposal, type of research, period, location, researchers, etc.
Things have changed significantly since we began this project a year ago. We first proposed creating Ossuarykb, a mortuary archaeology database. However after several months of work, we realized that this wasn’t truly what we wanted to create, nor what we felt was most needed. Thus in late January we transitioned to the TOMB project.
As I compose my final blog post and white paper, I decided to post this edited version of the presentation I gave on the first day of the 2016 institute on August 15, with heartfelt thanks for the support and mentorship received over the week.
My project stems from the genre of the catalogue raisonné, which is a collection of all of the images or objects in a group, annotated and described. For instance it might be all of Jackson Pollock’s known works, or each of Michelangelo’s marble sculptures. It’s typical in art history for a dissertation’s Appendix 1 to be a catalog of monuments or images, usually in a pdf. We don’t necessarily call it a data set, but there it is. Some scholars make a list, others a spreadsheet, some a real database. The “traditional” art historical mission of creating typologies—that is, classifying and labeling art into styles or movements using controlled vocabularies is actually reminiscent of the precise data collection and data-driven inquiry we see in archaeology and social science more broadly.
So this year’s project—the Digital Catalog of Cappadocian Ceiling Crosses—has been to take an appendix from my dissertation—all the known monuments in the region of Cappadocia, in Turkey, that were designed with monumental crosses on the ceilings—and channel the art historical tradition of classifying and identifying images into the digital archaeology practice of an interactive data set.
Updates: My digital project hinged on finishing my dissertation research. I did that. But you can’t conflate “research” or “information” with reusable data. After my defense, I had brief descriptions of about ninety monuments, only three of which were case studies with entire chapters written about them, and learned how to turn those bits of information into measurable data—using controlled vocabularies where I could, but often having to turn frequent adjectives for cross images into a kind of project-specific controlled vocabulary. For instance, did you know that if there’s a circle or bolt at the center of a cross object, we call that a “boss”? And if there’s a handle at the bottom of a cross object, we call that a “tang.” Part of my task was to decide which attributes to measure, count, quantify.
Also, deciding what not to record as part of the data set became part of the project. I didn’t make notes comparing the monuments to each other. I didn’t go into scholarly debates about dates or iconography. I focused on form, not interpretation. In choosing how to document where each monument has been published, I used a very limited selection of well-known publications instead of providing a full bibliography for each monument. It was eye-opening to notice some concepts that seemed so important in dissertation chapter discussions that played out differently when looking at all ninety monuments.
Decisions made: What to do about images of the monuments? For ones I took myself, I’ll make a thumbnail available with the data set; for others, I will provide a citation of a published image. Decisions about sensitive location data were key: I finally decided to use the valley or town for each monument instead of precise location data for many of them, since some are unlocked or on private property. Much of my work was getting a grasp on best practice, and also taking notes for how to more efficiently collect data in the field and from printed sources as well. An important takeaway from the year is that I have clarified a workflow that I will use next time I go into the field.
The learning process extended beyond my data set, inviting me to not just dabble in digital archaeology as an outsider, but to become a digital archaeologist, to appreciate and take advantage of and produce data-driven research about cultural heritage monuments and objects, and to maneuver between disciplines and fields in humanities and social science.
A lot of this year’s progress consisted on re-learning or at the very least, re-imagining, my own subject areas:
- Finding ways to link various kinds of work and move between disciplines to look at the broader picture of cultural heritage and material culture.
- Looking at peer review and reproducibility especially as it relates to data sets about objects or monuments.
- Looking at ways to visualize data.
This institute also gave a shot of adrenaline to my reflections on identity, jobs, digital archaeology, and pedagogy as I finished grad school. Part of what #MSUdai did was inspire me to accept a job right here in LEADR, so I’m its Assistant Director and based at MSU now, working with the departments of history and anthropology to help professors design assignments that incorporate inquiry into and through technology. The institute has been productive for channeling research methods and experiments into how we can better facilitate students in their research, on the job market, in their own classrooms. Beyond this week, we’re building networks of digital literacies and collaborative exchange.
In a nutshell, I’ve been compiling, curating, and cleaning a data set, which is—let’s be honest—alternately fascinating, boring, gloriously fun, and kind of awful. The project became a litmus test for my own strengths and weaknesses. This past year has been about data literacy—making a million micro-decisions and understanding the granularity involved in clarifying data categories. It has been a clash of messy data and perfectionist tendencies. I had to learn where the path of least resistance was useful and where to think through situations more carefully.
This data set ended up being more academic and less public-friendly than I had envisioned. So I’ll be using the support of a Provost’s Digital Innovation Grant I received from CUNY to find new audiences for these monuments, amping up my social media efforts to tweet photos and resources toward non-academic travelers or history buffs and taking better advantage of the Digital Archaeology Commons.
This institute week is, for me, about assessing data, peer review, and visualizations. I’ve got a data set. Now I need help reviewing and checking data. I need to get it submitted for peer review at Open Context. Then I need to get it ready for KORA so I can learn to use the Matrix Connect plug-in to visualize the data in WordPress. My final project will be the visualized data, and my next steps beyond the institute will be to implement a data collection workflow that streamlines the process for my future work that might be in Cappadocia, or in Black Sea region of Georgia, or Ethiopia, all places where the Byzantine ceiling decoration is noteworthy.
Assistant Director, LEADR
Michigan State University
I’m sitting in the Detroit airport on two hours of sleep (after staying up way too late and waking up way too early) and feeling feelings. Wednesday after we finished our day at the Institute it hit me. We had passed the halfway point for the week. We were closer to the end than to the beginning. And it made me really, really sad.
I was struggling with some technical issues in my project that were beyond my control and I found myself getting pretty down about it. I was disappointed for not figuring out a way around the problems fast enough to have a polished website up by the end of the week to launch proudly with everyone else. But I kept reminding myself that my project was not the website. It was so much more. It was all my research. It was learning ways of thinking. It was amassing a giant collection of tools that will be useful to me or others someday. It was laying the groundwork for really big things. So, while I allowed myself a
(╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻ tweet, I knew I wasn’t going to allow myself to stay in that space for long.
One of the most profound gifts of the Institute was being surrounded by a bunch of smart, fun people all solving problems together. Everyone had ups and downs and we were constantly teaching and helping each other. There was no space for me to quit or fixate on the difficult parts. Only forward movement.
But I think that’s why I’m still sad now as I wait for my plane. We formed some pretty strong bonds working through these problems together, sharing in the little victories, and decompressing at the end of the day. I’m going to miss my friends (and while hanging out on the internet is fantastic, it’s just not quite the same). It was such a rich experience and now it’s back to reality.
We have these connections and this knowledge now that we didn’t have before. We’ll surely have our piecemeal reunions at conferences and workshops in the future. And I hope beyond hope that there are some cool collaborative projects to come. In the end, I’m so thankful for this Institute. I’m not a student. I’m not in academia. I would have never had the opportunity to develop these skills in a year, while still doing my actual job. So if anyone from the NEH reads this, thank you. It was so worth it.
I want to especially thank all the faculty who were so incredibly generous with time, help, advice, and lifelines through this process (and who we’ll probably keep calling on well into the future. You’re all amazing.
See you soon.
This is another blog post about the inner life of a researcher pursuing a digital humanities project. Surprise, surprise, I am being introspective again. Today we all arrive in Michigan for year 2 of the Institute, and I’ve been working on my Day 1 presentation, reflecting on my progress. When speaking with other institute members, a common thread is feeling we could have done more somehow. It’s been a whole year, surely we should have it all figured out by now!
But for most of us, the rest of work-life has remained fairly similar to before we became NEH-supported digital scholars. Although we may have learned new tools and approaches to apply to our problems, most of us work within larger organizations that take a lot longer to adopt those new tools. It isn’t so surprising, then, that it feels like we are not making much progress. If most everything about our work is the same but we think differently about it, that is actually a big step.
If you doubt that you have grown, first ask yourself how many times have you explained a digital skill you learned at MSUDAI to someone else? Have you helped other people with their digital challenges?
Although my project may need a lot of TLC this week to reach a soft launch, I am trying to remember all the questions I’ve answered, support I’ve gotten, and people I’ve helped through this past year. We can do this. We can do anything with enough spirit and comforting beverages. Let’s go!
As we approach the second week of the Institute and the official launch of our projects, my main emotion is amazement that I actually managed to put together something close to what I intended. I started off pretty much as a complete novice about digital methods. The one place where I may have had a leg up is that I came in with a pretty well-formatted database, as it was what I used for my dissertation research. I figured out how to make a website with Bootstrap, how to make it actually live on the web, and then, most importantly of all, I learned to ask for help and utilize the resources that others have developed.
The turning point for my project was when I officially partnered with Open Context to host the data for my project. They already had a system in place to do pretty much exactly what I wanted, and after that partnership was worked out, things really took off. I realized that even though I thought my data set was really solid, there were still a few places to improve things. What occupied most of my time was developing appropriate documentation for each of my variables (a 26-page document in its own right!), and finalizing images for each sherd in the data set (something I finally finished on Friday).
Not only did I lean heavily on Open Context (and Eric Kansa in particular) for getting the data up and running, I also used a handy script that Eric developed to add a search bar to my site that pulls entries from the Open Context database and displays them right on my site. It’s so slick!
If I had to launch tomorrow, I’d feel okay about it. Since I get a few extra days, though, I have a couple things on my to-do list. First and foremost is getting the Spanish version of the database up to make it bilingual and really accessible. And for major tech points, maybe I can collaborate with some folks to add pagination functionality to the return search results, so that people can browse through them. There’s always more that can be done, and I’m guessing one of the last lessons I’ll need to learn for this project is when to stop and say it’s good enough.
As this year is slowly coming to a close and the NEH seminar is next week, I’ve thought a lot about the workflow and the meandering path I have taken to finish up this project. I began with very ambitious goals, and then had to winnow them down as I encountered challenges and learned new information. Through this process, I’ve learned that when done properly, digital project workflow is bumpy and each step in the process requires reflection and introspection. I struggled with obsessing over design (aka “design creep!”), which involved playing with wireframes many times over, toying with photos and logos kindly designed by the Bowers Laboratory’s talented Dr. Leah Evans-Janke, and figuring out what I could realistically do with code. I’m glad I’ve had nearly a year to work on this project, because frankly this could not have happened in a month or even 6 months with my workload and the learning curve. I’ve been actively thinking about the lab’s website, and have gone through several iterations (and failures) before settling on the design below.
I initially set out to put all of our collections online, and then narrowed it down to descriptions of our collections. I thought that Muse (an Adobe product) might be a good way to design our mobile-friendly website, but after designing it in Muse and taking an Adobe Exchange Course on it, I realized that future employees in my position would need to be able to manipulate the code, and that Muse made this somewhat difficult (especially if the software is discontinued). I wrote the code myself, and learned Bootstrap via books and online instruction. I will be putting the code up on GitHub for preservation and open source’s sake once the institute is over.
In the process of coding this project, I realized that not all of our collections are suited for one platform. We have a myriad of holdings belonging to different agencies and tribes, some of whom actively utilize the collections for a variety of reasons: some private, some public. I realized that making these collections accessible meant that I need to work together with the agency/tribe/associated stakeholders before even considering or talking about making them “live.” This process is slow, and requires working and meeting with people one-on-one. It also means going through university administrative processes.
Thus, I put the Gerald McKee Collection online first, as it was gifted to the University of Idaho and meant to be shared with the public. I took in-person training on Mukurtu with my Collections Manager, Dr. Leah Evans-Janke, at Washington State University, and we hope to eventually incorporate our repository’s archaeological data into the Plateau Peoples’ Web Portal hosted at Washington State University if local tribes want the information there. I received a competitive grant from the Idaho Humanities Council to develop an online database associated with my long term archaeological project at a WWII Japanese American internment camp. I initiated a collaboration between a local tribe and park and potentially developing an exhibit associated with some of our holdings. I am working on a grant that will allow us to share archaeological data in a confidential manner through Mukurtu. Therefore, while all of our holdings are not going “live” anytime soon due to working with agencies and tribes, I am happy that we have a framework in place that can be used in the coming years if Mukurtu or other platforms are not suitable. My plan is to use the coming years to obtain funding to make our collections live, since we operate on a miniscule annual budget.
I still have some hesitations about using digital technologies to share and disseminate archaeological data. As someone who preserves data for a living, I worry the most about maintaining, updating, and archiving the projects we create. Will Mukurtu be around for the long haul? Will the person who eventually takes over my position be able to update my code and website? Will we continue to have the funds to maintain my online database of archaeological information from the Kooskia Internment Camp? I worry about maintaining my access to software needed to do design work, as I currently pay for my Adobe Pro Suite out of my own pocket. I am also concerned how this scholarship is viewed in terms of promotion, as I would like to come up for full professor in 4 years and I am not confident that this work will be perceived as a publication. Finally, keeping up with coding projects is akin to memorizing and maintaining fluency in a foreign language. If you don’t write code, you easily forget it. My daily workload does not involve code, so this project required carving out large chunks of my time on a regular basis to know where I left off on the website and how to properly code it.
This project has led my own research in a number of unexpected directions. I’ve developed my own personal website as a result of the project where I plan to put course syllabi and other information on my projects. I’ve gone after three different grants that will support “born digital” projects associated with our holdings, and I feel like I am starting to grasp some of the jargon associated with the digital humanities and social sciences. I’ve thought about how I can incorporate new digital tools and technologies into my class assignments, and recently ran a brief graduate seminar on digital archaeology. I developed a Trello account dedicated to organizing information on digital technologies and tools for faculty at the University of Idaho. I’ve attended trainings at Washington State University’s Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation, which will definitely be incorporated into my classes in the future. This past year, I worked on a team of interdisciplinary scholars at my university to form the University of Idaho’s Center for Digital Inquiry and Learning. Our team was awarded a highly competitive grant from the University of Idaho to seed the center, and I am excited to see where that takes my scholarship and teaching pedagogy in the coming years.