Having had the privilege to work with a remarkable group of collegial and creative people through the Digital Archaeology Institute (DAI), I’ve observed a continuum of styles that I’ve come to think as “cannon ballers” and “toe dippers.” Cannon ballers fearlessly plunge themselves into the digital deep end, reveling in the splash and fun of messing about. Toe dippers approach digital waters cautiously, wading in, reaching waist level only after prolonged acclimation. I am definitely a toe-dipper in the rising tide of digital methods, and in this last DAI post I reflect on some lessons learned and “had I knowns.” After a short recap of “Banda thru Time” project aims, I look back on the downside of some toe-dipping decisions so that others might avoid the eddies that compromised our project progress along the way.

Project Background: The seed that became the “Banda thru Time” project was sown during a 2011 visit to the Banda area where we’ve long worked to engage local communities through our research. During that visit we launched a series of informational posters summarizing what we’ve learned through historical and archaeological investigations of how local people navigated global entanglements over the last 1000 years. In developing the posters I sought permission from University of Washington art historian Dr. Rene Bravmann who had worked in the area in the late 1960s to include images from his archive. This included one of a Banda paramount chief who had reigned from 1936 until his death in 1977. The 2011 Banda Cultural Centre event was well-attended by community members who were particularly interested in the poster’s historic images. I took note of young people using their phones to take pictures of these and of their expressed interest in having these materials available “on line.” This prompted a commitment to developing digital Banda heritage resources that could be accessed by community through an electronic repository.

Project Activities & Focus: Our DAI project was envisioned as a means to begin digitally repatriating heritage resources to audiences in Ghana and to introduce both local and nonlocal audiences to the area’s rich history. I was aided in this project by a University of Victoria internal SSHRC grant that supported travel to consult with colleagues who had previously worked in the Banda area and to fund a graduate student assistant (GA), Veronique Plante, who collaborated in developing “Banda thru Time” resources.

To date, more than 800 color slides and over 60 black-and-white negatives focused on “people and places” have been scanned as high-resolution TIFF files. We’ve also collated a series of documents and other heritage resources with the aim of making these available in digital formats through a web-accessible repository. In June 2016 I visited Banda where I consulted with Omanhene Nana Kwadwo Tsito and members of his traditional council, Queen Mother (Ohemaa) Lelɛɛ Akosua Kepefu and her elders, alongside other community leaders, regarding the focus and content of the repository and web portal. Building on those conversations, we’ve developed three pilot digital entities: a Banda Thru Time web page (bandathrutime.com) that introduces the area to broader audiences and describes some of what we’ve learned through historical and archaeological investigations of the region’s dynamic history; an affiliated Banda Thru Time Digital Heritage Resources web page (bandathrutime.matrix.msu.edu) through which digital objects housed in the KORA repository can be accessed; and a KORA repository of digital objects (images, documents, posters) and associated metadata that can be called up through the digital heritage resources web page.

Reviewing images with the Banda Queenmother and her elders, June 2016

Reviewing images with the Banda Queenmother and her elders, June 2016

Ann Stahl with elders, June 2016

Ann Stahl with elders, June 2016

What this toe-dipper has learned:

Project management. People will tell you to have a plan and a well-conceived work flow. They’re not “whistling dixie.” Have a plan and a work flow and periodically review it. Had we had a more specific and detailed project management plan, particularly with regard to work flow, we would have saved countless hours devoted to regrouping after having gone too far down a particular task stream before discovering an issue or problem. A couple of examples illustrate the point. First, we should have incorporated more timely quality control/review into all of our processes. In the case of scanning, it didn’t become clear until well on in the scanning process that a considerable number of our slides and negatives had been scanned in reverse, requiring that scanned photos be individually flipped before they could be used. So too would we have benefitted from researching more thoroughly some of our decisions regarding which digital tools to use. I didn’t take full enough advantage of all the helpful advice and tips that can be accessed through simple web searches; had I done so, we might have made some better choices along the way.

Adopt an iterative approach as you build your digital project so that you can make alternative choices if needed and take advantage of choices made to limit repetitive tasks. As an example, engage in play before you commit to a template in order to discover its benefits and limitations. Figure out your layout parameters, play with them and take advantage of cloning options so that you are not faced with laborious page editing to bring consistency to your layout.

“Fast and easy” is a strategy that may save time in the short run but may compromise longer-term goals. In good toe-dipping fashion, I opted for the ‘easy’ route of building a web page hosted on my university’s online academic community domain using Divi Theme for WordPress. Divi is described as an easy to use “advanced page builder” that lets you build “dynamic pages without learning code” (http://athemes.com/reviews/divi-theme-review/). True enough, but the “had I known” moment came when I realized how the theme limited our ability to include creative use of then/now image stories using a tool like Juxtapose (https://juxtapose.knightlab.com/) which we couldn’t get to work with Divi. So too did I experience the template’s limitations when I tried to export my content into a new theme, learning first-hand what blogger Chris Lema writes about in his Divi review (http://chrislema.com/divi-theme-forever/). All that ease of use results from copious and idiosyncratic shortcode that can only be removed through laborious editing. Over the course of our recent DAI gathering, I came to wish that I’d had the courage to “cannonball” by opting to fork a GitHub web template which would have had a steeper learning curve but offered greater long-term flexibility.

Seek advice early and often. Digital librarians are your friends. IT people may seem like your enemies but they are founts of information and can be allies and sources of ‘work arounds’ when you discover the limitations of your particular institution’s hosting and platform policies. Reward them with thanks and maybe even a gift of your homemade jam.

Cannon ballers need no exhortations. But a word of encouragement to fellow toe-dippers: come on in. Though bracing, digital waters hold considerable promise to refresh your approach, push you to share your insights in new ways and to new ends, and indeed to generate fresh insights along the way. Enjoy learning from our DAI struggles, false starts, and successes, and then go on to learn and share from some of your own.

Alongside thanks to the NEH-funded DAI and its faculty, to Banda community members and leaders, and to fellow DAI participants, I thank you for following our journey, and now I hope you’ll take some time to explore our newly “launched” (if still in development!) web site (bandathrutime.com) and repository portal (bandathrutime.matrix.msu.edu) and to revisit them periodically as we continue to grow Ghana’s digital heritage resources.