Sunday, January 21, 2007

"JSTOR and Atypon Agreement to develop Custom Content Delivery Platform." So what does this mean for the ancient world?

The announcement on Friday, January 19, 2007 that JSTOR is planning to migrate its wonderful archive of scholarly content to the Atypon platform is probably good news for the scholarly world in general, and humanities and social sciences in particular. Although I haven't heard many complaints at all, on any topic, from JSTOR users, the ones I have heard have been about technical glitches in the operating system. The Atypon Premium service has been so well-trialed by large publishers like Blackwell (Synergy) and University of California Press (Caliber) that most of the kinks in the display of "regular" books and journals must have been ironed out by now.

Even though Atypon will probably remain in the background, the agreement must be good for their reputation and name recognition among librarians especially. JSTOR's pioneering work on electronic archiving shows that they recognize the importance of sustainability, and the mere fact of their selection of the Atypon platform is a clear recognition that their commercial partner will probably be around for a while.

While the immediate benefits to my employer, ASCSA, are not clear, there is some exciting potential here. Firstly, the current and recent issues of our quarterly journal, Hesperia, (i.e., those outside the JSTOR 3 year moving wall), are hosted on Atypon Link which last year was migrated to the same software platform as Atypon Premium. If both the journal's recent issues and its archive sit on the same base, surely there must be room for integration of some sort between the two. Seamless searching, and a common username and password for individual subscribers, have long been one of our hopes. The engineering that Atypon needed to do to link Anthrosource current issues with their JSTOR forbears sounded as if it was beyond our limited financial grasp. Perhaps the new agreement moves these dreams a little bit closer.

Secondly, perhaps a more flexible publishing platform will help JSTOR meet one of the next exciting challenges for its future; the display of "non-regular" written materials--like handwritten archives, databases, or unusually shaped books. A number of the early publications by the American School of Classical Studies, for example, were in large formats. Printed in Germany until the outbreak of World War II, several of the first reports on the School's excavations at Corinth (started in 1896) were elephant folios in which, peculiarly, text was printed to scale with the large architectural drawings that justified such extra expenditure (resulting, for example, in a hard to display, 36 pt, preface to Bert Hodge Hill's publication of the Fountain of Peirene). Since launching the volumes published in the Athenian Agora series in December 2006, JSTOR's next challenge on behalf of ASCSA is to digitize and display the Corinth series. While I do not know for certain if the Atypon system will make their job any easier, as JSTOR's staff wrestle with how to display these giant books to the standards of integrity they are famous for, I hope that it does.

As I have written elsewhere, the scholarly opportunities that the appearance of the two great series, Agora and Corinth, side by side on the same platform will offer looks sure to provide one of the most powerful proofs of why JSTOR is such a wonderful thing. As the ACLS's recently finalized report on the prospect of a "cyberinfrastructure" for the humanities (mirroring the NSF concept of one for the sciences) makes clear, one of the major barriers facing the development of electronic publishing in subjects like archaeology is the unwillingness of humanities scholars to share their data or otherwise collaborate. The problem of scholars who excavated or "were assigned"bodies of archaeological material to publish earlier in the century, but never produced is one that will be familiar to archaeologists in many countries. However, the lack of communication between sites that have published huge amounts (like Olympia and Delos, or Eleusis and Samothrace) is equally frustrating.

There are often good reasons for such a lack of communication. For example, Olympia has traditionally been excavated mainly by German archaeologists, and Delos by the French. Language and national pride gets in the way. However, even when two projects are run by the same institution, staffed by archaeologists who share a common language and culture, and came from the same graduate schools, academic tribes and "ways of doing things" develop. In the past it often seems to have been a matter of course that "Corinthians" (scholars working on Corinth) and "Athenians" never talked to each other, and spent some effort in devising different ways of doing things and even different names for pottery types.

It is the opportunities to explore across such territorial barriers that makes the potential appearance of the Athenian Agora and Corinth volumes on a common platform so dedicated to cross-searching tremendously exciting. Sure, the JSTOR search will always be fairly fuzzy. And, in the end, we will always be looking at fairly flat page images and fairly dirty OCR. But JSTOR is so well-used, so easy, and so well-liked that it will not be long before serendipitous discoveries of unexpected connections across paper volumes that were previously shelved in different locations in the physical library should surely provoke a renewed interest in contact between the two ancient cities.

After all, even if they have been studied in relative isolation, Corinth and the Agora were intimately linked in antiquity. As we know from the development of pottery styles, the craftspeople of ancient Athens and Corinth kept very careful eyes on what the latest trends in the other great city were. When JSTOR offers Corinth and Agora volumes side by side, facilitated by the mighty Atypon software platform, the scholar crafting their next article or student writing their overdue term paper can follow the Eleusinian highway, skim around the mountains, and check out the "competition" too. And all that done without the two day walk through hot and lawless country!

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