Saturday, March 21, 2009

Shala Valley Project takes the LEAP

I am excited to be one of the co-authors of an upcoming article about the Shala Valley Project (SVP), the interdisciplinary expedition to Northern Albania directed by Mike Galaty of Millsaps College, that I was privileged to be involved with from 2004-2007. Any publication is cool, but I have a feeling that this one is going to be particularly fun because Mike and the rest of my colleagues are the lucky recipients of one of four initial LEAP II grants, aimed at providing practical exemplars of how archaeological researchers can truly link electronic archives with publication (Linking Electronic Archives with Publication, geddit!). LEAP II is an initiative of the Archaeology Data Service hosted at the University of York, and is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

A Wordle word cloud created from the text of our successful application gives a sense of how SVP and the LEAP project fit together, and what the LEAP project is all about. It is also rather pretty.
As you can see, the "data" element looms very large indeed, which is how it should be when the preservation of irreplaceable born-digital data generated by archaeological projects is the biggest elephant in the digital humanities grasslands right now. You will also see that, although archaeological fieldwork was a major component of SVP, the data we collected was diverse, and included anthropological, ethnohistoric, and documentary components.

Our article, to be published in Internet Archaeology, is to be the first North American LEAP II exemplar, so I have been spending some time over the last couple of weeks "cleaning up" the intensive survey databases so that (a) they can be ready for deposit in the Archaeology Data Service archive, alongside the article, and (b) that there are relatively controlled vocabularies and naming conventions to which our article can "hook."

Going back over one's data is always a bit embarrassing. The fact that Mike was thinking very clearly about database structure from the moment he created the Shala Valley Project is a definite advantage, but it didn't stop us minions messing things up a bit. I can claim personal responsibility for sometimes mixing up European and American data formats (the "18/06/2006" format throughout the 2006 tract database was my fault), letting misreadings of my notebook like "cemetary" and "lentel" (for "lintel") slip by during our beer-fueled afternoon data entry sessions, and taking way too many pictures of pigs (which are now going to be archived for posterity). But I think I am capturing these errors now, and am having quite a fun time reliving our summers tract by tract from the comfort and boredom of a New Jersey apartment. Since the mountains surrounding the Shala Valley are over 2,500 meters high and my home in Hightstown, NJ, is basically at sea level, I could not, from the perspective of altitude alone, be physically and emotionally in two more different places!

The next stage in the LEAP enterprise will be linking the paper that Mike and Wayne Lee, my brilliant and versatile colleague from UNC, have been working on with the underlying data sets. Although the logistics haven't been worked out yet with the LEAP II team, I suspect that this process will occur in two phases. First, there will be the authors' conceptionalization of where such links can occur. Then, there will be the reality check when the team at the Archaeology Data Service work out what is actually do-able within budget. The creation of a spatial interface to the SVP data is being done by a professional GIS consultant, so we already know that this will be an important component of the publication, but I can also see the potential for a number of hooks for digital photos, scans of notebook pages, and subsets of database records in the draft paper. There may also be some linked audio and video files.

It seems to me that what is really going to be important with the Shala Valley Project exemplar, and the other three LEAP II pilot projects that have been funded through the Mellon Foundation's generosity, is not how "shiny" they are, but the degree to which the linking of the electronic archive actually adds value to the overlay articles. We can create all the links and pretty visualizations we like, but until the fact that the underlying data is instantly accessible and manipulable actually allows the reader of the article to do something that they would not have been able to manage in print, projects like the LEAP and LEAP II exemplars are in danger of remaining interesting ephemera. Keeping over-exuberance in check ("why don't we plot all the pig photos in relation to water sources on the GIS?") is going to be a crucial discipline for us and the Internet Archaeology team during the next few weeks.

Not trying to do too much clever stuff with the first LEAP II exemplars is going to be important for another reason. As Kate Wittenberg has noted in her interesting reflections on the Gutenberg-e project, also funded by the Mellon Foundation between 1999 and 2004, encouraging the young historians funded during that enterprise to really break the mold may have been a mistake, at least from the perspective of ensuring widespread acceptance and sustainability of new forms of electronic publishing. What was really needed was to encourage them to add value to their publications through the use of electronic media, but to keep each publication only moderately innovative and within budget.

In the light of the earlier experiments like Gutenberg-e, the challenge now is to try and create projects such as the LEAP II exemplars within the confines of a disciplined publication workflow, where the editorial team is not afraid to say "no" to the wilder flights of technological fantasy us wily authors may try and lure them into. Judith Winters and her team at Internet Archaeology have been producing important online-only articles on a shoestring for over a decade now (since 1996), so I am confident that she will keep the Shala Valley Project team under control. A tight deadline, a firm budget, and a sensibly matter-of-fact publishing contract all already augur good things.

Anyway, I better get back to the photo databases now. "Pigs under tractor, Tract 2005-208" . . . what can I have been thinking?!

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