Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Mellon issues a challenge to archaeologists. But is it too implicit?

Who would have thought, entering the elegant Upper East Side townhouse, that a gang of revolutionary conspirators lived here? And yet, in a series of recent announcements, the Mellon Foundation's program for scholarly communication has again proved that it has (in the words of a senior academic) got "sans culottes" tendencies.

Two of the funding announcements are archaeological projects. The challenge that Mellon has issued is to see if either are truly aware of the other.

The Archaeology of the Americas Digital Monograph Initiative is a joint project between The University Press of Colorado, Texas A&M University Press, University of Alabama Press, University of Arizona Press, University Press of Florida, and University of Utah Press. As the press release says, "funded by an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant, the project will explore ways to deliver data- and illustration-rich digital editions of cutting-edge archaeological research, and will give scholars and professional archaeologists the ability to review supplemental data not often contained in conventionally published volumes." The $282,000 one-year planning grant aims to collaboratively develop a digital collection of New World archaeology scholarship based around the impressive publishing lists of the six presses, who together produce about 70 new titles a year in the relevant field and are core exhibitors at the Society for American Archaeology conferences. Linked to the publications will be, the presses plan, large data sets, color illustrations, video components, three-dimensional, rotatable images and, in some cases, interactive components such as reader commenting.

Digital Antiquity, meanwhile will "establish a financially and socially sustainable, national/international, on-line digital repository that is able to provide preservation, discovery, and access for data and documents produced by archaeological projects." This repository, will encompass documents and data derived from ongoing research (more than 50,000 field projects are conducted in the US each year) as well as legacy data collected through more than a century of archaeological research in the Americas. A two-year, $1.3 million Mellon Foundation implementation grant will support a full-time Executive Director, two software engineers, a data curator, and clerical staff. Digital Antiquity is currently housed at Arizona State University, as a collaborative effort with the University of Arkansas, the Pennsylvania State University, the SRI Foundation, Washington State University, and the University of York.

Collaboration, anyone?

One hopes that the two projects, surely exceptionally complementary, are not only aware of each other but are already talking. But there is no indication of this in the press releases or in any publicly-available information. If the Monograph Initiative wants to link to data sets, they will need to be securely archived and have a level of granularity in resource identification that will allow hooks to be included in the published materials. If Digital Antiquity is to become sustainable and accepted, it will need to be well-used and "marketed" to the academic community, and what better partner to do this than an experienced collective of publishers.

There are notable obstacles to collaboration here, and one again hopes that both parties are reading Raym Crow's admirable 2009 guide to Campus-Based Publishing Partnerships where tools for analyzing and overcoming the cultural and organizational barriers that exist in library-publisher collaborations are presented.

Some of the issues are:
  • The fact that both initiatives are searching for similarly-skilled employees and are aiming to become financially self-sustaining. This immediately puts them in competition.
  • The lack of overlap within the sponsoring institutions. Although Arizona State and the University of Arizona share a state, that is no guarantee of willingness to collaborate. Some of the fiercest institutional rivalries exist when the partners are physically close, and dependent on the same constituencies.
  • The lack of expertise most archaeologists seem to have with publishing materials in a structured and consistent way. As production managers at the constituent presses know, primary data presentations in archaeology are too often spectacularly sloppy.
  • The deep gulf between CRM practictioners (most field archaeologists) and archaeologists working in a university setting, reflected in the grayness of the gray literature emerging from the CRM community.
All such barriers are possible to overcome but the conversation between the two projects needs to start soon. As Raym Crow writes, "balancing the differences--operational, financial, and mission-related--between a press, a library, and other university units can make establishing an effective publishing partnership complex. However, constructively addressing these differences as part of a collaborative process will contribute significantly to the strength, creativity, and value of such partnerships" (Crow 2009, p. 2).

Let the collaboration cooperation data-linking creative-thinking revolution begin!


Mary Lenn said...

Good news. The two groups are indeed talking to each other, even though the grants are independent. There will be collaboration.

Mary Lenn Dixon
Editor-in-chief, Texas A&M University Press

Charles Watkinson said...

This is great news, Mary Lenn! The involvement of knowledgeable publishers in the early stages of building Digital Antiquity is so very important. You will be able to ensure that the DA design includes some of those important features that all publishers will need to publish archaeology effectively in the digital age, linking the narrative to the data and thus enriching both. Stable identifiers down to a fairly granular level to which publications can "hook" are one example. We will all benefit from the collaboration. I hope you will find a way of sharing what you learn with Old World archaeology publishers as well. Maybe we can then bring New World vs. Old World archaeology slightly closer together again, and really capitalize on the power of digital technologies to transform whole disciplines.