Digitizing Digs: My Summer at the MATRIX Center for Digital Humanities & Social Sciences

By Allison Kemmerle, Doctoral Candidate in Greek & Roman History

This past summer, I completed a Mellon Public Humanities Fellowship at the MATRIX Center for Digital Humanities & Social Sciences at Michigan State University. The MATRIX Center partners with community organizations like libraries and museums to digitize collections of cultural resources and make them accessible resources for education and outreach.

When I applied for the fellowship at MATRIX, I was eager to learn about managing digital archives. As part of my training as an ancient historian working with the University of Michigan Papyrology Collection and the Epigraphical Museum in Athens, Greece, I already had some experience in digital archiving through preparing ancient materials for photography and digitization. At MATRIX, I hoped to understand online archives from the perspective of the people who actually create and maintain them.

My project, the Archaeological Resource Cataloging System (ARCS), is a web-based interface that allows archaeologists to digitize the many records associated with excavations. Beginning as a collaboration between the MATRIX Center and the College of Arts and Letters at MSU, currently the MATRIX team is working with the Ohio State University excavations at Isthmia in Greece to implement ARCS at the site. This involves digitizing the project’s numerous documents and creating an online archive in which to deposit them.

Allison Kemmerle, Doctoral Student in Greek and Roman History

While we often associate archaeological digs with exotic locations and fabulous finds, in the field archaeologists spend a significant amount of time recording their observations in field journals, taking photographs, and drawing detailed plans. Archaeological sites, especially those like Isthmia which have been active for decades, often have substantial archives.  The database for the OSU Isthmia excavations alone stores over 6,000 documents.

I was particularly excited to work on the ARCS project, since the MATRIX Center is performing ground-breaking work in making digital archives accessible to researchers around the world. Generally, when excavations organize their archives, archaeologists are limited by the number of personnel and funding. At the larger excavation I was part of, supervisors carried tablets on which they could directly enter data into an online archive. At smaller digs with less funding, however, excavators often have limited resources — their archives are often simply a stack of field journals. The ARCS project provides an open interface that researchers can download free of charge and use to create their own online archives in which they store, annotate, and share their documentation with the  public. I believe that the cooperation between Matrix Center and the OSU excavations at Isthmia are making major strides towards “democratizing” archaeological digital resources.

In the first month of my fellowship at the MATRIX center, I performed usability tests on the OSU Isthmia ARCS database. I recorded myself exploring the website both as a casual user and as a researcher, performing searches of thousands of documents associated with the excavations. The skills I had learned in prepping materials for digitization and through my own online research, including with digital archives, gave me a unique perspective on the OSU Isthmia database. I gave my recommendations about how to improve the user experience, suggesting how the MATRIX team might narrow the search terms and change the layout of the webpages to allow users to browse through documents much more quickly, like field journals which often contain hundreds of pages of material.

As I conducted usability tests, I realized that forty-eight field journals detailing the daily activities of archaeologists between 1967 and 2011 formed the heart of the collection. These notebooks provided the most information about the dig, and other documents within the archive made special reference to the journals, particularly the inventory cards which list individual artifacts. I proposed to my supervisor Catherine Foley, who acted as the project manager for ARCS, that I create a comprehensive guide for the field journals, organized by year and then by the geographic area. A casual user to the site could then use this guide to navigate through the large collection of documents, and people organizing the resources after I completed my fellowship might also find such a table helpful in their own work.

Before I began working at the MATRIX center, I was anxious about what kind of contribution I could make to the ARCS project. Having completed the guide to the OSU Isthmia field journals, however, I felt confident in my ability to recognize a problem and propose a workable solution.  My experience working in the field at archaeological excavations and my knowledge of digital archives allowed me to sort through the the field journals quickly, organize them into categories, and create a guide which would be useful both to casual users of the OSU Isthmia site and to researchers reviewing the website. My work at the MATRIX center has given me confidence in my ability to adapt the analytical and organizational skills I have learned in my graduate education to a career outside of the academy.

Finally, I found collaborating with my coworkers at the MATRIX center especially rewarding.  Meetings with Catherine Foley and Jon Frey, one of the lead excavators at Isthmia and the main partner with the MATRIX team on the ARCS project, were illuminating. I had always viewed digital archives from the perspective of a researcher collecting resources for her personal use. Professor Frey, however, saw the ARCS project not merely as a way to archive his own excavation but also as an opportunity to work with scholars from a range of disciplines and create an exciting new resource to the academic community. Many people worked with Professor Frey to create this cataloging system—not only my supervisor Catherine who was the project manager and digital librarian but also the programmers who actually designed and maintained the website. Working with my teammates and talking with them about their jobs at the center has given me the confidence to explore these different roles as I consider various career options, and the perspective which my coworkers gave me is the greatest reward of my fellowship at the MATRIX center.


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