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January 30, 2019

Shaking Off the Dust: Building a Digital Library For My CHI Fellowship Project

January 30, 2019 | By | No Comments

The baffling amount of data in archaeological collections makes their management a daunting task. Subsequently, material culture can sit on shelves for years, collecting dust long after removing the original dirt of excavation. My project for the Cultural Heritage Informatics Fellowship will attempt to address this issue by using KORA to build a digital library for the archaeological collections curated by the MSU archaeology department. KORA is a digital repository and publishing platform that I will use to facilitate easier management of collections and bring some of their unique cultural heritage into the public eye. The Schmidt Collection will be the first collection I attempt to do this with.

Walter L. Schmidt was an avocational archaeologist who collected a large number of artifacts from his farmland in southern Michigan. During the middle of the 20th century, Schmidt discovered hundreds, if not thousands, of artifacts ranging from Paleoindian to historic time periods. A detailed cataloging system describing these artifacts and where they were found on his land was developed.  Many newspaper clippings, correspondences with archaeologists and other documents associated with the collection of artifacts have likewise been saved. Walter Schmidt believed in the cultural value of these artifacts and the significance of his land as an archaeological site.

Mr. Schmidt had originally planned on preventing serious excavations on his land until professional archaeologists could begin excavating. Circumstances, however, did not allow. After passing away in the 1970s, land development in his area likely made the curated artifacts at MSU all that will come of Walter Schmidt’s effort. Since his passing, Walter’s collection has changed hands several times, luckily ending up here at the archaeology department. The loss of the Schmidt site and the lack of useful provenience data are tragic events, but the artifacts that were saved still have massive potential to inform us about our cultural heritage.

KORA will be the engine for unlocking the potential of the Schmidt’s artifacts and documents. This will require the development of a metadata scheme to describe these data. This includes descriptors such as catalog number, document type, site location, artifact type, etc. This is not an insignificant task. The scheme will have to be carefully constructed considering how I am attempting to also build a digital library for additional unknown archaeological collections in the future. After finishing this critical task, the metadata will have to be mapped into a KORA repository which will then allow me to enter the relevant data from the collection. This will be the essence of my project for the CHI fellowship.

But what about getting this information into the public eye? This goal of the project may be beyond the scope of the CHI fellowship. Fortunately, I will have the luxury of combining this project with my continued duties as the museum research assistant in the next academic year. This will allow me the time and resources to publish a digital image library also using KORA.  A major difference between a digital library and a digital repository is in how it makes our collections accessible to the public. A library will take the information I have entered into the repository and display it on a frontend website that will be accessible from the MSU anthropology department website.

There is more to making a collection accessible than building a frontend website, however. A digital library should go beyond displaying the simple metadata and tell a narrative. Consequently, a major goal will be to develop “digital exhibits” within the website which showcase an essay or research about particularly interesting artifacts or the collections themselves. It is my hope that digital exhibits will unlock the potential of these documents and artifacts for the public to see. This will involve quite a bit of effort to produce narratives worthy of engaging the public. Or I can make undergrads do that research for me. By that time, I am sure I will be willing to shoulder off some of the work. Either way, I hope to do my part to make interesting sources of cultural heritage like the Schmidt Collection more accessible, and hopefully shake off a bit of dust.

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