Vol. XXII, No. 3
CSA Newsletter Logo
January, 2010

Going AWOL (ancientworldonline.blogspot.com/): Thoughts on
developing a tool for the organization and discovery
of open access scholarly resources for the study of
the Ancient World

Charles E. Jones
(See email contacts page for the author's email address.)

When Nick Eiteljorg approached me last October with an invitation to write about Ancient World Online for the CSA Newsletter, it struck me as a useful opportunity to punctuate the efforts I’ve been making to collect open access networked scholarship on the ancient world with an assessment of where I have been and where I think I am going. It is now more a decade since I last wrote on the subject ("Abzu and Beyond," Ariadne; September, 1999, at www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue21/web-editor/).

That article remains as an interesting and instructive assessment of the work I had undertaken with my colleagues at the Oriental Institute in Chicago. But it also seems almost quaint in light of the extraordinary changes in the digital world. In parallel with such changes in the infrastructure has been the development in my own personal circumstances; developments both contributing to and resulting from shifts in my own intellectual focus. In 2005, after nearly three decades of association with a single academic home, the Oriental Institute (oi.uchicago.edu/), where my focus was on the development of a collection to support research in the study of the Ancient Near East, I accepted the challenge of directing the Blegen Library at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (www.ascsa.edu.gr/index.php/Blegen-Library/). Simultaneously moving my body eastward and my intellectual focus westward, I broadened my understanding of the ancient world with an intense three years of close engagement with Greece, the Mediterranean and the Classical civilizations. When the opportunity to direct the development of the library at the newly founded Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at NYU (www.nyu.edu/isaw/) presented itself, the temptation was too much to withstand, and I moved to New York in mid-2008. My brief at ISAW is to develop a library of the scholarly resources requires to support a research and teaching program covering the ancient world from the Pillars of Hercules to the Pacific and from the emergence of civilized life until Late Antiquity. It was explicit from the outset that ISAW’s library would be both physical and digital, and that the digital component was likely over time to become the predominant method of delivery and access. It was explicit from the outset that the digital component of ISAW’s library would include resources that ISAW would assemble or construct ‘locally,’ as well as resources developed elsewhere, and that such distinctions are of no consequence in the scholarly research environment.

Throughout these changes in my own career trajectory, I have been selecting, collecting, cataloging , and curating a corpus of metadata describing and providing links to networked open access data relevant to the study and public presentation of the Ancient Near East and the Ancient Mediterranean world. This project, Abzu (at www.etana.org/abzu/) was the focus of the Ariadne article mentioned above. In summary, Abzu began as a set of related topical files describing documents with author, title, and institutional names and dates, hyperlinked to their locations on the Internet. It began in the early 1990s as a means to help others discover and make use of material I had discovered, or that others had discovered and told me about, at a time when browsers and search tools were unpredictable and difficult to use. Coupled with frequent delivery of summaries of Abzu content to a focused user community by means of the ANE mailing list, Abzu soon established itself as a central place for access to the digital Ancient Near East.

By the time the Ariadne article appeared in late1999 (but left unmentioned in that article) Abzu was already colossally unwieldy. Maintaining overlapping sets of hyperlinked documents in the html editors available to me at the time was clearly out of the question as a long-term strategy. Among a number of efforts to move forward, I had already joined discussions centered at Vanderbilt University Library to develop a project we would soon name ETANA (Electronic Tools and Ancient Near Eastern Archives at www.etana.org/). In the summer of 2000 ETANA secured the first in a set of grants (see www.etana.org/about.shtml) from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, to support the planning and implementation of a set of basic resources, with Abzu as one of its core features. Under ETANA’s auspices we identified and customized a database with fields based on the Dublin Core, converted all the data collected in Abzu into that database, and began serving it from the ETANA server at Vanderbilt in the summer of 2002. All links to the old Abzu pages at the Oriental Institute server were rediected to the new site. It remains possible to observe horizons in the archaeology of Abzu through its preservation in the Internet Archive’s wonderful Wayback Machine (at web.archive.org/web/ -- a link not working well at the time of this writing). The first archived version of the Abzu home page there is the way it appeared on 10 December 1997, and the last view of the old Abzu is from 1 June 2002. Some measure of the continuing persistence of Abzu can be seen by the fact that nearly thirty three thousand users were redirected from the old Abzu to the Vanderbilt site in 2009, seven years after the change was made.

Abzu’s move to ETANA allowed me to expunge or correct bad information and, more importantly, readjust the kinds of material included and the level of granularity at which resources were analyzed. During the early years, for example, I indexed (because it was there) a great deal of material which turned out to be ephemeral - sub-pages in departmental websites, hobbyist pages of varying degrees of quality, and so on. With the move to ETANA I applied much more rigorous, but still very impressionistic, criteria for inclusion based on academic quality, scholarly usefulness, and expected persistence on the web. At the same time I ceased indexing at the most granular level possible. This was simply a matter of expedience. It was no longer possible for a single person to send the time required to enter the data, so I began to limit myself to a single record for each volume indexed, for example, rather than an entry for the title of each linkable chapter or component as I had been doing.

At the same time as these changes in Abzu were happening, the routinely available tools for gaining access to the worldwide web were rapidly gaining sophistication and coverage. As the scholarly community increasingly adopted digital tools as a part of routine work, early search engines such as Lycos®, Altavista®, Yahoo® and ultimately Google® (see www.searchenginehistory.com/) subverted one of the early purposes of Abzu, which was to make things easy to find. It was becoming far easier and more effective for users to search the global corpus directly than it was to go through the filter of Abzu.

I understood therefore that the future of Abzu lay in its value as a consciously-collected resource; an experienced bibliographer was consciously making a choices about what to include in the collection. That had always been an attractive (or at least popular) function of Abzu -– the “What’s New in Abzu” page had consistently been among the most frequently used of Abzu’s functions. To notify interested users of new content I developed a mailing list ETANA-Abzu-news (lists.uchicago.edu/web/info/etana-abzu-news). Inaugurated in January 2003, this list provided monthly reports on developments at ETANA and Abzu. This list still exists (though its function has mostly been superseded now by AWOL) and has a current subscription list consisting of 567 email addresses.

During the middle years of the first decade of the millennium, I steadily increased the Abzu corpus by about a thousand entries each year, more or less regularly distributing this data to those who had indicated interest by subscribing to ETANA-Abzu-news. During the same period, I moved to the American School of Classical Studies and expanded the scope of Abzu to include Greece, the Aegean, and the Classical World of the eastern Mediterranean. I also became more and more circumspect in my criteria for inclusion. I was increasingly focused on discovering and providing access to the explosive development of commercially licensed digital manifestations of the standard range of scholarly publication, which had until then existed only in print, and to the equally rapidly expanding corpus of open access material emerging in parallel with, and often in competition with, the commercially licensed material.

With my move to the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, the scope of my responsibilities expanded to cover all of the ancient Old World. I needed ways to organize the kinds of material I had always been collecting, but on an expanded geographic and temporal scale. It was evident that the research library community and their consortia on the consumer side and the publishers and their vendors and aggregators on the production side were providing reasonably good access to the corpus of commercially licensed scholarly material to the research and teaching community within the standard suites of library catalogues and discovery environments. It was equally evident that the research library community was not yet coming to grips with providing suitable access to born-digital and open access digital publication which is freely distributed, requiring neither purchase nor license.

I needed to get some notion of the scope and quantity of this material. Having spent several years observing and participating in the dialogues produced by small communities of scholars using blogging software to communicate, I was convinced of the importance of these tools for formulating ideas, developing research and teaching strategies, collaborating on resource development, and gaining feedback in the pre-publication phases of book and article production. They are particularly suitable for the exposure of bursts or fragments of data or opinion, and have the built-in means to expose theses pieces of information through syndication and subscription to whomever may be interested.

I chose therefore to experiment in the context of the group blog Ancient World Bloggers Group (AWBG at ancientworldbloggers.blogspot.com/) by collecting and exposing sets of open access publications being published by particular institutions, but which seemed not to be widely known. Over most of one year I produced seven of these lists within AWBG. The response from readers was overwhelmingly positive and encouraged me to make the decision to separate the project in early January 2009 into the identity of the Ancient World Online (ancientworldonline.blogspot.com). The original seven entries formed the first entry (ancientworldonline.blogspot.com/2009/01/proto-awol.html) of the new AWOL.

During the year since the founding of AWOL I have added open access material on a daily basis. Of particular interest is the constantly expanding List of Open Access Journals in Ancient Studies. The list Currently holds 541 titles.

AWOL has been a very successful experiment. It has allowed me learn a great deal more about open access scholarship on the Ancient World and to organize my notes in a semi-structured way that is accessible globally by means of search engines, news feeds, syndication through a variety of social networking tools, and the conscious efforts of those in both the library and technical worlds for whom the domain is of interest. Somewhat to my surprise, the most successful outreach has been achieved by application of the news feed to the less flexible but now traditional and ubiquitous form of communication: email. Using the Google product FeedBurner (see feedburner.google.com) allowed me to process the news feed into a form recognizable to those who had not yet integrated feed reading tools (see www.dmoz.org/Computers/Software/Internet/Clients/WWW/Feed_Readers/) in their scholarly workflows and allows scholars who wish to receive notices of new content in AWOL to receive this information conveniently packaged in a daily email message delivered to them wherever they are at work. I added this feature in July 2009, and as of January 22, 2010, 857 people have chosen this method of notification.

What happens next?

The Institute for the Study of the Ancient World is in the process of developing a project we call the Ancient World Digital Library (AWDL). As AWDL developers we are seeking ways to integrate points of discovery and access within the standard suites of tools scholars use. In the meantime I will continue to collect open access material in AWOL and encourage its uses. I welcome all subscribers and encourage feedback either directly (to user chuck.jones at domain nyu.edu) or by way of the comment function which appears at the end of each AWOL entry.

-- Charles E. Jones

An index by subject for all CSA Newsletter issues may be found at csanet.org/newsletter/nlxref.html; included there are listings for articles concerning the use of electronic media in the humanities and articles concerning electronic publishing.

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