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The Web Editor: 'Abzu and Beyond'

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Charles Jones muses on the history of the Internet presence of the University of Chicago Oriental Institute.

I work in a discipline where scholars are as likely to be interested in a three-quarter-century-old article written in an obscure journal with a circulation of a thousand copies as they are in a lavish and masterly new publication of an international exhibition of never-before-seen artifacts. The archaeologies of scholarship on the ancient Near East are complex and arcane. The skills required to interpret them are taken for granted on the assumption that university students should already know how to use a library (as any schoolboy knows...). Those who have completed the apprenticeship and have found themselves lucky enough to find employment or (and) time to engage in research, take justifiable pleasure and pride in their ability to demonstrate mastery of the procedures of scholarship - to articulate an idea and to build a context and an argument from the fragments of primary data and scholarly commentary. Books with footnotes numbering in the thousands are routine. Once published, these books or articles become artifacts for the next generation of scholars. At the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, books of fundamental importance in fields like Archaeology, Assyriology and Egyptology were originally published in editions of five hundred copies, while more popular and less technical works could expect to yield a thousand copies. Seventy years after these standards were set up, the situation remains essentially the same - a print run of five hundred copies is routine, a thousand copies is rare, more is practically unthinkable.[1] It is perfectly reasonable to think that there were canonical literary works circulated in antiquity [2] in more copies than their scholarly decipherments in this century.

In another universe the public imagination of the ancient Near East produces a parallel set of publications. Radically different in their style of writing, documentation and presentation, they offer interpretations of the same civilizations to a far larger and more disparate audience. Indeed they even offer the rare opportunity for scholars to be paid for their writing! Occasionally, though not often, writers for the academic audience also produce for the popular market. Occasionally, but not often, consumers of popular writing also read in the academic literature. Least frequently of all, a book written for the academic world finds its way to, and sells to, a popular audience.

When, in 1992, my colleague John Sanders (who operates the Oriental Institute's Computer Laboratory) [3] and I began to fantasize about how this institution could make more productive use of electronic resources and communications media, we were both aware that the emerging tools had the potential to blur the distinctions between the scholarly and the popular, as well as apprehensive of their potential to blur the differences between the knowledgeable and the merely assertive. More importantly, we were convinced that electronic media offered the opportunity on the one hand to make interesting material available to a much larger audience, and on the other hand, that they offered, really for the first time, the opportunity to produce elaborate editions of publications for which print based publication would be economically untenable. We also understood that the institution we represent had (and has) a reputation for careful scholarship, sober analysis, and thoughtful presentation of the cultures of the ancient Near East. Having the opportunity, the content and the authority already at our disposal, we developed a model under which we would provide three kinds of service as a beginning towards these goals.

  • Communication - by means of a mailing list[4]
  • Publication - providing edited text, primarily existing print publications[5]
  • Recommendation - building an index of publications available through electronic media.[6]

The first of these components to appear publicly (in Summer of 1993) was the ANE [Ancient Near East] list. We planned that ANE would be an alternative to the kinds of open discussion available at the time in such forums as usenet. We planned that it would be, primarily, a forum for public dialogue among professionals and secondarily, a forum for interested lay folk to engage in discussion of issues of concern to them. In actual practice, the emphasis shifted very quickly to one in which generic issues of interest to the general public became the normal topics of conversation, with serious debate of substantive issues generally sloughing off into private channels of communication. A small catalogue of topics tends to repeat itself in various permutations, and a circumscribed cadre of voices is generally the most evident. Fortunately, participants for the most part retain a sober view of issues, and with a generous dose of moderating personae, the ubiquitous sniping and catcalling which has come to characterize so much e-mail based discussion is kept to a minimum. Despite such ups and downs, which have included a period when the list was closed entirely for several months, ANE has remained true to its initial goals. Large numbers of scholars working professionally in ancient Near Eastern studies retain subscriptions to the lists, lurking quietly and responding privately when appropriate. The subscriber base varies seasonally as the academic year waxes and wanes, but has remained consistently between 1350 and 1400 for the last two years. Following the temporary closing of the lists in 1996 (which was caused by an excess of zeal on the part of a small group of both amateurs and professionals) we reopened the list with a strict set of behavioral guidelines and a moderated option in which only items of news and information are distributed. I believe that it is this component of the traffic on the list which is the most useful and has had the most impact.

In the Spring of 1994 we inaugurated the Oriental Institute's Web Server. Initially residing on borrowed space in a friendly University of Chicago computer laboratory[7], we went entirely independent in November of the same year, adapting and expanding the hardware as it became available to us from other sources. It was our initial intention to provide only on-line versions of preexisting publications of the Oriental Institute. This absolved us of the responsibility to provide editorial control - a task which neither of us had the time for - yet it allowed us access to a fairly large body of initial text and images. A collection of annual reports and quarterly newsletters each including articles describing the progress and results of larger collaborative projects as well as individual research concerns, were reorganized from their paper-based presentation, and set up to allow the reader to navigate through the documents by way of a multitude of pathways. For the first time in a single 'publication' it was possible to follow the progress of archaeological projects across time, and to see the relationships of the staffs and interests of archaeologists and philologists while moving among the projects in which they are involved.

It has been interesting to watch. Members of the staff were pleased with the results and began to think about their reports in different ways. One of the stellar examples is an article on Egyptian Royal Mummies[8], originally printed in a newsletter with a distribution of about two thousand copies, published on-line in June 1995, now is read (or at least looked at) between five hundred and a thousand times each and every week now for more than four years!

In a site with a fairly complex but logical structure, it has also been possible to monitor the kinds of use, and the pathways by which visitors were progressing through the site, and to develop useful and interesting gateways and directories at the places where visitors were actually entering it. Much work of this type remains to be done.[9]

The third component of the site is a directory of resources on the internet which relate to the study of the ancient Near East. In my role as the Librarian of a specialized collection, I had been collecting and attempting to organize such links since the beginning of the nineties. At about the time we moved our Web site to an independent server in the Autumn of 1994, my list had sufficient volume to appear as a separate entity. Named Abzu (after the subterranean swamp of Sumerian mythology; the source of raw materials, "...where the life influencing powers reside and where their results, as well as the means to influence their effects, originate.")[10], it was the our first web publication not to have a print version.

The building of Web directories has been an enormous, and mostly interesting challenge over the last five years. Anyone who has been watching web publication knows how frequently sites appear and disappear, and more frustratingly, how often they change their basic structure. Keeping up with such changes takes a great deal of time and energy - frequently more than I am actually able to justify (or am willing to admit). One of the primary problems, as I understand it, is that the source of much web-published material has developed from traditional sources within the administrative structures of organizations: consequently the nature of the materials themselves reflect the traditional roles played by those structual units. Oceans of web sites, for example, are produced by the public relations departments of large organizations. In the world of Museums, for instance, the print-based media are still the standard under which many public relations personnel operate: they produce brochures, flyers, handouts, tear-off sheets, for example, which are designed, printed and distributed until they are gone, after which they are redone. None of these things are intended to be kept, or looked at again, except, perhaps as a souvenir of a visit. Sadly, those same documents, which are all too often the only well illustrated and regularly published documentation for parts of displays and collections, appear and disappear on the Web, or appear on the web while current, and then are shoved aside, URLs changed, into an archive, making way for the next brochure. More and more frequently they appear and then disappear without the traditional print analogue having ever been produced. For those of us with the challenge of trying to bring such things to the attention of interested readers, or trying to contextualize them, or actually even "collect" them, their rapid disappearance is distressing. It requires us to catalogue such a site on the most simplistic of levels, because detailed cataloguing will only end in dead links.[11]

Such difficulties notwithstanding, there remain large quantities of immensely useful documents accessible on-line. I manage to add between 750 and a thousand new links to Abzu each year. I'm much more circumspect about the quality of the sites I accept than I used to be. I could certainly spend all my working hours on this project alone without being able to complete the task.

Among the interesting consequences of developing Abzu, has been the collaboration with other projects. Argos, "the first peer-reviewed, limited area search engine (LASE) on the World-Wide Web"[12], sought the collaboration of a number of projects cataloguing resources in ancient studies. It's principle is simple. It searches and indexes the text of each member of a corpus of associate sites as well as each of the sites indexed by the associate sites. In this way it allows a reasonably comprehensive search of the data selected by a cadre of designated experts, and excludes much - probably most - of the dross and dead ends we so frequently encounter when using the larger searching tools. Because the corpus is smaller, it also allows for more frequent crawls of the datasets, which yield more up-to-date findsets. Anthony Beavers, who developed Argos, has also produced Hippias, a parallel search engine for Philosophy.[13] More recently, Abzu has been selected to be included in the University of Chicago's component [14] of the Cooperative Online Resource Catalog [CORC] project.[15] The project is designed to help libraries and OCLC [16] deal more effectively with the sharing of metadata relating to the huge amounts of material becoming available on the World Wide Web. As a consequence, an increasing number (probably out of proportion to their "proper" share) of ancient Near Eastern entries appear in Horizon, the University of Chicago's On-line Public Access Catalogue.[17]

The participation and collaboration of Abzu in such larger projects requires a reassessment of its selection practices and goals. It's not yet clear what directions Abzu will take in the future, but it is certain we will have to face the application of more rigorous (and explicit) standards, as well as design and implementation of a more sophisticated interface.

While the three-headed structure of the electronic resources we provide at the Oriental Institute remains intact, and while we continue to feel that it serves the purposes for which it was intended, we have no doubt that the future will bring changes for which we, and the structures we've imposed on the site will be unprepared. Among the more interesting developments are the production of publications which make integral use of the media in which they are written. The Achaemenid Royal Inscriptions Project [18], for instance, was designed as a prototype for the Web publication of ancient documents. It is an ambitious experiment in unifying the publication and display of texts in three (ultimately four) different ancient languages and scripts, and the reestablishment of each of the texts within an archaeological and architectural context, allowing for the interpretation and interplay of each of these contexts with the other in a way not heretofore possible. We are now engaged in the process of connecting the data in that project with the corpus of more than a thousand archival photographs from the Oriental Institute's expedition to Persepolis and other sites in Iran in the 1930s [19] - a corpus which was previously available only in a microfiche edition (and therefore for practical purposes unavailable).

Two final points and a note about the future.

  1. We are stunned by our success. At the height of the academic year in May 1999 we were getting more than eleven thousand user sessions and delivering more than two hundred thousand documents per week. In a field such as this, these numbers are almost incomprehensible. They require us to rethink all forms of publication, on all levels.
  2. The maintenance of facilities of this kind need to be institutionalized in the academy and developed with the benefit of adequate resources.

Recent progress in the development of standards for the use of XML in the manipulation and display of both archaeological and textual data, particularly with regard to the complex and varied scripts in which the languages of the ancient Near East were written, is encouraging. Many scholars who have been hesitant to encode (or to present) data with markup which they rightly consider to be substandard or outright unacceptable,[20] now show renewed enthusiasm for the process of establishing standards, and for the tasks of data encoding. A conference workshop at the the Oriental Institute in October 1999 seeks to establish a working group bringing together researchers who have begun working on electronic publication in various ways using such tools as SGML, HTML, and XML, or who are interested in exploring these techniques.[21] With luck and persistance, I believe that we will shortly see the emergence of research tools for ancient Near Eastern Studies comparable to those already existing in such fields as Classics [22] and French Literature.[23]


[1] Catalogue of the publications of the Oriental Institute

[2] See for example the catalogues of Sumerian texts at Oxford's Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature

[3] The Oriental Institute Computer Laboratory

[4] Home page of the ANE lists OI/ANE/OI_ANE.html

[5] Home page of the Oriental Institute default.html

[6] Home page of Abzu

[7] University of Chicago Computer Science Department's Macintosh Computer Laboratory

[8] Edward F. Wente , Who Was Who Among the Royal Mummies. (The Oriental Institute News and Notes, No. 144, Winter 1995) Win95/NN_Win95.html

[9] Points of entry to the data we provide tend to cluster at the more popular documents (which are not always in expected places). Some of these are guides themselves, such as Abzu (cited in [6] above), or Alexandra O'Brien's

Others are pages relating to particular projects or departments of the Oriental Institute such as

[10] As defined in the Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary a nd quoted in the Abzu Colophon

[11] Abzu includes a (by no means exhaustive) sub directory of Museums with collections including significant holdings in ancient Near Eastern artifacts, or whose Web sites are of particular use

[12] Argos: Limited Area Search of the Ancient and Medieval Internet

[13] Hippias: Limited Area Search of Philosophy on the Internet

[14] The U of C/CORC Project

[15] CORC--Cooperative Online Resource Catalog
http://www.oclc .org/oclc/research/projects/corc/index.htm

[16] OCLC: Online Computer Library Center, Inc.

[17] Horizon: The University of Chicago Library Catalog

[18] The Achaemenid Royal Inscriptions

[19] Persepolis and Ancient Iran: Catalog of Expedition Photographs

[20] Though some strides have been made in the display of of such scripts as Hebrew, Greek, Syriac, Coptic, and standard transliteration schemes (see for instance the documentation on this for the on-line journal
TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism ),
the problems encountered with the encoding of various cuneiform scripts and Egyptian Hieroglyphs have not yet been solved (though for the latter see also the Center for Computer-Aided Egyptological Research )

[21] Conference Announcement: Electronic Publication of Ancient Near Eastern Texts. The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, October 8th & 9th, 1999

[22] Perseus Project

[23] ARTFL Project, University of Chicago: Project for American and French Research on the Treasury of the French Language

Author Details

Charles E. Jones
Research Archivist - bibliographer
The Oriental Institute
University of Chicago
1155 East Fifty-Eighth Street
Chicago, Illinois, 60637-1569

Web site: http://www-oi.uc

Article Title: 'Abzu and Beyond'
Author: Charles Jones
Publication Date: 20-Sep-1999
Publication: Ariadne Issue 21
Originating URL:

Date published: 
23 September 1999

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How to cite this article

Charles Jones. "The Web Editor: 'Abzu and Beyond'". September 1999, Ariadne Issue 21

article | by Dr. Radut