Friday, November 15, 2013

An Appraisal of CIG's "Portal to the Past"

As our loyal readers will recall, on Wednesday evening, October 30th we opened the Institute’s Portal to the Past ( to public use. On the occasion of the presentation I asked Dr. Agiatis Benardou (Research Associate in the Digital Curation Unit of the Athena Research Center in Athens) to give an appraisal of it from an external perspective. Afterwards, she consented to share her critique with the readers of this blog. What follow are Dr. Benardou’s thoughts on the features of the Portal and on its general significance within the wider world of cultural heritage portals.

“It was both an honour and a great pleasure to have been invited to speak about Portal to the Past on its launch on October 30th. It is an honour because it was only some short twelve years ago that, as an undergraduate in Ancient History, I worked briefly as a volunteer in the library of the Canadian Institute, which was, needless to say, a valuable experience."

"The great pleasure lies elsewhere, though. For the best part of my professional life I have been working in the field of the Digital Humanities. What does this mean? It means that I am trying to figure out ways in which technology and the ever-expanding digital world can support Humanities research. I am trying to understand and analyze the needs, the so-called User Requirements, of Humanities scholars, mainly Historians and Archaeologists, in order then for the developers to translate them into tools, services, databases, repositories and whatever else we ask them for."

"Do you know what the first and foremost User Requirement is? Make an educated guess! It is access to the material. Unhindered access to content, which will enable researchers to gather, view and make effective use of it. Going through Portal to the Past, I was pleasantly surprised by how much material is gathered there and how easy it is to search across multiple, distributed data sets, texts and images. Portal to the Past provides online access to dispersed archival as well as archaeological resources relating to material of the Institute all over Greece. Users stemming from multiple backgrounds and archaeological sub-disciplines, from Prehistory to much later periods, will interact with Portal to the Past asking all sorts of research questions, following diverse goals, building on dissimilar data and methodologies, and employing various entry-points into it."

"Which brings me now to the friendliness of the interface of the Portal. Those of you who have used portals to big volumes of content, you must have tried to fight against incomprehensible links, endless lists of vocabularies, broken connections between data. I was looking at Portal to the Past and I could not help noticing the architecture, how easy it is to navigate through it, how you can make both a structured navigation as well as browse and berry-pick information. This is particularly important for us archaeologists, as serendipitous discovery is one of the key methods employed within the activity of searching in archaeological research."

"Having spoken about content and interface, please allow me to introduce another concept, which is of equal importance to the previous ones - metadata. Metadata is the data about the data or, put more simply, the information which accompanies the content. For ages, we, researchers in Archaeology, have craved for rich, coherent, good-quality metadata. Metadata of course compliments the 'Content', it fleshes it out, but I must stress that it is a corpus of information in itself."

"Whoever has been to a museum must know what I am going to talk about now. You often stand in front of a great, a magnificent find, set within a glass frame, frequently with a short description in a tag below. You look at it, you admire it but cannot make any connections between this object and the one right next to it. There is no context which sets a common background to them, allowing you to draw a more complete and thus coherent picture about both of those objects. Sometimes the same stands with archaeological material within portals. There is no contextualization. I was going through Portal to the Past and was impressed at how this issue has been addressed. There is no stand-alone object, map, image, or body of text within it. No piece of data that does not belong to a greater family of information. This in itself is a very significant contribution to the research community: The bigger picture."

"Last but not least, in my work we have noticed that about two thirds of respondents in various surveys we have conducted in the area of user behaviour in Archaeology have stated that they would be interested to find out about others’ current research work. This is surprising, but true. Also, almost as many have stated that they would be prepared to share interesting resources and information on their own work with others, and that they would like to publish jointly with others. I strongly believe that Portal to the Past will encourage and enhance collaboration and joint work in the field of Greek Archaeology, and to me this is one of its major contributions to researchers. The more we show people what open access can offer, the more they will make of it, the more fascinating research goals they will be setting."

"I would like to close this short review by thanking the Canadian Institute in Greece. I want to thank you personally for inviting me to speak at the launch and I would also like to thank you on behalf of the entire archaeological research community for offering us this great online archive. Thank you.”

So, if you have not already visited the Portal, Dr. Benardou’s observations should inspire you to go to it now to see if you agree with her assessment of what the Institute has made available online relating to Greek Archaeology! Please let us know what you think of it and why.

David Rupp

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