This post originally appeared as a project update for the Institute on Digital Archaeology Method and Practice here.
Before I get to the ominous part, let me outline some progress. * I have support from our Archivist. * A lot of archaeologists and other interested folks I’ve told about the project are excited. * I’ve started the work of getting things together in KORA.
So, let’s get to it. The title of this post might be a little dark, but I’m not sure I mean it that way. I’m glad when I feel that tug of wariness— it means I’m about to do something important. So while some of these issues are causing a touch of anxiety it’s a good sign. Behold the list of Things That Keep Me up at Night:
1. Understanding copyright, fair use, and licensing as they apply to gray literature and this repository.
This is one of those issues that felt embarrassing to admit, but probably shouldn’t be because so many custodians of information in digital form are just dealing with it for the first time. There I was happily perking away, looking at PDFs when it hit me. Wait. Do I (on behalf of my agency) have the legal authority to put this report online? We didn’t write it. Should we technically even be scanning all of these? Crap. As I journeyed down the rabbit hole of copyright, fair use, and open government data, I just got more nervous and didn’t really find good answers. And to be honest, it’s the kind of question I’m afraid of asking too much about at work since being unsure enough if we could get sued could really easily put the kibosh on the whole project if the right people got nervous.
So I developed a hypothesis based on the tiny amount I grasp about the subjects. Reports written by the Department of Historic Resources as a government agency are easy. They should by default be publically accessible (also included here are reports written by other government entities). Reports written by private firms? A little trickier. If they were a part of our working files (think Section 106 environmental review, etc.), then they would plausibly be good to go, right (but there’s that feeling again…)?
I got in touch with Joshua Wells from the DINAA project, since he’s been working on issues related to redistributing government archaeology data for some time. I emailed him my panicked series of questions and awaited a response. Lo and behold, he confirmed my assumptions. Even though the legal details are still kind of nebulous, hearing validation from someone who definitely knows what he’s doing was very helpful.
But we do have a lot of material that doesn’t fall into these categories: documents submitted as a courtesy by firms, authors, and other organizations. Sometimes organizations just find really old reports and send them to us. I’m still not sure what to do with those. The good news is that at least we’ve got some direction for metadata to collect moving forward, as well as policies to adopt (allowing DHR to publish versions of documents online when submitted to our archives for any reason).
To sum it up, for my MSUDAI project, I’ll definitely be working with the low-hanging fruit. But my agency is going to have to get a handle on these issues for everything sooner or later. And since I’m hoping my MSUDAI project will turn into something bigger, we have to start addressing this immediately.
2. Site location sensitivity. Fear that release of data could cause harm to sites.
This is a tale of false dichotomies all jumbled up with justified caution. From an egocentric perspective, I’m the manager of archaeological information for the state. I’d prefer if my lasting legacy were not “She’s the one who released all the data and caused the destruction of Virginia archaeology as we know it.” Hyperbole, for sure, but looting is no joke around here. To a great degree, I argue that, aside from specific coordinate locations, releasing archaeological information to the public has the potential to do more good than harm through creating awareness and value. But this is kind of just a touchy-feely hunch, right? What happens if I’m wrong and we lose a site? Do we need to risk breaking the eggs to make the omelet? Ugh.
But, again, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself as it applies to the MSUDAI project. I’ve got the luxury of being really choosy about the kinds of information to include in this repository. I know the answer is just to put one foot in front of the other and get some material into the system.
3. Fear of perpetuating inequality of access and representation.
Since my MSUDAI repository is small and just a proof-of-concept scale for now, I know I don’t need to come up with a solution to this Big Issue immediately, but it’s giving me great discomfort. When we (as DHR, as archaeologist, as whoever) make the choice as to what the public sees or doesn’t see, that’s an act of power. I can decide that I’m not going to include any records about human burials or sacred objects, but where do I draw the line? Am I just talking about indigenous material culture here, or should these principles be more broadly applied? When I choose to exclude material because it may be sensitive, am I not then choosing to exclude compelling information about already underrepresented people? There are a lot of structural issues at play that make my asking these questions risky. But that’s another post entirely.
Besides swirling around inside my own brain about these questions, I have actually made tangible progress on selecting materials. I compiled a big long list of all the data recovery-level reports we have at DHR and sent it as a Google Forms survey to a bunch of colleagues, just to get some help prioritizing some of the material. When I had my list of ~300 reports, I really saw what an embarrassment of riches we have here. It gave me a hopeful feeling that balanced out all the aforementioned trepidation.
I’ve got a couple of projects selected for the first round. I’m having them rescanned and I’m also in the process of picking around to see if I can find any supporting media to digitize. I’m hashing out metadata schema based on what we’ve been recording all this time, combined with Dublin Core.
It might be helpful for me to be able to peek into an established KORA back end to look at some schema that are already set up to make sure I’m on the right track, but I’m feeling pretty good about everything. My goal this week is to upload some actual assets and see how they work together. And I’ll get some sleep.