By: Scott Branting, Jack Green, and Foy Scalf
Think back to the time when you last visited a library and flicked through a card catalog to find a book. Card catalogs were made obsolete by computer databases in the 1980s, and were followed by online access to libraries’ collections during the 1990s and 2000s. In this digital world of Wi-Fi, data mining, and the insatiable hunger for immediate online access to research materials, the library card catalog is now almost consigned to the graveyard.
Advances in online museum collections databases have been significantly slower. Information from a museum’s card catalogs was commonly integrated into computer databases beginning in the 1980s, making it easier for curators and registrars to maintain, access, and update information on the objects at their fingertips. In the 1980s the Oriental Institute’s Museum began using dBase 3, but this was not a networked system, and was only accessed via single computers within the museum collections area. The leap towards online access to collections has been much more intermittent and variable across museums, often because the data serves a smaller and more specialized group of users than libraries. But over the past decade or more, many museums have made their collections available online in some form, ranging from the entire collections database with images, to simple lists of displayed materials, or at least the highlights.
The world is rapidly entering an era when anyone, anywhere – not only the cloistered scholar – can fully access digitized books, articles, images of objects, manuscripts, and photographs in museum and library collections. The only limitations are the staff time and funding to make such ventures possible. Yet what often emerges from multiple, online databases could be described as data overload, or data complexity. The ‘holy grail’ in digital terms remains the integration of multiple databases that contain disparate data and collections that share common elements, and the ability to conduct searches on a single database that can bring up results from multiple sources for immediate comparison.
Ideally, such ‘Googling’ would bring up a variety of related and linked data. For example, an object on display in a museum can be linked to photographs of it being excavated, to the pages of the original excavator’s notebook describing its context, to places where it has been published, and to other objects found in close proximity to it. A fuller picture of the object, its contexts, and interpretations would thus be available from a single query.
James Henry Breasted, Egyptologist and founder of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, had his own pre-digital vision of an integrated database. (Figs.1 and 2) In his 1933 book The Oriental Institute, he recounted his plans for an Archaeological Corpus Project, a card catalog that would combine archaeological data, illustrations, and bibliographical information, organized according to various criteria. Comparing the project to the famous Chicago Assyrian Dictionary project, founded in 1921, he wrote: “What the Dictionary is doing for a language, should likewise be done for the whole range of evidence surviving from the ancient oriental civilizations as a whole.” Only slight progress was made on the project, which had been run by Anne Perkins and Miriam Lichtheim, before being abandoned altogether in 1951 by then director of the Oriental Institute Karl Kraeling (see the account in Miriam Lichtheim, Telling It Briefly: A Memoir of My Life, 32-33). These goals have remained unfulfilled to this day.
This ambitious set of objectives, the idea of linked data and the ability to share and save that data, has shaped the Oriental Institute’s Integrated Database project over the past several years. It continues to be the culmination of many years of hard work by members of the project, as well as through the financial support from the Institute of Museums and Library Services (IMLS), the University of Chicago, and Aimee Drolet Rossi. The database was launched online in January 2013, and can be accessed online via https://oi.uchicago.edu/idb/ or by following the ‘Search Our Collections’ Tabs on our website (fig. 3).
The 2013 online launch is just the first phase of a multi-phased project that will be many years in the making. The Integrated Database, or IDB for short, currently allows users to search and view over 207,000 objects from the Oriental Institute Museum collection (out of an estimated total of 300,000), and over 450,000 bibliographic records from the Research Archives – the name of the Oriental Institute’s famous library. In addition, bibliographic records can be exported to your local computer for sharing and for use in personal research. The Oriental Institute’s extensive Research Archives database currently includes bibliographical records for any independently authored scholarly work, including books, book chapters, journal articles, and even book reviews. The database acts as an index of ancient Near East studies, providing an extremely rich (and rare) resource for researchers seeking out obscure references, publications on specific topics, or the work of particular scholars over specific periods of time.
The integrated database makes searching even more powerful. Unique to this database project is the opportunity to conduct searches across different datasets simultaneously. In this first phase this includes bibliographical and collections data. For instance, a query can be constructed to search for a name such as “Shulgi” (a famous king of the Third Dynasty of Ur, ca. 2000 BC). The results will find both books and articles referring to him as well as objects such as baked bricks from the site of Bismaya in Iraq, ancient Adab, inscribed with his name (fig. 4).
The powerful database behind the online Collections Management System is Electronic Museum (EMu) developed by the software company KE. The software is currently used by institutions around the world such as the Smithsonian, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the National Museum of Australia, the University of Pennsylvania Museum, the Field Museum, the American Natural History Museum, the Natural History Museum in London, the British School at Athens, and Abu Dhabi Cultural Heritage. The University of Pennsylvania Museum, with its similar archaeological collections to the Oriental Institute Museum, provided a particularly useful starting point for designing our database template. Our web interface was developed by IT Services at the University of Chicago.
A great deal of additional work needs to be done before we achieve our long-term vision for the database. Queries can’t yet be saved or shared, and new types of data are yet to be added from older databases. For example, the Oriental Institute Museum’s Photographic Archives Database is currently being prepared for migration into the database as part of Phase 2 of our project, funded by IMLS. This will add over 100,000 digitized object and expedition photographs to the new database. Other datasets to be added in the future will include our extensive expedition archives, map collections, registration cards, and conservation records.
The current version also includes only a portion of all the objects housed within the Oriental Institute Museum, largely because only parts of these data are currently in digital form. There are many years of work yet to be done in simply entering new data into the database, keeping records updated, integrating images with records, and linking the objects to their bibliographical information including the Oriental Institute Press publications that are available freely online to download via our website. The Oriental Institute doesn’t shy away from projects that can take decades to complete – after all, finishing the monumental Chicago Assyrian Dictionary took nine decades!
We also hope that our database can be a research and teaching tool that goes beyond the narrow confines of specialists in Near Eastern studies, but also becomes a tool for teachers and educators in the US and around the world. Educators can learn how to conduct simple searches on the database, and then show high school students in classrooms or at home how to conduct their own searches. The ability for online users to also ‘curate’ their favorite collections is another potential tool that we hope can be offered in the future. Linking the collections to Geographical Information Systems and the database to objects on display in the Oriental Institute Museum galleries, are also features that we are working to add in the future.
Our current database is a taste of what is to come, but it is already a powerful tool – please try it out. Researchers from around the world are already using it to discover artifacts that they never knew we had, resulting in greater interest in our collections than ever before. Maybe you’ll find something unexpected. We’d very much welcome feedback from everyone as we move forward in order to help shape the form that this integrated database is going to take.
Scott Branting is Director of the Center for Ancient Middle Eastern Landscapes (CAMEL), at the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago
Jack Green is Chief Curator of the Oriental Institute Museum at the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago
Foy Scalf is the Head of Research Archives of the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago
Scott Branting, Jack Green, and Foy Scalf. “Fulfilling Breasted’s Vision: The Oriental Institute Integrated Database Project.” The Oriental Institute News and Notes 218 (Summer 2013). Pp. 9-13. Available here.)
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