Friday, April 12, 2019

Milestones: Twenty-fifth anniversary of the Oriental Institute's Website

During April 2019 we will pass the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Oriental Institute's Website.  In the months following the announcement of the first proposal for an HTML specification in 1993, John Sanders and I, encouraged by Bill Sumner - the Director of the Oriental Institute, engaged in conversations with computing personnel at the University of Chicago and began to draft a proposal for an html document server at the Oriental Institute. We debuted this sever in April 1994 on a Macintosh computer operated by the University of Chicago’s Computer Science Department Macintosh Laboratory. A bare-bones history of the website is here, and the beginning is described:
Development of the OI WWW database was a collaboration between John Sanders, Head of the Oriental Institute Computer Laboratory, and Charles Jones, Oriental Institute Research Archivist. We had a single objective in creating this database: to have information about the Oriental Institute reach a world-wide audience through the medium of electronic publication; to make available descriptions and publications of the projects in ancient Near Eastern archaeology and philology by the faculty and staff of the Oriental Institute and its various units, the Oriental Institute Museum, and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC), the University of Chicago.
The OI WWW database originally contained electronic versions of three Institute publications.
  • Highlights From The Collection
  • 1991-92 Annual Report
  • 1992-93 Annual Report
The part of the database entitled “Highlights from the Collection” contains registration and descriptive information along with digital images for 65 artifacts from the Oriental Institute Museum. These artifacts represent a cross-section of the cultural regions and historical periods contained in the museum’s entire collection.
The Oriental Institute Annual Report entries in the database include information about the Institute’s museum, research projects, and the individual scholarship of faculty and staff members. These reports are arranged in the following categories:
  • Oriental Institute Museum
  • Oriental Institute Research Projects
  • Archaeology
  • Philology
  • Individual Scholarship
  • Oriental Institute Departments
  • Oriental Institute Faculty and Staff
 John and I both also discuss it in the OI 1993–1994 Annual Report.

Like most people playing with the World Wide Web at the time, we didn't really understand what we were doing. Nevertheless the website was wildly successful and the Oriental Institute became a leader in what eventually came to be known as open access publication - All of the OI's formal scholarly published output is available free of charge to anyone with assess to the web.

One of the things we did not consider was how to preserve past iterations of the website, and as a consequence the earliest archived version at the Internet Archive is from 8 June 1997. Click through to remember  (and perhaps cringe at) the good old unsophisticated Web of the 1990s.

One of the early components of the OI's Web presence was ABZU (Index to Ancient Near Eastern Resources on the Internet).   Abzu became a component of ETANA, a multi-institutional collaborative project initiated in August 2000, as an electronic publishing project designed to enhance the study of the history and culture of the ancient Near East. Funded initially by a planning grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, then by a larger digitization grant from the same foundation, the ETANA web portal was launched in 2001.  The ETANA steering committee had no way to anticipate the mass digitization of schioarly materials that commenced in the mid-2000s which have revolutionized access to scholarly materials in the 21st centiry.  AWOL is the successor to Abzu now twenty-five years later. We believe Abzu and AWOL to be the longest sustained effort to document and disseminate the development of online open access scholarship in any field.

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