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VCU Archaeology

Crowdsourcing Virtual Curation: A Solution to the Growing Digital Curation Crisis?

by Bernard K. Means, Director

Java PrintingI was recently interviewed (August 21, 2013) about my perspectives on virtual curation by Dr. Joseph Schuldenrein on his internet radio show Indiana Jones: Myth, Reality and 21st Century Archaeology, in an episode entitled “Archaeology in the Digital Age: Virtual Curation and 3D Archaeology.” One of the topics we discussed focused on the fact that the Virtual Curation Laboratory has scanned almost 800 objects. However, less than half the resulting digital files have been edited, and converted to formats suitable for sharing virtually with other researchers, or turned into tangible forms using 3D printers. In essence, we have created a mini-digital curation crisis that parallels that seen with more tangible collections of artifacts and archaeological records.  One of the big differences between our digital curation crisis and a tangible curation crisis is that we can readily hide our problems within our computer harddrives, on a network, or even in the Cloud!

How did we get to our digital curation crisis in the Virtual Curation Laboratory? Well, there’s actually more than one reason, as is true for any curation crisis.

  • First, the editing of digital artifact models is a more cumbersome, and more time consuming process than the creation of the digital models in the first place.  It can take as many as six hours to edit a digital artifact model than it took to scan an artifact in the first place, although twice the time to edit a scan, e.g. two hours, is more common.

    Ashley McCuistion and Courtney Bowles edit a digital model.

    Ashley McCuistion and Courtney Bowles edit a digital model.

  • Second, when we are traveling to repositories to scan artifacts, we are generating more digital models that will need to be edited, and this is not something that we can readily do while we are on the road.  Our laptop is sufficiently powerful enough to scan artifacts, but not to edit the resulting digital files—some of which can be quite large (up to 1 gigabyte).

    3D scanning of a toy soldier is viewed by Maggie Lovitt, a University of Mary Washington student who also works for the George Washington Foundation

    3D scanning of a toy soldier is viewed by Maggie Lovitt, a University of Mary Washington student.

  • Third, we currently have only one computer that can be used to edit our digital models, compounding our backlog.  This problem we are working to solve with our friends at the School of World Studies Media Center, and we should have a second computer dedicated to editing digital models in the next couple of weeks.
  • Civil War smoking pipe from Fredericksburg, Virginia.  Actual object, left, and digital model, right. Object courtesy of Cultural Resources, Inc.

    Civil War smoking pipe from Fredericksburg, Virginia. Actual object, left, and digital model, right. Object courtesy of Cultural Resources, Inc.

  • Fourth, and finally, other than myself, the individuals who work in the Virtual Curation Laboratory are largely undergraduate students—some are employees (when funding is available), others are interns, and still others volunteer—usually as part of our student club focused on 3D scanning, the Virtual Archaeology Scanning Team (VAST).  These students understandably can only work in the Virtual Curation Laboratory around their classes.
    VAST members in the Virtual Curation Laboratory.

    VAST members in the Virtual Curation Laboratory.

    So, what our some solutions to our digital curation crisis?  (And, a crisis I’m sure others working with virtual curation are also encountering). More computers are an obvious solution, and one that we are working towards.  But, eventually, I’ll run out of space in my small lab for computers, and for my students to work—space is a bigger premium on our university campus than computer or student availability.

    What about crowd sourcing digital curation? The Veterans Curation Program uses recently separated veterans to help deal with a tremendous archaeological collections backlog, and at the same time providing them with skills that will allow them to operate in a wide variety of jobs once they are done with the program.  Digital artifact models are certainly more portable than the artifacts themselves, and could be sent out to locations around the world for editing.  Recently separated veterans or other individuals would learn skills in 3D editing and modeling that have broad applicability in the sciences and industry.  Other colleges and universities, and even some high schools, would have students that might similarly benefit from the crowdsourcing of digital curation.

    Speaking to the Veterans Curation Project team members in the Alexandria, Virginia, office

    Speaking to the Veterans Curation Project team members in the Alexandria, Virginia, office

    There are some caveats, however. Many artifacts, such as those from human burial contexts, are too sensitive to share across cyberspace.  Some museums or other repositories of cultural heritage are reluctant to allow digital models to be shared outside of our laboratory, for fear of losing control over the intellectual property intertwined with the digital model of actual artifacts.

    As the Virtual Curation Laboratory moves into its third year of operation next week, we will further explore, and try to address, our digital curation crisis.

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