Tuesday 8 December 2009

Interview: Eric Poehler and Pompeiana.org

Here's another interview in our continuing series on Blogging Pompeii. I recently asked a few questions of Eric Poehler, founder and managing editor of Pompeiana.org.

I want to thank Eric not only for all his great work on the site, but also for answering my emails at such a productive time in his life. Eric's has recently become a dad! Yay Eric!

FT: How do you define the mission of the Pompeiana website?

EP: Pompeiana.org, I believe, can be a primary resource for all people interested in the ancient city of Pompeii. Although the site is targeted principally to academics, it is our mission to make Pompeiana.org the “one-stop shop” for researchers and the interested public alike. To accomplish this goal, the site must be more than simply the biggest list of links. Instead, we want Pompeiana.org to be an online repository for resources relating to the ancient city, eventually including original research by scholars in the field.

FT: How do you think Pompeiana fits in with other sites about Pompeii on the web? What other sites are out there that can contribute to our knowledge of Pompeii?

EP: The site should serve as a complement to the other sites online. There is no reason to try to compete with other websites, nor is there a need to ‘reinvent the wheel’ so to speak. Some websites will always be better at what they do. For example, YouTube will always be the best place for videos about Pompeii and Google Maps now provides street view for Pompeii offering interesting digital walk-throughs. There are three specific sites about Pompeii itself – the Pompeii Superintendency site, Pompeii in Pictures, and Blogging Pompeii– that I think Pompeiana.org strongly complements. The first of these, obviously contains a wealth of information on new and on-going initiatives, but their purpose is broader than research alone. On the other hand, the mission of the other two websites is narrower. Pompeii in Pictures is a treasure of imagery that opens up all the ruins to our eyes, including bare masonry walls, picking up with photographic recordation where the Pompei: pitture e mosaici volumes left off. Blogging Pompeii stands out, however, as the most important new tool on the web for Pompeianists. Blogging Pompeii has accomplished what Pompeiana.org has been unable to do: build an online community that can share information about the latest news, events, publications, etc. and simultaneously serve as a forum to discuss those issues. Broadly speaking, I hope Pompeiana.org will grow as a research tool to make finding and using the best parts of these sites, and others, as easy as possible. I envision taking the user from, for example, a location on a map of the ancient city to the current research on that location, images of it, and a discussion of timely opinions all with the speed of the internet.

FT: Having a bibliography for Pompeii on the site is a terrific idea & I see your page is a work in progress. What are your plans for that?

EP: A robust bibliography is primary to the academic usefulness and legitimacy of Pompeiana.org. With the assistance of keen library and IT professionals at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, I am building a bibliographic database that is accessible using the standard search terms of author, title, year and, eventually, key words. Populating such a database with citations, of course, has always been the hard part. Today, however, this difficulty can be overcome by mining the ever-expanding online sources – worldcat.org in particular – and by tapping social networking sites to ask scholars to share their references. It is fascinating to me to think of the possibilities. Not only will even the most obscure references eventually be captured, but the explosion of full-text sources online will make it possible for many books, articles, and illustrations to be instantly available. Full text is available already in particular areas. Some laudable examples are the Internet Archive, which has a number of out-of-copyright works, including Fiorelli’s Pompeianarum Antiquitatum Historia some of the Notizie degli Scavi di antichita, the Fortuna visiva which website adds more books as well as images of Pompeii from the 18th and 19th centuries, and FastiOnline, perhaps the very best source for the latest information from the field. I want our bibliography on Pompeiana.org to be a first stop for researching the ancient city, a place to find references and to be redirected as seamlessly as possible to other online resources.

FT: Clearly it is the younger generation who immediately think of the web as a way to disseminate scholarly content. How can we convince the "old guard" that the Internet can be a great tool for academic work?

EP: The conservative answer is the standard ten-year plan, or rather, tenure plan: get it, then change the world. But certainly there are more progressive, less cynical approaches. First, we must be vigilant to ensure that what we produce is quality scholarship and not digital for the sake of being digital. In that sense, only the medium of delivery would be different. Beyond maintaining quality, the flexibility of digital formats must eventually be explored to do the things that print formats cannot. Multimedia support for narrative argumentation will be one route, nicely illustrated by the Finnish Project’s treatment of the Domus Marci Lucretii. Data rich sites, such as Pim Allison’s online companion to The Insula of the Menander, vol. III is another avenue that will revolutionize how we publish our ideas and the evidence that supports them.

What I think will happen is that the growing strength of online research tools to find, manage, deploy and (most importantly) analyze information will make the web a more palatable place to publish. There are also more calculating answers that fit into this scenario as well. Web publishing makes the ideas therein not only instantaneously available, but also portable, allowing those ideas to have the greatest chance to make an impact. Of course, the difference between the enormous potential readership on the web and the more limited circulation of print publishing is legitimacy. The flood gates will open when more big names in the field put their weight behind online publication.

On a more philosophical level, it is surprising to me that the power of the web can be dismissed by anyone. A computer connected to the internet is replacing so many iconic items of modern daily life – the newspaper, the television, the phonebook, the telephone – and in most cases improving how we can use those items. Watching the revolutionary events in Iran on Twitter a few months ago clearly demonstrates the raw power of even the most superficial and time wasting of online applications. The question isn’t how can academia escape the omnipresence of the internet, the question is why would it want to?

FT: What other plans do you have for the future of Pompeiana?

EP: The most innovative and challenging initiative in the works for Pompeiana.org is an online Geographical Information System for Pompeii. For my dissertation research and analyses I spent hundreds of hours digitizing the city to serve as the basemap. It horrified me to learn a few years ago that others were enduring the same labors. These data should be available to scholars so that they are free to use those many hours working on their topic rather than the digital infrastructure of its representation and analysis. To this end, we are working to produce a map of Pompeii that researchers can navigate online with the additional ability to download basic spatial information to use on their local computers. In partnership with MainStreetGIS, we expect a functional Phase One GIS to be in place by early 2010 to replace the current beta version.

A GIS, however, is not to be confused with a map. Instead, a GIS uses space itself as the structuring metaphor to organize information. Thus, while an alphabetical list is a very common means to organize information, it is not particularly intuitive or flexible one. A GIS uses the representation of a place itself to contain the information about that place and in so doing, also puts the information for adjacent properties (e.g., a neighboring workshop) or associated properties (e.g., other workshops not in proximity) at the user’s immediate disposal. I am encouraged by the power of this organizational structure to believe that the GIS will in the future be the primary platform for using Pompeiana.org. By linking the searchable bibliography, full-text articles and books, online images, and other electronic resources to each property, research can be done by simply clicking on the location of interest to bring together all of these materials in one place. It’s a big project, but so were the indispensable works of the PPM, the CTP, and Garcia y Garcia’s bibliography. Now imagine them all together, on your screen and weighing only as much as your laptop.

Finally, I would like to put out an open call to all who are interested in making a powerful online resource for Pompeii a reality. This can be done by sharing your personal bibliography, digital imagery, data, or spatial data. We are always in need of your suggestions, advice, and criticisms. Most valuable of all is sharing your time and expertise. If anyone wants to help, please send an email to Pompeiana@gmail.com.

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