DH Project Review- Women’s Worlds in Qatar Iran

The Women’s Worlds in Qajar Iran digital humanities project is an archive containing images of documents and objects pertaining to the lives of women living in Iran during the Qajar period, from 1786 to 1925, but is wholly a digital endeavor (more on this later).

Technical Basics: The digital home of the archives is now the Harvard Library system accessed via its own web address (http://www.qajarwomen.org).  The entire digital archive interface was initially developed by an outside company called Historicus, Inc. which now appears defunct. This interface appears to work and function in a very similar manner as Omeka, but in the project’s FAQ they outline the technology running behind the scenes.

Financial Support: In 2009, the project received a two-year grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to establish the initial website. After this point in the project’s history as presented on their website, it is unclear exactly how the monetary support system after the initial grant works, and how much control the Harvard Library System exerts over the project.  There is a page dedicated to sponsors which includes Harvard, the NEH, and several foundations working toward the promotion of Persian culture in scholastic fields and general appreciation.

Language Support:  As this is a project/archive concerning a non-English speaking culture, presenting the material in the original language preserves the integrity of the contextual information for the item and respects the original culture. The main page for the Women’s Worlds of Qajar Iran allows the visitor to explore the website in English and in Persian Arabic.  The metadata and search features support both languages and switching back and forth between the languages is fairly simple.  All one needs to do is click on the relevant link in the upper corners ( left corner for Persian to English and right for English to Persian) and the viewer stays on the same page but gets the information in the other language.  This is a nice feature and some sites require the visitor to go out to a main page to change languages.  However, if you do not read either language, you are out of luck with this site as they do not appear to support other language translations.

Archival Items: The items in the collections remain with their respective owners allowing the digital component to transcend geographical constraints, ownership issues, and geo-political barriers. This is both a benefit and limitation of the archive.  On the one hand, it is great to view photographs, letters, documents, or items that belong to private parties around the world, but it means having the ability to handle the objects is extremely difficult if not impossible to orchestrate .  For documents this may not be a big deal, but for objects or artworks this can extremely limit scholarship as texture, tactility, and/or weight is best understood by physically interacting with the object.  Some collections/items do provide holding information in the metadata, but not all does.  Let’s look at one item in the collection:

This item is in an archive that one could theoretically track down and visit, but more concerning is the confusing and missing metadata.  The dimension field lists three different dimensions but does not explain what those mean and much of the contextualizing information is missing (this may be due to the repository not collecting that information when they acquired the item).

Another limitation of the database’s interface is the inability to see thumbnails if more than one image for an item exists.  For example:

Within this single entry, there are 33 images of the various pieces of stationary housed in the wooden box.  In order to view each of these I have go in and out of each link (there is no way to move between them with out coming back out to the item detail page).  It is cumbersome and frustrating as the individual pages are not even labeled.

Overall, this is a great project bringing light to women’s stories in particular period of Iran’s history.  Unfortunately, the lack of metadata displayed and clunky interface limit the usefulness of this archive.  Additionally, I do think the motivation to transcend boundaries and cross archives is beneficial and one that digital humanities and digital archiving is well-situated to achieve, but more thought needs to go into documenting information about the location/archive and details/metadata of the items.

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