Leading the CARCAS project’s transition to a new back end

Erin Watson’s graduation reflection

I started this year excited to continue working on CARCAS, an archaeology project about displaying 3D scans of animal bones. I am now graduating, and looking back on the work I have done, I am incredibly proud of the technologies I have learned, the technical documentation I have written, and my growth as a team leader.

This winter, with the addition of the Alpaca skeleton, it became clear that the current systems in place for storing the CARCAS models on the web server were no longer sustainable. There were too many big files, and the method for storing them took up too much additional space.

The transition took a lot of time and effort. I started by researching different tools, eventually settling on Datalad since it has clear, beginner friendly documentation and it can play nice with the web server that CARCAS already used. Figuring out the correct configuration tested my patience. My early attempts at making the models downloadable caused a nasty little bug that prevented the correct method from working. I tried troubleshooting on the Datalad forum, but even experienced users couldn’t figure out how to fix it. I finally started over from scratch, and everything worked like a charm.

Dealing with this bug, and solving it by starting from scratch, reinforced that failing is part of the learning process. The second time around, everything went a lot smoother because I understood how all the pieces fit together. And, I was able to write down what I was doing because I wasn’t overwhelmed with learning new things.

Once the new system was in place, my supervisors emphasized that I needed to write instructions so that future DHAs could learn how to use it. After all, a system for collaboration and backups is useless if no one knows how to use it. I thought this would be relatively straightforward. After all, I knew how to use the system and I didn’t have comprehensive notes of my own.

I discovered that I had learned a lot through experimenting with Datalad and the new CARCAS system, and that it was not immediately obvious to others what to do. I collaborated with Noah Zameer Lee, another DHA. He had completed the Datalad tutorial like I had, but he had been working on other projects while I set up the new system. When I was sitting right next to him, I could guide him through using the system, but there was a lot that was not clear, even to someone familiar with the software.

I wrote a few different sets of instructions and documentation for different use cases. I focused especially on first time set up, routine tasks, and where to learn more to deeply understand the tools. These were the areas that overwhelmed me when I first started working on CARCAS. First time set up and routine tasks look easy when you have done them before, but when you are just getting started, there’s nothing for your brain to latch on to.

Also, towards the end of making it easy for a future DHA to get started, I hosted a recorded Zoom meeting with my supervisors and coworkers where I demonstrated what it looks like to follow my instructions and start making changes. I deliberately chose to record this video from a new account on my computer so that I would have to show the set up.

Recording this walk through was also incredibly helpful for me. I discovered tasks that I had forgotten to write about because they had become second nature, and I discovered sections of my documentation that were too cluttered and difficult to reference. Just as revising is helpful when writing an essay or a blog post, I learned that it is also an essential step of writing technical documentation.

Working on CARCAS’s back-end transition has taught me a lot about working as a team leader. I made impactful decisions, like when I decided that Datalad was the best tool for CARCAS. I had to reassess and choose whether or not to stand by my decisions, like when I spent weeks looking for the bug in my first attempt at using Datalad. I needed strong communication throughout the whole process. I explained to my supervisors what I was doing and why, without getting into the technical weeds. I taught Noah how to use the system I set up, and I helped him figure out how it fit in with his piece of the project. I created documentation and a video for future DHAs, in hopes that I could pass on my knowledge.

I have had a wonderful time working on CARCAS this year. As I go off into the world after Carleton, I can’t wait to look back and see how CARCAS keeps on growing!

Highlight of My Year: The Mapping Japan Project

As a Digital Humanities Associate (DHA) this year, my work on the Mapping Japan project has been incredibly rewarding. This exciting initiative is a collaborative effort between multiple departments and the Gould Library at Carleton College, led by Professor Asuka Sango from the Religion and Asian Studies departments. Initially developed during the Institute for Liberal Arts Digital Scholarship (iLiADS) last summer at Davidson College, our goal is to digitize Carleton’s rich Japanese map collections and build an Omeka S site to host them. This site and the sample items will serve as valuable resources for a course (ASST 285: Mapping Japan, the Real and the Imagined) next spring.

Our Collections

Our collections include Gaihōzu maps, produced by Imperial Japan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which were captured by Allied forces at the end of World War II and distributed to various libraries in the U.S. Carleton has approximately 1,280 sheets of Gaihōzu. There are also Naihōzu maps, which are maps of Japan and its overseas territories, also produced by Imperial Japan and captured by Allied forces. We are currently organizing this collection, which likely includes several hundred sheets. Additionally, our collection holds 70 sheets of maps of Japan created by the Office of Strategic Services (former CIA) during and shortly after World War II, as well as 8 sheets of premodern Japanese maps, with plans to acquire more.

My Role in the Project

My contributions to the Mapping Japan project have been multifaceted.

Metadata Template Creation

We decided to create two separate Omeka sites: one for general purposes and another for student exhibits next year. For our metadata template, we chose Dublin Core due to its widespread acceptance and standardization in metadata practices. Key fields in our template include titles (in English and Japanese), descriptions, call number, creators and contributors, genres, dates, and places shown.

Creating the metadata template was a thoughtful process that involved iterative discussions to identify the most critical properties of the maps. We examined how institutions like the Stanford University Libraries present their Gaihōzu maps and incorporated feedback from Professor Sango on how the template could serve as a gradable assignment in her upcoming class. We debated details such as whether to record B&W/color distinctions and which field to use for physical dimensions. Additionally, we considered the best media for showcasing the digitized maps, evaluating options such as IIIF, the default Omeka settings, or the published Google Drive images.

Creating Sample Site Structures and Wireframes

Designing the website structure was another fascinating part of my work. We analyzed exemplary Omeka S sites, especially those showcasing maps, to learn from their navigation bars, search functions, and more. As a statistics major, I was particularly interested in the data visualization aspect– how to best present all types of data, whether textual, visual, or numerical, in the most accessible way. Collaborating with my colleague, DHA Tonushree, we created engaging slides and pitches for the entire team.

Current Landing Page

Developing the Timeline Showcase

Another significant task was creating a sample timeline object to embed on the site. This timeline showcases maps from different periods, from the Meiji era to post-World War II. After exploring various options, we decided to use TimelineJS, which allows us to customize and embed images and descriptions seamlessly. The timeline offers a compelling historical perspective, and we aim to include a wide range of maps beyond just military and topographical ones, such as those depicting spring areas in Japan.

Sample Timeline

Writing Instructions for Students

I also authored instructions for students who will create items and exhibits for the site next year. This involved finding examples of how to upload images, appropriate citation formats, and what to include in descriptions. This experience required continuous learning, particularly about different types of rights statements and the reuse of historical archives and images.

Instructions for the “Creator/Agency” Metadata Field

Why This Project Matters

The Mapping Japan project is more than just an academic exercise; it is an effort to diversify Carleton’s curriculum and highlight non-Western items in our library’s Special Collections. By digitizing, annotating, and publicizing these Japanese maps, we aim to create a rich, accessible online exhibit that will serve both current and future students. This project not only preserves historical artifacts but also provides valuable educational resources and opportunities for hands-on digital humanities work.


The Mapping Japan project has been a highlight of my year as a DHA. It has offered me the chance to collaborate with talented individuals, learn new skills, and contribute to a meaningful initiative. As we move forward, I am excited to see how this project will continue to grow and impact both the Carleton community and the broader field of digital humanities.