Review of ABZU: Guide to Resources for the Study of the Ancient Near East Available on the Internet

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ABZU is a wonderful resource for scholars and students and a formidable undertaking by the Research Archivist of the Oriental Institute, Charles E. Jones. The site, a series of links to internet-based resources on the Ancient Near East, as well as other areas of the ancient old world from paleolithic through Islamic periods, is enormous - which is both its strength and its weakness. Organized by two primary indices, "author" and "project or institutional affiliation," it is most easily used by scholars and students who have some knowledge of what they are looking for, since the index lists are long and take large amounts of time to scroll through.

Jones recognizes that the primary indices are unwieldy and has created a series of secondary indices: Directories--Addresses--Lists; journals on-line; library catalogues on-line; museum collections on-line; publishers and book-dealers; regional index (Egypt, Mesopotamia); subject index (archaeological sites; mailing list/discussion group index, maps and atlases). Additional indices are planned although not specified. Non-specialists will likely find these secondary indices more helpful than the primary ones, even though they incorporate links to many highly specialized sites and are not inclusive of the entire relevant contents of ABZU.

For those with a compelling interest in keeping up-to-date with ABZU-indexed materials, the site contains a section "What's New in ABZU". One can register to be notified by e-mail of the frequent updates to the site, which include both new material and notations of changed URLs. "What's New" is archived as "What was New" and scrolling through this section provides an interesting overview of the growth and spread of the internet as a tool for communicating knowledge, ideas, and information.

The wide range of information indexed on ABZU is too comprehensive to be outlined here. An indication of the different sorts of materials linked through ABZU can be seen from a small sample of the entries from April 1999's "What's New":

As can be seen in this list, links are international in scope and highly varied in subject matter. There is no explicit indication that the sites listed on ABZU have been vetted. In addition to its own indexed links, ABZU is an associate site of the ARGOS search engine.

In preparing the review, I spent several hours looking through ABZU, trying the various indices and following many links. This process of exploration, which might be the approach of a non- specialist, was somewhat frustrating, and illustrates the areas where this site might be improved. I'm sure that the site's editor is well aware of them; such a massive project maintained by a single individual is unfortunately bound to suffer from insufficient time and staff. One problem is the very structure of the web-site. The site is primarily that of the Oriental Institute, of which the Research Archives is a part. ABZU is a project of the Research Archives. All possible links between various parts of ABZU, particularly the secondary indices, are not established, so that a click on the "back" arrow often takes one out of ABZU altogether and into information on the Oriental Institute or the Research Archives. Thus it often requires several clicks of the mouse to get one to the related materials one might be looking for within ABZU.

Beyond the structural problem is the question of accuracy of the links. ABZU relies on the kindness of strangers to inform about changed URLs and other changes to materials linked to the site. Thus, the fact that Orient-Express has closed down its web site has not been reflected in ABZU's contents, so that clicks on some entries in ABZU now yield the message "URL not found on this server". Of course, Jones, the site's editor, asks for feedback from users -- none of whom, apparently, including this reviewer, have taken the time to let Jones know of the outdated link. As part of the web's good citizenship practice, all users should respond to requests for aid from site-builders whose sites we use. Feedback, requested by Jones, will contribute to the site's usefulness. Certainly, the pruning of outdated links will cut back the size of the long lists -- which make the site hard to navigate for the novice in the field.

Beyond the outdated links, there are minor typographical errors in many places, including the main title pages. These reflect again the shortage of time of the editor to do all the things he nevertheless undertakes to aid those with an abiding interest in the Ancient Near East -- for Jones also runs an e-mail list on the Ancient Near East and has a day-job as Research Archivist and Bibliographer at the Oriental Institute. As more and more material is made available on the internet, the structure of ABZU will need to adapt, since the alphabetical index lists will become increasingly unwieldy. Visit the site - learn hieroglyphics! browse museum collections! study ancient texts! excavate from your armchair! - and take Jones' request seriously for feedback about "the structure and usefulness of the indexes". ABZU contains links to an astonishing wealth of data and information, which at this moment is sometimes hard for the uninitiated to find. But Jones' service to the profession and to the world of knowledge through the creation and growth of ABZU is invaluable, and I, for one, am extremely grateful for his hard work and dedication.

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