Building Epoiesen

The curtain goes up, the first pawn moves, the first shot is fired*—but that’s not the start. The play, the game, the war is just a little window on a ribbon of events that may extend back thousands of years. The point is, there’s always something before. It’s always a case of Now Read On.

Much human ingenuity has gone into finding the ultimate Before.

The current state of knowledge can be summarized thus:

In the beginning, there was nothing, which exploded.

* Probably at the first pawn.

  • Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies 

Epoiesen is now alive, a journal for creative engagement in history and archaeology. But when did Epoiesen begin? What was its genesis?

As I look through my notebooks and emails and miscellaneous files, I can’t find the *exact* beginning (I know that I’ve been interested in new publishing models for a while though). I find in my inbox an email setting up a meeting with George Duimovich and Pat Moore from our Library to talk about Open Journal Systems in March of 2015. I find scribbles of ideas in notebooks going back to about 2014 (not coincidentally, shortly after my tenure and promotion portfolio was shoehorned from its born-digital format into dead pdfs). In October 2015, I find a google doc that I shared with some folks for an idea of something called ‘Paradata: A Journal of Digital Scholarship in Archaeology and Ancient History’. The influence of HeritageJam I think is clear too 😉 I wrote,

“I see this idea as being parallel to things like which publishes ‘data papers’. Paradata would publish the scholarship that goes into making something of that kind of info, while the dead tree versions can be where people duke it out over the interpretations. Moreover, since link rot and website death is a real issue, Paradata would hit a real niche where projects could continue ever after”

But that idea seems to have run out of steam.  I’m not entirely sure why. I find one note that suggests we felt that our idea perhaps was too close to what DHCommons Journal had in mind.

My notes go silent for a while. Then I find scribbles in my notebooks again from around the time of my participation in MSUDAI, the Digital Archaeology Institute at MSU, concomitant with the creation of @tinyarchae my Tracery-powered dysfunctional excavation bot. That was August 2016. Then, sometime in September of last year, I find a website I built:

O what could’ve been, eh? Here, I’m clearly going for a bit of whimsy; not so much just paradata for conventional digital projects, but maybe something more. The core idea still seems to be there – a place to validate digital things.  I rather like that template, and I need to remind myself what I was using to build it. Structurally, there’s a debt here to open research notebooks done in Jekyll, so that’s probably it.  I did show this ‘Miscellaney’ to people, but there were some very strong reactions to the name, to the whimsy, as it were – see below. (I still like ‘Haptic Visions’ as a category though).

The actual email that led to Epoiesen seeing the light of day comes from October 16 2016:

Hi Pat,

As I was saying to George – and I think you and I have talked about this too on occasion – I’ve been interested to explore creating an open access journal for digital archaeology. I’ve seen the open journals platform, and while it is very cool, it’s not quite what I’m thinking of. I’m interested in something a bit more idiosyncratic that would be based on simple text files in the markdown format, and building the site/journal from that with a static site generator.

The idea is to create what amounts to a kind of literary journal, but for creative engagement with the past. I would solicit everything from twitter bots (I’ve created one that tweets out what amounts to a procedurally-generated soap opera, scenes from an excavation) to music, to art, to creative writing, to data viz… I would solicit reviews, but these would also be published alongside the work under the reviewers’ name. The Hypothesis web annotation architecture would also be built in  […] In a way, it would be a place to publish the ‘paradata’ of digital making in archaeology … Does this sound feasible? Is it something we could do? Maybe I could drop by sometime to chat.

Pat said ‘Yes’. Simple word, ‘yes’. Strong word, ‘yes’. Librarians are powerful.

From that initial meeting, many more meetings took place. Research. Emails. Phone calls. I’ll try to summarize… My first port of call was of course those folks who’ve done this kind of thing before. Martin Paul Eve published a series of posts on his blog that offered his advice on starting an open access journal, and I can’t recommend them enough. Indeed, if you’re one of the people who received an email from me about joining the editorial board, you’ll recognize that I adhered rather closely to Eve’s model.

I was still going with the ‘Smith’s’ name until about November of last year, when I find an email I wrote,

I have, on the advice of several people whose situation is far more precarious than my own, gone for a bit of a name change to signal a bit less whimsy….They rightly pointed out to me that as junior folks the perception of their work is everything, and my whimsical ’Smiths’ name would undermine rather than help them…

One of the earliest folks on board was the wonderful Sara Perry.  I find we exchanged several yonks-worth of emails, throwing ideas around about who to contact, who might be persuaded to submit, and so on. The wonderful folks of the editorial board as a group kept me grounded, found potential contributors, suggested Trello as a way of keeping track of who was doing what, and basically helped keep things on track when my enthusiasm threatened to derail things.

While all of this was going on, I continued to play with the design and platform. I eventually settled on Hexo as a static site generator. I’d been using Jekyll with my open research notebook, but Jekyll frankly is just not something I can work with.

Now Hexo is not without its idiosyncracies. I learned how it builds the site out of little snippets of ‘ejs’ code. I learned how to embed (that is, into what ‘partial’ to paste) . I figured out where to place the bits and bobs of Tipuesearch (an open source jquery search engine plugin) into the site. (It generates a full json representation of all the site content, so not only making it searchable, but other folks can use it for remixing, data viz, whatever). You wouldn’t believe how hard it was to work out how to make the list-of-articles page, list alphabetically, rather than by date. There was also a battle where the hexo deploy command for pushing everything to my test site ingested accidentally a bunch of stuff I didn’t want – super huge image files – and so I had to wade deep into the waters of git to fix (and I thank the DHAnswers channel in DH Slack for the help!).  Turns out, if you’re using Hexo and Github, don’t fiddle with anything via the website. Getting DOIs embedded into the page metadata, that was also difficult.

Here’s what the YAML metadata for an article looks like:

title: Destory History
date: 2017-09-01 20:01:04
tags: interactive fiction
cover_index: /imgs/coyne/quinten-de-graaf-258711.jpg
cover_detail: /imgs/coyne/11146352055_64c730a741_o.jpg
author: "Coyne, Lucas"
doi: "10.22215/epoiesen/2017.4"

The partials grab the ‘author’ for alphabetizing posts, and the doi for embedding into the metadata:

<% if (page.doi){ %>
        <meta name="dc:identifier" content="<%= page.doi %>" />
    <% } %>

That might not mean very much to you, or look very impressive, but darnit,  it took several hours of reading stackoverflow and fiddling with things, generating the site over and over again, so I’m pasting it here for posterity…. anyway, I now have a default template for creating articles, that has reminders within it of the kinds of information that I need to include and where they go.

One year later, Epoiesen exists in the world! I announced it with a tweet…

… we will be doing a formal ‘Ta Da!’ during open access week in October. So many people come together at just the right time to make something in this world. Serendipity, and someone says ‘Yes’, and suddenly, there is something that wasn’t before. What else is tenure for, if it isn’t to make space for someone else to do something new? I hope you’ll consider Epoiesen for your own experiments and creative engagements.


I’m grateful to everyone who has sent me a note or tweeted regarding the start of Epoiesen. I look forward to seeing where this adventure will lead! Thank you, all. I’m also grateful to Neville Morley, who writes about Epoiesen’s situation in the broader publishing landscape in ‘Changing the Rules

Moving forward, I’ve very excited to work with Bill Caraher and The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota to publish the Epoiesen Annual, where all of the articles from a given year are gathered together and given (printed) flesh.

Stay tuned! Make wonderful things!