Autographic Atlas of Korea: Interview with Dr. Maya Stiller

The Autographic Atlas of Korea (AAOK) is a digital project and website that presents a rare opportunity for scholars from around the world to access thousands of rock inscriptions carved during the Chosŏn (1392-1910) period at one of the most famous mountains in Korean history, Kŭmgangsan (Mt. Kŭmgang) in present-day North Korea. I had the opportunity to interview* the project director, Dr. Maya Stiller, Associate Professor of Korean Art and Culture at the University of Kansas, about the project and the process of creating the website.

Could you please give a brief description of the Autographic Atlas Of Korea and what motivated it?

Sure, so the Autographic Atlas of Korea is related to my first book that was published just a few months ago, Carving Status At Kŭmgangsan: Elite Graffiti in Premodern Korea. It tells the story of Chosŏn pilgrims to Kŭmgangsan who carved their names into the mountain’s rocks. Data from photos I took of these inscriptions while in North Korea formed the basis for this book. I was able to identify 4,500 unique names. There were so many people that I couldn’t talk about in my book, so I decided to construct a publicly accessible database that includes all the metadata. This digital platform, AAOK, delivers additional information that is not included in the book. The website is in Korean, English, and hancha (Chinese characters) because I want people in English-speaking countries and Koreans alike to be able to use this resource.

Can you describe the types of content available on the website and the type of work that went into it?

The site is mostly for those who are interested in Korean social and cultural history, specifically travel culture and the history of writing. Kŭmgangsan’s rock inscriptions are currently unavailable to most of us because they are located in North Korea. However, anyone can visit the website and explore the inscriptions. As someone who holds a German passport, I was permitted to travel to North Korea to collect the data and make it publicly available. On this website, [users] have two options. Photographs and maps allow them to get a close-up view of the inscriptions and the surrounding environment. And the project’s key contribution is the search engine for analyzing the inscriptions in depth.

Building a website from scratch with a few pages actually does not take that long, perhaps a week, and I hired someone with the necessary programming skills to do it. My contribution in this process was the conceptualization and design of the website. What aspect of my work do I want to highlight? What aspect will users find interesting? What do I envision for the landing page? How about the structure and content of each web page? But, actually, the website design was only a small part of the project. My two assistants and I spent most of our time on the website’s metadata compilation and data cleaning. People without any DH background might look at the website and think, “Oh, this is just a couple of lovely photographs and some type of a search engine,” but then they’re just looking at 10 percent of the actual work that went into the project.

Could you say a bit more about the way you structured the data within the database? What were the primary digital tools and methods that you used in your research and what made its way into the AAOK?

Yes, sure. Inscriptions on rocks at Kŭmgangsan, which I photographed in 2008 and 2014, form the basis of the dataset. It took me more than a year to decipher and log most of the inscriptions, and over the course of three to four years I continuously checked what I had logged a few years back, because over the years my skills improved and I am now able to see things more quickly and easily than at the beginning of the project. As you might expect, many inscriptions are difficult to read. Moss had grown all over the inscriptions, or they eroded, making it difficult to read them clearly, so I had to do a lot of photoshopping. What took most of my time were three things, the prosopographical analysis of all decipherable names, then transferring the raw data from multiple Word documents into an Excel spreadsheet, and then cleaning up the data. This process took several years with many iterations. For the prosopographical analysis, I used primary source material that was available online, such as the Chosŏn wangjo sillok, Sŭngjŏngwŏn ilgi, munkwa examination rosters and other types of rosters as well as genealogical records. With each name I ran a name search across 10 to 15 different types of online databases to see what information I could find, and then cross-checked each name with other names in the specific cluster that the name was part of. I also used ArcGIS software to create heat maps with some of the data, which helped me better understand the spatial distribution of the inscriptions. My book features a few of these maps that I created from scratch. It was a steep learning curve but I really enjoyed making these maps! The AAOK website also has one map, an overview map of the mountain.

But really, the most time-consuming part of the process was putting together the metadata. Eventually it was all in one massive master spreadsheet. But for the MySQL server we had to break this relational data set into 18 different tables, some of which contain more than 4,000 rows and 30 columns, in order to feed the search engine on the website.

Wow. That’s a lot of data! How did these digital tools and processes impact your research?

While parsing the data and producing those separate tables, we were constantly discovering new things. And this is what I learned by doing this project: that a Digital Humanities project is never ending, it is an ongoing process. And it’s not so much a research tool. It’s a research method. By creating metadata, you develop research questions that you had never thought of while doing non-DH kind of research. For instance, we had columns that said, okay, this person is a yangban, this person is a slave, this person is female. But then the question was, well, how do I actually determine that? Just by looking at the name? So, we got all these new research questions and then we wanted to change some of the tables to reflect our new results. And that drove my university’s IT people crazy because they had just constructed the whole set for MySQL. So that also took some time and just one thing led to ten other things. There are lots of surprises, but also lots of new insights that I gained from doing this project.

Who do you think can most benefit from using this website? How do you imagine a scholar using this website? Could you break down for users the meaning of a particular search query?

I hope that the AAOK website will have a broad appeal among scholars in Korean Studies and people who are interested in learning more about Kŭmgangsan. The average non-academic person can perhaps also use this website in English and Korean. I hope that this website can transcend the current academic boundaries in Digital Humanities and Korean Studies – because there is a large divide between what’s going on in Korea and what’s going on in North America and Europe – as it will allow people from both Anglophone and Korean communities to gain access to that data that I make available on the website. A Korean historian, literature scholar, or art historian could use the website to get a sense of the spatial distribution of the inscriptions by looking at the map and looking at the pictures featured in the Kŭmgangsan section. And they could use the search tool. Searches can be narrowed down for instance to a specific region of the mountain, a specific time period during the Chosŏn period, or even a specific social class. By clicking on the “Help” button at the top of the search engine page people can read a more detailed explanation of the search process.

Image of Im Sun’s rock inscription at Kŭmgangsan from AAOK database.

For instance, with Im Sun, people can look up this specific name and then see a photograph [of the carving] so they can get a better sense of the spatial context of this person’s individual inscription. If the person was a government official they can see the highest position that this person had. In many cases, the names come in clusters as people traveled together, and they wrote their names together. And particularly when the people were high ranking and from the capital, the clusters come in layers. Im Sun’s name is the third layer of a cluster, which basically tells us that members of his family had been visiting the mountain for many generations. They found their ancestors’ names and then they carved their names right next to them. And this is a privilege that only really exalted yangban individuals had. The average non-elite person was perhaps fortunate enough to visit the mountain once in their lifetime. I found only very few non-elite clusters where descendants had the opportunity to see the mountain and add their names. So, through this DH project, I discovered that this kind of agnatic clustering in layers is something very unique and for the most part was only done by the very privileged in Chosŏn society. Related to this kind of agnatic clustering and also associative clustering, I think one of the strengths of the search engine is that people can see with whom a person traveled [for example, this person traveled with their son or their nephew]. This is information that is not otherwise available in any literary or visual source material.

Search query result for Im Sun on AAOK database.

What were the most difficult aspects of creating the website? And what advice do you have for other scholars, particularly junior scholars, who want to make their scholarship or data digitally available but in a user-friendly way?

It’s critical that before applying for grants or fellowships, find out who at your university can help you with your digital project. There will be many moving parts. Most likely your library’s Digital Humanities staff, as well as members of your university’s IT department, will be involved. And expect your project to cost at least 30% more than originally planned. When I started planning the website and figuring out ways to connect it to a relational database, I checked the costs of hosting a web server and a MySQL server privately, and that was at least $20,000. University-based servers cost significantly less. Another major thing I learned while working on this project was the importance of sustainability. How long do you intend to keep your project online? One needs to consider annual server costs when planning the budget and so on.

When it comes to promoting your academic work online, my advice would be not to create a website from scratch unless you have some programming skills. All you need to do is use an existing platform. In order to publish your work in a blog format you can use something like WiX, it’s a fairly simple process. In order to make your work more interactive and explorative for potential users, you could use something like Scalar which allows you to structure your work like a book with many chapters and you can incorporate multimedia links into the narrative. If you are going to put up a text online, make sure it becomes an interactive experience for the user. If your project has a spatial component, I highly recommend ArcGIS Story Maps, which is currently one of the most popular spatial visualization tools out there. When I ask my students which of the digital platforms we worked with in class they liked best, many of them say Scalar and ArcGIS Story Maps were some of their favorites. These platforms really have a clean design and are super user-friendly. And they allow you to create a visually appealing online presence of your work in the most time-efficient manner.

Any junior scholar considering including a Digital Humanities component in their dissertation should plan at least an extra year to become proficient with the digital method they intend to use. As I mentioned earlier, the process of compiling a metadata set is a research method that forces you to reexamine your project from a fresh perspective and consider ideas you never would have considered before. As a result, you gain new insights into your topic in previously unanticipated ways, and your project advances in unexpected ways. What makes it worthwhile is the process that went into generating those results, not the end result itself.

Do you envision updates or expansions to this project? Future plans for the project?

There is still some work ahead of us, but we just finished producing and cleaning all the data in the 18 tables for the MySQL Server. At this point, all that remains is to upload the tables to the MySQL Server and link them to the website. There have been some hiccups with that, but we’re working on it. And then also improving the visual presentation of the search queries and the metadata analysis results. In the next phase of this project, I am planning to generate metadata of rock graffiti sites in other parts of Korea, and then load this data into the MySQL Server to make it accessible and searchable for the AAOK website user. I am currently working on a grant proposal for this next step, while also working on a new DH project that’s related to Zen art in Korea, where I look at the distribution of paintings and how their makers and patrons were related.

*The interview text has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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