History and Mission

Almagest is a relational database and lecture building tool for the storage, cataloging and display of images, text, video, sound, and other file types. The database is the result of more than a decade of development and has been used as a tool for teaching and scholarship at Princeton University for the past ten years.

Almagest started at Princeton University at around the same time that the internet came to life. It began as an experiment to catalogue images from the Slides and Photographs collection in the Department of Art and Archaeology into an online database. Tools to display these images on a computer were also provided. Now instead of having to study for their art history courses by looking at images pinned to a wall in a study room, students could view them online.


Only months after the Art History tools were fully functional, a Medieval Studies professor, Michael Curschman, recognized that textual descriptions could be connected to the images With this vision was born “Mappamundi” – Curschman's “encyclopedia” of medieval terminology and artifacts, all drawn from his introductory survey to medieval studies. Although Almagest was yet a long way from what it is today and had not even been named, this marked the beginning of a tool dedicated and shaped for teaching


It was around this time that a graduate student programmer, Jay Lieske from Geology, connected the database with Ptolemy's comprehensive astronomical treatise. Ptolemy's manuscript was named Almagest , an Arabic word meaning “greatest.” This name was then given to the tool, and it was extended to support the needs of multiple courses and departments.


It soon became apparent that the computer could do far more than re-render printed visual materials in an electronic medium. Now it was possible to make the visuals themselves lure and guide the viewer into a myriad of interwoven directions. The database built to meet earlier teaching requirements now needed to grow to encompass ever more extensive relationships. Two projects at Princeton ensured that this would happen.


The Piero Project of the early 1990's attempted to tell the full art historical story, from inception to completion, of a fresco in the apse of a church in Arezzo Italy . It combined an interactive three dimensional rendering of the apse with a database that related all the iconography of the frescoes to their related counterparts in other contemporary and historical works. This changed the heart of Almagest from an organized repository to a highly relational network of information.


In 1996 Princeton University celebrated its 250's anniversary. In response, Kevin Perry and the Almagest programming team, took on the challenge of trying to portray the architectural history of the Princeton campus in an online form. (http://mondrian.princeton.edu/Campus) In this project a written history of all the campus buildings was integrated with a database documenting the stages of campus buildings as they morphed and moved throughout the campus over time. This project set the stage for what became the technical design of the system we now call Almagest.


The Nolli Project by Professor John Pinto is an example of the latest incarnation of Almagest. Giovanni Battista Nolli was an 18 th century printmaker who created one of the most elegant and detailed maps of Rome ever produced. This map has been digitized in high resolution and been integrated as a navigational device for the monuments discussed in Professor Pinto's art history course entitled “Rome, The Eternal City” which traces the evolution of the city's architecture from its beginning to the present. As the single course with the most extensive content stored in Almagest, it demonstrates the potential of this system to manage an essentially unlimited quantity, complexity and variety of content. The material covers written snapshot histories for over 150 monuments which are themselves hyperlinked to each other. There is extensive linking among records about objects, people, and documents of many forms including glossary terms, quotations and bibliographic entries. Interactive Flash modules have been created to illustrate art historical concepts, and a separate Flash based online mini-course called Walks in Rome enables users to take a simulated walk through Rome from their computer. During the evolution of this project Almagest itself evolved technically, with a dramatically improved user interface and underlying infrastructure.


When Kirk Alexander, who had managed the Almagest initiative, left Princeton for the University of California at Davis in 2003, he and his successor, Janet Temos, decided to collaborate to make Almagest OpenSouce code available to other academic users around the world. The Almagest Open Source Code Project will enable other institutions to run their own copy of Almagest code locally and populate it with their own content. There are also plans to offer a set of art historical images and data records so other institutions can build on this base for their own educational needs. And at least one public site will be made available as a subset of the Rome project mentioned above. This will provide unique access to a valuable set of digitized print materials as well as a working example of the kind of rich information that can be represented in Almagest so others can learn from it.

- Kirk Alexander, Manager Educational Technology/Faculty Support Groups, IET Mediaworks, University of California, One Shields Avenue, Davis, CA 95616. kdalex@ucdavis.edu. 2005.