Vol. VII, No. 2

August, 1994

Computer Files, Paper Files More Different than We Think

The need to preserve information - regardless of the medium - is the raison d'é&tre of any archival process, no less so the Archaeological Data Archive Project than any paper archive. There is a natural assumption, however, that a computer archive is only a more convenient version of a paper archive; that is, many assume that computer data are only paper data stored in a computer and that there are paper analogs for all computer files. But that is not the case.

CAD files may provide the best example of computer files for which there is no paper analog. A CAD file is not simply a batch of drawings; it is a full, three-dimensional model from which any number of drawings may be made. But no matter how many drawings have been made, it is always possible to make another new and different one with different layers showing, from a different vantage point, or at a different scale. Furthermore, a great many items of information are implicit in a CAD file but only become explicit when the user requests them. For instance, x-, y-, and z-coordinates, lengths of lines or surfaces, distances between points, angles between lines, and mass and volume information (in the case of a solid model) are included implicitly in a CAD model, but it is effectively impossible to attach all that information to a paper drawing or a series of such drawings.

At the seminar in London mentioned above (Computers and Archaeology Seminar in London), Professor Torsten Madsen of the Institute of Archaeology at Aarhus, argued that the same could be said of a good database. All the information therein can be put on paper, but it is no longer a database when it has been reduced to paper tables and charts. It cannot be queried in the same way, structured and restructured to answer specific questions, or stripped of extraneous information to show a subset of the whole. In short, it is a much less useful thing.

There will soon be many more types of computer files with no paper analogs. We will need to use and to save some of them as well. So the computer archive may contain many files that are just computer versions of paper documents, but it will also preserve much more, including a great deal of information the discipline must not lose.

For other Newsletter articles concerning the use of electronic media in the humanities, consult the Subject index.

Next Article: The Ustica Excavations - A Total Station, AutoCAD at Work

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