In the last issue of the Newsletter I wrote at length about the problems that confront us as we try to share archaeological data in database form. The problems revolve around computing issues: non-existent data standards making data difficult to share and database programs needed to access data that are very complex and difficult to use.
The possibilities for sharing CAD (computer-aided design) data are somewhat better, because there is a single data format so common that using files from other scholars is less likely to be complicated. AutoCAD® (and consequently the DWG file format created for use with AutoCAD) so dominates the CAD market for personal computers that a DWG file is likely to be acceptable for a wide variety of potential users. In fact, many manufacturers have built into their programs the capacity to read and write DWG files directly; so even users of other software may be able to use or create DWG files.
The situation with CAD data files is also better because of the availability of viewing programs for DWG files. Those programs are relatively inexpensive, and they permit scholars to view but not alter CAD models. As a result, of course, such programs are much easier to use than full-fledged CAD programs. Nonetheless, scholars must learn how to use these programs well in order to benefit from CAD models.
If the OpenDWG Alliance succeeds in making the DWG file format virtually a public format, then use of CAD models will be easier yet. (See "The OpenDWG Alliance," Spring 1998, Vol. XI, no. 1)
GIS (Geographic Information System) data files lie somewhere between CAD and database files in terms of utility. There are many file formats, but the widespread use of GIS in industry has forced GIS software producers to deal with the file format issues. In order to compete in the market, GIS programs must be able to use data from other GIS programs.
Although GIS programs can use data in many formats, knowing how to bring data together still requires considerable sophistication, both with the programs and with the underlying geographic concepts.
As with CAD, there are GIS programs that are intended only for viewing maps and making reports. These are obviously easier to use than those programs that include all the bells and whistles needed for data entry. The complex nature of the data and the need to connect various data files and maps, though, make GIS information more difficult to use than CAD models.
All these forms of electronic data - databases, CAD models, and GIS data - provide enormous benefits for scholars. They can be used to record data in very complex ways and to provide truly complete access to those data. Nonetheless, using the data in any of these forms remains a complicated and demanding task.
Potential users of electronic data must have considerable computer skill and experience as well as familiarity with specific programs. Although programs may be easier to use in the future, changes in software over the last decade do not encourage optimism on that score. Thus, those who will want to obtain and use large quantities of information - whether in database, CAD, or GIS form - will surely continue to require training and experience.
Scholars are among those who will need to use such data; so they will need these computer skills and training. Despite those needs, anecdotal evidence indicates that relatively few graduate students are conversant with more than one type of electronic data; indeed, many graduate students complete their work without any real computer experience. Many see themselves as computer literate if they can surf the Web, send email, and use a word processor. More advanced skills are taken to be the province of the computer cognoscenti, not the scholar. In fact, however, scholarship will require more and more computer skill. Not all scholars will be expected to produce electronic documents in their own work, but virtually all will need to access the electronic documents of others, because the libraries of the future will contain more and more data in digital form. Research of all kinds will be dependent not just upon computers but upon the skills of those using them.
-- H. Eiteljorg, II
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For other Newsletter articles concerning the use of electronic media in the humanities or issues involved in using CAD and GIS in archaeology and architectural history, consult the Subject index.
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