Vol. XVII, No. 1
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Spring, 2004

It's the Small Things that Count: Digital Preservation and Small Scale Research Projects in the UK

William Kilbride and Catherine Hardman

Regular readers of CSA Newsletter will be familiar with the OASIS project in the UK (For example, Clarke, Hardman and Kilbride [2003]). The first part of this continuing project saw the provision of online access to the Excavation Index for England, an index to every completed archaeological intervention in England from the earliest days of antiquarian field work to the present day. Recognising that fieldwork continues and that such an index would rapidly become obsolete, project personnel went on to make a series of recommendations about how fieldworkers could report surveys, excavations, or watching briefs and have these included in the index. Project personnel have since produced a set of tools that create a practical workflow for this information, from local fieldworker to regional heritage curator to national agencies and the public.

In drawing attention to the very large number of small-scale archaeological projects in the UK, the OASIS project has created a tool set that is intended to help all the stakeholders who need access to information like this, or who may contribute by carrying out fieldwork. However, simply finding out that work has been carried out is not sufficient. Effective management and scholarship requires access to details of the project, not just a note that says it has happened.

Large-scale research projects have well documented problems of publication in the UK, but these are exacerbated for very small-scale excavations and research projects. When a major excavation is published, the details may get compressed, but it is still relatively easy to get hold of the publication -- either through inter-library loan, by a museum or archive visit, or direct from the publisher. For small excavations, surveys, desk-top evaluations and watching briefs, the lack of a formal publication series means that it is often very hard, if not completely impossible, to find out what happened in anything but the more cursory detail. Ironically, it can be harder to obtain a thirty page excavation report than a three volume set.

So, as well as providing an online version of the Excavation Index for England and providing tools so that this information can be supplied easily, OASIS is also now investigating ways to archive and make accessible the project reports. A pilot project of 'grey literature reports' from Worcestershire County Council has been undertaken to demonstrate the potential.

Eight unpublished reports from the archives of the Worcestershire Historic Environment Record have been digitised and supplied to the ADS. These files are available from within the ADS's growing digital library (http://ads.ahds.ac.uk/catalogue/library/greylit/). Because the OASIS project started with cataloguing data, it is relatively easy to link the reports to the records in the ADS's metadata catalogue Archsearch. So, for example, the record for the survey at Grimley Ponds (http://ads.ahds.ac.uk/catalogue/search/fr.cfm?rcn=EHNMR-1325979) includes a bibliographic reference to a short unpublished report. Conventionally, users of the catalogue would have to obtain this report from the author or more likely from the county council. Now however, they can obtain this report directly online.

Several points are worth taking out of this sort of linkage. Firstly, while the report is housed with ADS, it is held in an archivally secure service; but there is no reason why the bibliographic reference couldn't point towards any other website. So, if the report were held by another agency or by its authors, the access conditions would be the same.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, is the volume of reports produced annually. The scale of grey literature production in the UK is both a problem and an opportunity. Building regulations in the UK require that any development likely to impinge on archaeology must be the subject of an archaeological investigation before building can proceed. This means that archaeologists are consulted on a very large number of applications - especially in the centres of Britain's deeply stratified Medieval and Roman cities where archaeological deposits can be very rich and building work is very frequent. In the ten years since coming into force, these planning laws have given rise to some 28,000 archaeological investigations, at an annual cost of around 35 million pounds, largely though not entirely funded by private developers (Darvill and Russell 2002). The trend, if anything, is towards growth and the implication for researchers is profound. Without sophisticated mechanisms for search, retrieval, and storage the fruits of this decade of exceptional growth will be lost to future generations of researchers.

Thus, perhaps the most important single development for the OASIS project has been the opportunity for researchers not just to share summaries of their work, but also to attach detailed reports to these index records.

Large projects that lead to a detailed publication and a large site archive have a fighting chance to be known and studied in the future. The small sites, with few finds and limited preservation, may yet prove more important for future generations of archaeologists - not least because the large projects have been fully and systematically excavated. Adding grey literature reports to OASIS records is a relatively small step. But, as in many fields, the big projects are important, but it's the small things that count.

-- Dr. William Kilbride
    Catherine Hardman

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Clarke J, Hardman C and Kilbride W (2003)
Comprehensiveness for All: The OASIS Project and Research Values in the Digital Age in CSA Newsletter, Vol. XV, No. 3, http://csanet.org/newsletter/winter03/nlw0305.html

Darvill T and Russell B (2002)
Archaeology after PPG16: archaeological investigations in England 1990 - 1999, Bournemouth University and English Heritage (also online at: http://csweb.bournemouth.ac.uk/consci/text_aip/ppg16/index.htm)

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

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