Vol. XVII, No. 1
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Spring, 2004

Electronic Publishing in Archaeology - An Opinion

Harrison Eiteljorg, II

Electronic publication was once seen as a less expensive and perhaps more convenient way to present information at the culmination of an archaeological project. Over time, however, it became clear that the more important benefit of electronic publication for archaeology was its capacity for presenting more information, more of the evidence. At the simplest level, more photographs could be used, and color photos added no significant costs. More important, data tables, GIS data sets, statistical tables, spreadsheets, and CAD models could become parts of the record. Electronic publications could include the original data files and/or provide access to the data permitting users to query and manipulate data.1 Of course, when additional data are made available as part of the final presentation, electronic publication's cost advantage diminishes. Supplying query and manipulation features may swing the pendulum more fully, making electronic publication more expensive than paper publication. At that point, however, the two have become so different, with so much more information presented and analysis made possible in the electronic version of a publication, that the advantages of electronic publication are enormous.2

Although the inclusion of data files in many forms was seen as an important advantage to electronic publication from very early in discussions of the medium, electronic publications were seen as unified entities. Few people saw them as separately published pieces of a whole, with text, databases, CAD models, or GIS data sets treated separately in time or place. There are, in fact, serious advantages to putting out various parts of an electronic publication at different times and/or in different places.

Ordinary text may provide the most obvious and compelling example of a portion of a publication that should be separate, because text need not be in digital form at all and is generally preferred on paper. Few people like to read long text passages on a computer screen. Text might therefore be published quite separately from data files -- and might be printed rather than presented digitally. In fact, the American Journal of Archaeology has been using Web-based additions to printed articles for some time now as a way to add to its paper publication, generally with materials that are necessarily digital. Although such hybrid publications do exist, few have suggested that a hybrid paper/digital publication process provides a superior way to publish project final reports. I believe it does -- at least until there are forms of digital presentation of text that provide easy-to-read text.

Seeing the text as potentially separate -- even printed while the remainder of the publication is digital -- suggests a broader examination of the potential for treating the various digital parts of a publication separately. Why should databases, CAD models, photographs, and GIS data sets reside on a single computer at some research institution? Is there an advantage to that? The short answer is no, but there is at least the theoretical advantage that a single server at a single location has a single oversight chain. On the other hand, different servers include different technologies. Some are well prepared to serve database information (online access, not just downloading of files) while others possess superior image presentation software and still others can present GIS data sets more easily and efficiently. So there are real advantages to thinking of a project publication as published on many computers -- and on paper -- in different times and places.

It is, after all, the underlying subject -- the site or survey area -- that provides unity for a final publication. The computer(s) on which all the parts reside is irrelevant. Indeed, using different computers in different places would not even be recognized by users, though they would see superior presentation of each kind of data.

There is another very important advantage to this idea of publishing a final report in separate components. The components need not be ready at the same moment. We are accustomed to thinking about the publication coming out on a given date as a large and impressive object (that can be dropped on the desk of the Dean or Chair or foundation grant officer with the loud "thunk" that impresses). That is the way it works with books. One does not publish the book in chapters. With a multi-component digital publication, however, the individual components can be made available as they are finished. Presumably the text is the first such component since everything else depends on the text for context. The digital components, though, can be prepared, edited, and made available over the internet on a schedule that is separate -- without holding up the presentation of the basic expository offering. Furthermore, the level of sophistication of the various data components need not be identical. For instance, CAD models may be available for downloading only (online access for CAD files is still difficult) while data tables are made available for online query and manipulation.

This idea of multi-component publication is not new or unique, but I do not think it has been widely described as a desirable alternate for those who still conceive of the publication of an archaeological project as a unified presentation. Publishing in components -- both printed and digital -- should be seen as an alternate that has obvious benefits and that removes the need for everything to be ready before anything can be published, one of the perennial excuses for not publishing promptly. Indeed, it seems to me that this is the appropriate form of electronic publication for anyone in a field such as archaeology, one requiring the publication of data along with discussion, analysis, and argument. It may lead to hybrid publications -- text on paper and evidence online -- as a common approach, and, in my view, that would be a good thing, at least until we have new ways to make reading text on a computer screen as easy as reading a book.

-- Harrison Eiteljorg, II

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1. The latter is a much more expensive alternate, since preparing files for query and manipulation is time-consuming and expensive. In addition, advancing technologies make it necessary to re-work such preparations rather often. The final bill, in a sense, is never in if such services are provided over the Web. Return to text.

2. Early experiments and discussion about electronic publication often assumed the use of CDs for electronic publication. However, publication over the Internet has become the preferred medium because of the impossibility of insuring access to CDs over time. Return to text.

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

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