Vol. XXV, No. 1April, 2012


Articles in Vol. XXV, No. 1

Changing Web Standards and Long-Term Web Access
Can we really use the web for important text?
-- Harrison Eiteljorg, II
§ Readers' comments (as of 5/15/2010)

Website Review: Glassway, Glass from the antiquities to the contemporary age
An older website that can serve as an exemplar.
-- Andrea Vianello

Website Review: The Acropolis Virtual Tour
Spectacular imagery in search of a rationale.
-- Harrison Eiteljorg, II

Project Publication on the Web — Addendum II
The importance of multiple languages for websites.
-- Andrea Vianello

Digital Data in Archaeology
Where do digital data fit?
-- Harrison Eiteljorg, II

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Reader Commentaries on and Responses to

Changing Web Standards and Long-Term Web Access
by Harrison Eiteljorg, II

Martin Greaney added these thoughts:

Firstly, the great strength of HTML is that it is Plain Text. This means that it can be read in any text editor (e.g. Notepad on Windows or TextEdit on MACs) even if all web browsers were to disappear. In theory this extends to any text editor produced since the 1970s and any produced in the future. So there's no need to worry about HTML becoming entirely unreadable. However, reading raw HTML in a text editor isn't much fun and not what we had in mind anyway. So we need to find a subset of HTML tags which will not change with the standards.

As I see it, what we need for putting academic articles on the Web is:

  • enough HTML tags to allow us to create articles for web distribution;
  • stable standards that permit the articles to remain readable indefinitely.

Unfortunately, while HTML will be "accessible" in a sense, its very nature is as a changing format, leaving the second requirement unmet. It's all part of a young technology, and so this might be expected. But considering that the Internet and the WWW were both academic knowledge-sharing tools to begin with, it's ironic that the perpetual sharing of existing documents hasn't really been considered. Changing standards may improve ways to create and share new documents, but they don't guarantee the usability of anything older than a few years. If things are still readable, it's more to do with the efforts of the browser manufacturers to keep old tags in use. And that can't be done forever.

I think that what it comes down to is that technology still hasn't arrived at a solution to the problem of digital archiving (in either the short term sense of "on the web" or the longer sense of "in storage"). All discs need readers, all data needs something to interpret it. We have a wealth of analogue documents from ancient Greece, through the medieval period, and up to today, but much of what we create now will be unreadable in a decade or so unless we print it out, in which case technology hasn't really improved things for us.

Thus, while the Internet remains the most powerful communication tool yet devised, it is that only in the sense that the telephone is — nothing can be counted on to be preserved beyond the moment it is created. In a wider sense then, I'm fairly pessimistic over the prospect of any digital technology producing readable documents for posterity in the near future; in a narrower sense, and keeping to this subject more closely, I can't see HTML ever becoming something stable enough for us to trust for a perpetual online posting. I might even argue that HTML’s failings in this regard are a benefit. They have obliged us to attend to the obvious: long-term preservation of documents requires an active archival system.

PDFs may be an alternative; they do indeed dictate appearance and look the same on all systems. However, the PDF document format is less likely than plain text (and by extension HTML) to stick around and be readable in the future. It may change in ways more acceptable to us as it evolves, but it should not be expected to last more than a decade or two, and the documents that result from archaeological work must last far longer than that.

This is an interesting topic though — one that crosses the boundaries between toolmakers and their tools, academia and the tools of academia.

Harrison Eiteljorg, II, replied:

It seems that we are agreed that HTML is not the preferred document format for archaeology. Its life span and evolution make it ill-suited for longevity.

That makes me return to the question that haunts me: What shall we do about the CSA Propylaea Project website — or any other attempt to publish archaeological material electronically? Must we print it, put it in book form, and plan on that being the long-term version? Can we find some alternate form to be posted on the web? What are the alternatives? How do we take advantage of the technology wisely?

While the idea of putting the documents on paper in book form, with data files remaining on the web somewhere (as well as on a CD in the book), seems reasonable and obvious, it yields in me a feeling that I have capitulated and accepted a system that is so far from optimal for data that are primarily digital — the photos, the CAD models, and the data tables — that the result is simply not adequate. But I confess that I have found no better alternative other than an archives, and I can find no suitable archives for this material. Readers, have you other suggestions?




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Commentaries for the CSA Newsletter are assembled by the staff in cooperation with contributors. All are published with an assumption that there will be additions from time to time and are maintained, with the latest additions, at the CSA website. While additions are normal, changes other than corrections of typos or similar errors will rarely be made after publication. If any such change is made, it will be made so as to permit both the original text and the change to be determined.

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