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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Changing Web Standards and Long-Term Web Access

Harrison Eiteljorg, II

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CSA Newsletter Commentary

The last issue of the CSA Newsletter included an article by this author about the shifting sands of HTML standards. (See Harrison Eiteljorg, II, "Evolving Web Standards: a Blessing and a Curse;" January, 2012; XXIV, 3 at csanet.org/newsletter/winter12/nlw1204.html.) A reader's reply was added (at csanet.org/newsletter/winter12/04commentary.html, as was an impassioned response by this author. At the end of that response, I said the following:

How much time and money will it cost organizations like CSA to deal with their web documents so that they can retain their utility and then, secondarily, provide the sources for intellectual historians of the future as libraries do today? Is that really how we want to have our time, our efforts, and our funds used? I can speak only for myself and CSA when I say that I do not wish to to see our web documents become useless; nor do I wish to see time and money spent solely at the insistence of the gods of the internet, no matter how exalted or visionary they may be.

The over-evident passion in the foregoing was not accidental. A great deal of time, effort, and money had been spent already on the website for the CSA Propylaea Project. The website, after all, is the final result of the project. Included are text documents, databases, photographs, and CAD models. Much of what is there, however, is available in HTML form. As a result, the information is fragile in unfortunate and unnecessary ways. It is entirely at the mercy of the standards bodies governing HTML and the vendors who will decide when (and if) to change their support for various implementations of HTML coding.

This matter was discussed at some length at the meeting of the Board of Directors of CSA following the publication of the January issue of the newsletter. We were then unable to come to a simple and obvious decision as to the best route from this point. Should HTML items be put into an alternate form (PDF)? Should all text documents be put onto paper, put into a book, and sold with included DVDs holding digital data that cannot be put on paper? Other possibilities have been discussed as well, but I started this short article to point out the seriousness of the issue — not only for the CSA Propylaea Project but for any archaeological project. To the extent that web documents are based on standards that shift and change with time, we cannot trust such documents as archival in any sense of that word. How shall we react if we wish to publish electronically? How shall we treat our data in the absence of relatively accessible archival repositories? And even if there are such repositories prepared to preserve the files, in what form(s) should the files be presented to such repositories for long-term preservation?

This whole question is extremely embarrassing to me because it is an issue Andrea Vianello and I ignored or missed when writing about using the web as a publication medium. Indeed, we referred to HTML standards in the last of our articles about web publishing (Vianello & Eiteljorg, "Project Publication on the Web — IV;" September 2011; XXIV, 2 at csanet.org/newsletter/fall11/nlf1103.html), but neither of us saw those standards as a serious problem. They are a serious problem because those creating and maintaining web standards seem not to be concerned about the longevity of documents on the web. Apparently they see the web as an evolving medium that must change to prosper, and that is surely an accurate view in many ways. However, there is a sense in which the nature of the evolution is as the standards bodies have chosen and are choosing. That is, there are ways to let the standards evolve that are carefully calibrated to prevent obsolescence, and there are ways to change the standards that effectively encourage obsolescence. The standards bodies seem to have chosen the latter, whether consciously or unconsciously. Since the standards are not always accepted by those who produce browser software, the standards bodies are not alone here. What they decide may or may not come to pass. However, if the browser makers do follow the standards bodies, a great many HTML documents on the web will have to be modified to be seen as intended.

Having no voice in the standards bodies, I must conclude that I need to reconsider the basic questions surrounding the use of the web as a publication medium. Are HTML documents safe? No. Are HTML documents in any way permanent? No. Scholars cannot independently deal with the resulting problems of impermanence. Archival organizations may be able to, but not individual scholars. I have no good answers for this dilemma, but I will be returning to this question in the future, and I hope that readers will join in. This is an issue too important to leave to the experts; they have already shown themselves to be too little interested in important questions about longevity.

-- Harrison Eiteljorg, II



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