Vol. XI, No. 1

Spring, 1998

Using CDs for Important Information

CD-ROMs have become more and more common in the last few years. Software often arrives now on a CD rather than a floppy disk, and CDs have become very popular for multi-media presentations and other presentations involving large quantities of data.

Scholars are beginning to use CDs as well, sometimes to publish scholarly materials and sometimes to present material to a broader audience.

Despite the popularity of CDs, however, there are good reasons to view them with some caution. They have two very serious drawbacks. First, they are clearly a technology on the way to the computer dustbin. Indeed, the DVD (a new version of the CD, one that greatly increases the capacity of the disk) is expected to be the replacement technology, though its arrival has been slower than expected, primarily because of industry bickering over standards. The DVD technology is backwards compatible; CDs will work in DVD players. Nonetheless, it is only a matter of time before CDs cannot be used in current hardware. That is not a big loss when one thinks of multi-media games or other ephemeral material, but archaeological data are not ephemeral. We want them to be available indefinitely.

The other problem with CDs is that they need specific programs on the computer in order to work; that is, either a specific operating system or a specific application program must be present on the computer for the information on the CD to be accessed. Operating systems and application programs have a habit of changing, and it would seem from this vantage point that they will continue to change at a rapid rate. Such change will eventually make current CDs obsolete.

Philip B. Evans, an analyst from the Boston Consulting Group who was quoted in a Philadelphia Inquirer article, said, "The CD-ROM is a transitional technology." (April 19 edition, p.A18, in [http://www.phillynews.com/inquirer/98/Apr/19/front_page/] "Encyclopeaedia Britannica's plight: Remaining relevant in digital age," by Michael L. Rozansky.)(1) That observation is important for scholars to hear - and heed. If CDs are only transitional, should they be used for important archaeological information? Clearly not unless the CD is only a short-term delivery medium and the data themselves have been stored in an appropriate archival setting. Should other scholars rely on CDs to hold material they intend to consult regularly? Again, not unless they understand that the CD is only a temporary medium. Those who publish on CDs must therefore resist the temptation to consider the published CD to be the end result of their work. A more permanent home is required for important data.

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

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(1) This Inquirer article is no longer available on-line. (26 June 99) Return to body of text.