User Services Manager, Archaeology Data Service
The Archaeology Data Service (ADS) perceives the need for digital preservation in archaeology and in the cultural heritage sector generally to be urgent. On the one hand, increasing amounts of energy and money are being invested in the digitisation of cultural objects -- whether texts, art works, or artefacts. On the other hand, numerous and important elements of the historic environment are now born digital, and are only ever digital. Little wonder, therefore, that there is increasing concern about ensuring that these digital objects will be available to subsequent generations. Some archaeologists -- where excavation results in the systematic destruction of our primary data -- have long recognised the need for preserving the records that result. The need for digital preservation is pressing, yet there are little proven expertise and few practical examples of digital preservation from which we can draw. The archaeological record may yet decay more quickly in digital form than it ever did when left in the ground.
Digital preservation is at the core of the ADS's mission. Since its foundation five years ago, the ADS has undertaken research and development in digital preservation for archaeology. Surveys have shown the need for digital preservation, suggesting that most archaeological data simply gathers dust in the desk drawers and shelves of museums and field units. Practical experience of what goes wrong where data sets are not properly protected has produced scare stories and provided useful case studies. Pilot studies of large research archives have shown the impact of digital preservation on daily working practices of field workers. Digital preservation remains an important challenge to archaeology, but the tools necessary to overcome that challenge are now becoming available.
Over the last few months, the ADS has been working to turn digital preservation from an area of research to a routine element of professional best practice. English Heritage, which is responsible for ensuring the preservation of the historic environment in England, has a vested interest in the preservation and dissemination of archaeological records -- especially for those research projects that they have sponsored. As the UK's largest single heritage agency, English Heritage has a long and impressive set of research projects in progress. These include active fieldwork projects and scientific analyses, as well as post-excavation projects that are approaching publication and thus will soon be in need of archiving. Rather than archiving paper copies of reports and databases that will be difficult to access, English Heritage has decided that these materials would best be preserved and disseminated in digital form by the ADS. The result is a hybrid publication strategy that combines conventional and electronic publication.
The English Heritage digital portfolio facilitates the creation and deposition of a digital companion to the traditionally published excavation monograph(s). The digital companion will comprise both raw and interpreted data sets that will be disseminated as downloadable data files through a number of user interfaces that will facilitate resource discovery. To date, the first phase of the Portfolio Project has included work with the following contracting units to provide advice and guidance on the successful digitisation of their archives on certain English Heritage funded excavations; Museum of London Archaeological Service (No. 1 Poultry), Albion Archaeology (Stratton), Norfolk Archaeological Unit (Castle Mall), Essex County Council Field Archaeology Group (Elms Farm), Oxford Archaeological Unit (Yarnton), Cambridge Archaeological Unit (Bloodmoor Hill). We foresee the successful completion and dissemination on-line of the six excavation archives within the next 2-4 years.
There are obvious advantages to digital archiving as against conventional paper-based preservation. For example, digital archives retain the structure and flexibility of their originals. Well-designed stratigraphic databases use all the complexity and sophistication of relational data models; these cannot be replicated easily on paper. Other digital objects, like CAD drawings or GIS coverages, offer functionality that paper simply cannot support. As well as preserving this functionality, digital objects can be disseminated at a fraction of the cost required by their paper equivalents. The costs of publication are a notorious problem for archaeological research, especially as research methods become increasingly refined. Digital dissemination presents one way to offset these costs while ensuring that researchers get access to much more data than they have been able to acquire hitherto.
The process of creating these archives is, however, not straightforward. Having established a list of the projects that would benefit most from this sort of the dissemination, English Heritage has been working in close partnership with the ADS to turn its plans into reality. The first task is simply to survey the digital outputs associated with each archive. This process of auditing is complex since many of these projects have long histories of their own. Each is the provenance of a different field team, and so each project has unique recording procedures, reflecting the nature of the archaeology recovered and the needs of the staff. This auditing process is largely complete for the first projects. The process of creating the digital archives is now underway, funded by English Heritage which would otherwise have funded the conventional archiving process. The next few years will see the first practical outcomes of this process, as the data sets are made available online through the ADS servers.
The process of creating these digital archives has wider implications for all the parties involved. If archiving data sets is to become standard practice, then staff will require training. So, in addition to practical outcomes, this archiving project has also set itself the task of training field staff in the preparation of digital archives, so that future projects may proceed with more ease.
It may seem strange that the ADS -- funded by and for the education sector -- should take such an active interest in the preservation of data generated by heritage agencies. A moment's thought clarifies the situation. The capacity to perform research has been seriously damaged by the spiraling costs of publication, as libraries refuse to buy more and more expensive excavation publications. Access to these reports is, however, a pre-requisite for competent academic research; so by working with English Heritage, we support research learning and teaching all the better. Who knows, perhaps this sort of partnership will even help break down the divisions between our different sectors.
-- William Kilbride
User Services Manager
Archaeology Data Service
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For other Newsletter articles concerning the electronic publishing, the ADAP and issues surrounding digital archiving, or the use of electronic media in the humanities, consult the Subject index.
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