Vol. XVII, No. 3
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Winter, 2005

A Wider Vision of an Archaeological Data Archive

Harrison Eiteljorg, II

Here in this issue of the CSA Newsletter ( "Archiving Archaeological Data -- Is There a Viable Business Model for a Repository?" CSA Newsletter, XVII, 3 [Winter, 2005], http://csanet.org/newsletter/winter05/nlw0501.html) and in numerous things I have written over the last decade is the basic notion of a digital archaeological archive: a repository for digital data files generated by scholarly projects, whether fieldwork projects or work in offices and laboratories. That is an appropriate definition, but I do not think it is expansive enough at this stage in the history of digital data in archaeology. Too many projects have little digital data or data that are only partially digital; archiving data files that are incomplete is of little value.

For most older projects the alternative -- digitizing all data and archiving the results -- is effectively impossible because the cost of digitizing large quantities of information is prohibitive. Those projects could benefit from producing finding aids that describe the available records, whether those records are digital or not, and those finding aids should be in digital format so that they can be used with the greatest efficiency possible and so that they can be easily distributed. The finding aids will be mostly indices to various project records; users of the aids should be able to learn what materials are available in the paper/photographic/mylar/digital archives and where to find them. The aids will be in the form of databases and should serve the interests of all users and potential users of the project data.

Once created, the databases that serve as digital finding aids belong in archival repositories both for long-term preservation and so that they may be accessed easily by scholars who need to know what data are available. In time, the finding aids, if well designed, may also provide a base for digitizing additional records from the same project, making their potential value even greater. In fact, good databases serving as finding aids should provide a conceptual framework for all the materials from the project, whether those materials are ever digitized or not.

For projects that have few digital components, placement of the finding aids in an archive has another virtue. Personnel from the digital repository will be able to assist in structuring the databases that compose the finding aids. In so doing, they will bring their expertise to bear, making it more likely that the databases will provide a good foundation for adding additional digital resources. For instance, should a project have two or more chronologies, one created during early years of the project and one that has supplanted it, the data structure can take that into account so that users always know which chronology was used for a given label (and what the current chronological scheme indicates). That is the kind of data organization for which archival personnel should be especially helpful.

This expanded notion of digital archaeological data repositories has another benefit. Adding such finding aids to a repository will increase the utility of the repository, making it more likely that such a repository can obtain support, both financial and scholarly. The added resources will make the repository a more widely known and valued source of important information.

It is the last point that is of special interest to me at this time. Adding finding aids for paper archives to digital repositories -- in the form of databases -- provides more data for the repository, data that need not be expensive to produce. Anything that adds value to a repository, especially at modest cost, has the potential to tip the scale for the repository, making it more likely to succeed over time. Since, as noted in the article referenced above, the economic difficulties faced by archives are the most difficult ones, adding finding aids may be truly significant, adding just enough extra value to make a crucial difference.

-- Harrison Eiteljorg, II

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