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3. Introduction

3.1 Background

Archaeologists have always been open to the potential of new technologies to develop the discipline. Increasing use of computers as a research tool in their own right and greater automation of recording and surveying techniques is resulting in an ever-growing corpus of digital information. In many instances the digital information is duplicated in other media, and may be a result of digitisation from hand-written lists or drawings. However, there is also much information that is created initially and in most detail in digital form - for example complex datasets in a GIS, or three-dimensional plans in a CAD package. The functionality of such datasets is reliant on their digital format.

This survey was undertaken because there was no clear idea of the extent, diversity or complexity of digital datasets, nor their relation to information held in other media. With developments in software and hardware, digital information may rapidly become unreadable, in the absence of a preservation strategy for those that hold this information. The discipline is in danger of losing much important and unique information. Our survey is a timely exercise aiming to establish ways of dealing with this information, to preserve it, and make it accessible for future users.

On the 19th May 1997, a meeting was held to discuss collaboration between the ADS and archaeological bodies in England. Representatives from the Association of Local Government Archaeological Officers (ALGAO), English Heritage (EH) and the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England (RCHME) agreed that as an initial step to developing a national archiving policy for digital data, a user survey was required. It was agreed that the ADS should carry out this survey, and that funding for it would be made available both by EH and the RCHME. Additionally, it was agreed that it would be desirable to cover all archaeological digital data in Britain and the Republic of Ireland in the survey. Additional funding to achieve this end was given by Cadw, Environment and Heritage Service of the DoENI, the Heritage Council, Historic Scotland, Royal Commissions for Scotland and Wales, and also the AHDS.

The central aim of this survey is to establish the range of current practices regarding digital data collection and archiving. Only by establishing the diversity of working practices is it possible to go forward to establish guidelines. Any guidelines need to be accompanied by frameworks for training to enable archaeologists to implement new working practices. These need to embrace all areas of the discipline, and our survey invited participation from archaeology consultants, contracting field archaeologists, local government archaeologists, museum archaeologists, national body employees, librarians, archivists, staff and students in the HE sector, school/FE teachers, independent archaeologists and members of active societies.

The aims and objectives of the survey are to ascertain for British and Irish archaeology:

Findings of Strategies for Digital Data show that many archaeologists in Britain and Ireland are embracing new technology in most areas of their work. Digital data forms an increasingly important element of projects, though this material does not always reach the final archive holder. Standards and guidelines for creating, managing, and preserving digital information are being developed within archaeology and beyond. There is, however, great variation in their adoption within the discipline. Training and support to help implement good practice is not equally accessible across the discipline, though there are plans to improve access to IT and training.

Initially this volume focuses on the implications of the survey results for the development of national polices for digital data. Results from the survey are placed in the wider context of developments in archaeology and the humanities, specifically regarding the creation, preservation and provision of access to digital cultural heritage resources. The actual results of the survey are then presented. They show that the following four issues may be central to any national policy for digital data in archaeology.

Creating digital data: the use of computers varies within archaeology, but digital datasets form an element of all categories of data. A wide variety of programs are used to create these data. Some information is created solely in digital form. Although a variety of standards for archaeology have been developed (e.g. controlled vocabularies), these are not consistently used within the discipline. These diverse practices can create barriers to the exchange of information.

Archives and digital datasets: a wide variety of archaeological organisations hold digital datasets in the short- and long-term. Although some of these are traditional archaeological archives (i.e. museums), in many instances digital datasets may be held by the units/contractors that carried out the original work. Current practice indicates that the majority of digital datasets are not being archived in a way that can ensure their functionality for future use (though this does not necessarily mean that the information is not being preserved). Although standards are now available and being developed for the preservation of digital datasets, there is as yet no standard practice in archaeology. Any strategies for digital archiving therefore need to be addressed to all sectors of archaeology.

Information needs: archaeologists want to obtain much and varied information digitally, and to incorporate this into all areas of their work. A variety of data delivery mechanisms may be necessary, as some archaeologists do not have the skills and/or equipment to access the Internet, or perhaps to use digital datasets at all. Poor cataloguing and limited information on digital holdings for all areas of archaeology are major barriers to raising awareness of digital resources.

Funding digital archives: preserving digital data for posterity can be a costly exercise. Provision for outside access and support for users are additional, essential services. Strategies for Digital Data canvassed opinion on the importance of various sources of funding for digital archiving bodies. Core funding from national bodies was seen as an important source, with some costs being passed onto depositors. There was limited support for charging users for access to digital datasets, though additional services such as user support and training could be used to generate revenue.

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