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9. Re-using Digital Data - Developing a Community Vision for the Best Ways to Facilitate Access to, and Re-use of, Digital Information

9.1 Introduction

There are many digital datasets available for re-use in archaeology, though until recently there was great variation in the development of strategies covering the creation, preservation and provision of access to digital data. This chapter will outline the responses from the survey and illustrate attitudes to making information more accessible.

9.2 Accessing and using archives

Chapter 6 highlighted the range of organisations that hold digital archives. Such datasets are generally held in traditional archaeology archives, although not all are. Chapter 7, The Information Needs of Archaeologists, demonstrated that there was variation in the availability of access to these archives granted to outside users, although this did not correspond with a particular area of archaeology (see 7.4). Strategies for Digital Data evaluated the reasons why individual and archaeological organisations did not make greater use of digital data (see 3.7 in Appendices 1 and 2). They were presented with a list of options (slightly more were presented to individuals), and were also given space for additional comments. Respondents could tick as many options as were relevant and the results are shown in Figure 9.1.

The replies from individuals show a long list of concerns. Limited hardware/software and cost are significant barriers to the increased use of digital data. Such costs include: providing staff with the necessary equipment, charges set by service providers, increased telephone bills, and also charges set by information providers. The barrier to re-use is compounded by some having no access to the Internet. Many individuals feel they don't have sufficient IT skills to make the most of the equipment and resources available. Significant percentages feel that there is no suitable data available, or if there is they don't know about it. The lack of time to search for resources is a contributory factor to this. For those that have attempted to re-use digital data, some faced difficulties in converting it into a usable form, or were unsuccessful in their attempts. There is little concern over copyright.

Figure 9.1 Issues preventing archaeologists from making greater use of digital data

Individuals (326 responses) Organisations (225 responses)

The two greatest barriers for organisations are a lack of hardware/software, and cost. Not having a connection to the Internet is a significant barrier. There is also the perceived lack of IT support within organisations (see 9.4). Many archaeologists feel that there is a lack of suitable data available in digital format. This is coupled with a limited need for digital data, which may reflect how individual organisations work, but must also be tied in to the feeling that there is little relevant digital data in archives or on the Internet. Increasing awareness of digital resources is therefore an important area for archives and national bodies. Security and copyright are not prominent concerns for organisations.

There were also other suggestions to improve access to digital resources, and reasons for limited use of digital datasets:

The major barrier to the use of Internet information is the absence of an up-to-date index of what is available. Time is too short to explore and sort out through all the junk to find the odd useful tool of information.

In my own speciality it is the accepted thing that scientific data should be available for inspection by others - if the data are robust enough to support the hypothesis argued then they should withstand random inspection. Hidden data are of no use to any researcher.

Access to digital archives by some means is critical, both to address otherwise intractable resource/staff time problems, and for re-interpretation of old data/ excavations in the light of new thinking, perceptions and politics.

Digital presentation of archaeological information would make specialist information easily available to the specialists that need it. This would remove the need for expensive-to-produce books in limited print runs that few people want to pay for. It is appropriate for national information to be available from the national bodies of record.

I can see the value of digital data, but I like to have a paper record too. It is often MUCH quicker to grab a book off the shelf than to search through the Net and wait for information to download. I do worry about too much data being available for general purposes only in digital form. I remember when microfiche was considered a breakthrough in data presentation, but in practice microfiche is a pain to use - much easier to access material on a page.

I have yet to see an archive that made information available that could not also be found on paper. Also, too much information is poor (particularly on the Net), and not relevant or trustworthy.

Strategies for Digital Data also asked for comment on the use of archives in general. Although the survey has shown that much digital material is not reaching traditional archives, these are nevertheless obvious ports of call for detailed research. The concern that little relevant information is available in digital form is affected by what is not being archived or catalogued. The questionnaire for individuals asked what difficulties people faced when using archaeological archives (see part 5 of Appendix 1). The responses were given as free text. Some were obviously commenting on digital archives (in particular the Web), though discussed archives in general. Table 9.1 summarises the comments, with the most common at the top.

Table 9.1 Difficulties in using archives

Digital archives only: (39 responses) Archives in general (193 responses)
Incompatibility (hardware, software) Poor referencing/catalogues/indexing
Limited/no Internet access Finding the time
Lack of relevant digital data Cost
Poor indexing/difficult to locate relevant information Time and cost of travel to the archive
Limited/no computer access Identifying where relevant information is held
Slow Internet access Tight control over archives/an unwillingness on the part of curators to release information
Digital data is not as reliable as more traditional media - the information has not necessarily been through as rigorous editing procedures as paper etc. Incomplete archives/varying quality
-Using archived information - laborious to copy, sift through, photocopying restrictions
-Microfiche is annoying
-No difficulties
-Paper archives have more potential than digital

Access to detailed indices is the key to the successful use of archives. The ability to identify where information is located, even if project archives are dispersed, enables efficient allocation of time and resources and helps to avoid some of the problems raised in Table 9.1. The problem of incomplete archives can be improved by setting strict guidelines and standards for depositors and ensuring that details are available of where various parts of a dispersed project archive are held. There is a mixed reception to digital data; some respondents think it benefits their research, others that it is unreliable. The comment that some respondents found archive holders sometimes unwilling to part with information needs to be considered as a possible factor influencing the findings in other parts of our survey (see in particular section 7.4).

Although it can be difficult to use archives, access to information can also be determined by copyright restrictions. Yet Figure 9.1 illustrates that archaeologists are generally not so worried about copyright issues that they are prevented from re-using digital data. Copyright is an automatic right of the creator, or their employer, for work carried out in Britain. Licensing can be used to impose limitations on who has access to information. The response from survey participants suggests a widespread lack of awareness of the issues involved with copyright.

Organisations were asked what copyright restrictions they imposed on the information held by them, and if they had any plans to change this (see 4.4, Appendix 2). National laws determine copyright, though the picture is similar in all countries included in our survey. In general, open access is encouraged, and re-use is dependent on the user acknowledging where the information came from. A summary of responses by country is presented in the following paragraphs.

In Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, copyright generally remains with those who undertook the original work. It remains the property of those who carried out the work and/or those who commissioned it.

In Scotland and Wales, the creators of data usually hold copyright and, where archived, it is retained by the depositor but managed by the archive. Crown copyright law applies to the holdings of all Royal Commissions. Information remains the intellectual property of those who created the information, though in some cases the copyright may be assigned to the archive or to the commissioning body (e.g. Historic Scotland).

The situation in England is largely the same. Occasionally time limits for copyright are imposed on client reports. Some archive holders insist that copyright be transferred to them prior to deposit.

Sometimes charges apply for the re-use of copyrighted information, although to whom and how much varies greatly. The majority of organisations responding were in favour of public access, and offering information either free or at reduced charges for education/research purposes. Users, however, are expected to cover the costs of reproduction rights for images and photographs in particular. In addition, mapping datasets that include OS underlays are controlled by Crown Copyright, and this is strictly adhered to.

The situation regarding copyright and access compares well with the results in parts 7.2 and 7.3 and in Tables 7.1 and 7.2. In that analysis it emerged that 87.5% of individuals would like to obtain information free of charge for research/educational use and that 71.6% of organisations allow others to use their holdings without charge for research/educational purposes. Using charges for access to recover costs seems to be accepted only where information will be used for commercial gain.

9.3 Funding digital archives

Digital archives can be expensive to set up and depositing digital datasets can be time-consuming, though this can be dramatically reduced if the archive holders and depositors liaise at the beginning of a project. In addition, maintaining a digital archive can be labour-intensive, where datasets are migrated and validated through changes in hardware and, more crucially, software. The last section of both questionnaires asked for opinions regarding sources of funding for digital archives. Figures 9.2-9.3 show the responses.

Figure 9.2 Responses from individuals to a range of questions:

Figure 9.3 Responses from organisations to a range of questions:

Organisations, in general, support the use of a wider range of funding sources than individuals. A high level of support is expressed for the idea that project-funding bodies should assist with the creation of a digital archive, but that they should not necessarily fund its long-term maintenance. National bodies are also seen as an important source of funding for digital archives, though again organisations are more willing to support this notion compared to individuals. The issue of whether (re-)users should pay was not received well by individuals, around 45% of whom rejected this outright. Organisations, however, are more willing to support charging for the use of digital archives. Some organisations are already charging, for example, where SMR/NMR information is to be used for commercial purposes.

In general, people were supportive of a combination of funding sources. This issue was felt to be important, and many gave additional comments:

... some of the initial costs of setting up the organisation should be funded by a group of interested national organisations (RCHMC/EH, etc.) [though] the data created via whatever means will need to be maintained. This could be funded by developers in the case of development control processes, but what about the research-based data sets?

Archaeological projects could not fund the continuing maintenance of the archive. Digital repositories such as national bodies, museums, must bear some of the cost of storing and maintaining digital archives, just as they do for paper records and finds meeting their collecting policies. The RCHME review of SMRs recommended that SMR costs should be an identifiable allowance in the standard spending assessment. This needs to be pursued.

Digital archives should be public funded as a resource, not as an additional burden on development. Costs of creating and maintaining any digital archive will be problematic as many project funding bodies will refuse unless it is legally incumbent on them to do so.

Digital archives must be free - required payment will be difficult to manage and discourage people from using them.

Strategies for Digital Data has illustrated the need for digital archives to avoid the loss of unique and important information. These do represent an additional burden to the costs of project archiving, but a variety of charging mechanisms can be used to support this important initiative.

Even if information is available digitally and guidelines are in place to secure deposition of all project archive material, these may not be successfully implemented without training and assistance (Chapter 10).

9.4 Training needs to facilitate access to digital datasets

In order to create, preserve, and re-use digital datasets effectively, archaeologists need to have access to support and training. Guidelines are being developed for digital data, but their success will be limited if archaeologists do not have the knowledge or experience to adopt new working practices. Consequently the analysis of training needs is an essential part of the survey.

Individuals were asked what training they would like to receive (question 3.8). Responses were obviously influenced by the skills already held by the respondent, and the focus of the answers perhaps shaped by the subject of our survey. Replies were given as free text, and an extensive list emerged. Figure 9.4 distils the results.

Some respondents want training in all areas. Very few feel that they are self-sufficient. In addition, a good many want help with the Internet, including information retrieval, file transfer and email, and also web page authoring and site management. Data analysis and use of databases were also prominent. Assistance with GIS and mapping was also requested.

The organisation-training question was slightly different from the individual. Organisations were asked to state what current training was provided for staff, in addition to being asked what additional training they would like to provide. Figure 9.5 illustrates the current training provision (shown in black) and future plans (shaded bars).

Figure 9.4 Training needs of individuals (%age response)

Figure 9.5 Training provision by organisations for its archaeologists (%age response)

Many organisations do not provide formal training for their staff, although this category includes small and even sole traders. Training needs are obviously receiving some attention and figure more in future plans. A similar range of responses to Figure 9.5 emerges. Many responding organisations want to learn about 'everything'. Archaeologists would particularly like to receive training on the Internet, and issues surrounding communication and exchange of information. This includes interest in web page construction and management. Also, many respondents stated a desire to learn more about database construction and data analysis. Mapping and GIS were other commonly stated needs. A large proportion of respondents saw their information needs being met informally via friends and colleagues.

Although not shown in Figures 9.4 and 9.5, some respondents also wanted to learn more about image processing, word-processing and desktop publishing. This reflects the enthusiasm within archaeology to use new technologies. If these training needs can be met, the discipline will be able to increase the amount and coverage of digital data and archives must be able to respond to the preservation and access needs that will follow.

There were many comments on the use and potential of digital data. The comments included below show that the discipline is aware of the problems and opportunities offered by computers:

The information is more important than the technology. Most people I know in archaeological units waste a great deal of time and effort using expensive 'toys' for inappropriate tasks - and very few have time/opportunity to learn how to use the machine properly.

... access to data on the Internet etc. could lead to a situation whereby data is given out mainly to a privileged group of people with access to facilities in universities and richer institutions, cutting off a large segment of amateur and public interests which the profession has sought to involve over recent years.

National records and Internet access are great ideas and I am extremely pleased that someone is researching the facts seriously. However I do worry that organisations like ours, that already lag behind in the technology race will be left with little return and possibly a big bill. It will also result in gaps in the digital knowledge.

9.5 Summary

Strategies are needed to identify which datasets should receive the highest priority for preservation. These should be determined by the information requirements of archaeologists and the need to react to those projects that are most in danger of being lost.