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Sustaining Digital Scholarship in Archaeology

Module by: Steve Plog. E-mail the authorEdited By: Frederick Moody, Ben Allen

The Shape of Things to Come -- buy from Rice University Press.

I approach the issue of sustainability from the perspective of an archaeologist who has been involved for the last eight years in the construction of a digital research archive (www.chacoarchive.org) that focuses on the prehistory of, and the history of research in, Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Native American groups of the American Southwest in northwestern New Mexico fashioned a remarkably complex and rich culture in and around Chaco Canyon between approximately AD 850 and 1130. Key questions about the historical trajectory of the Chaco culture—aspects of demography, ritual, and social organization—continue to be debated despite over a century of archaeological research in the canyon. The Chaco Archive is designed to integrate widely scattered published and unpublished texts, drawings, photographs, and inventories to allow contextual studies of Chacoan settlements that have not previously been possible. Both the Chaco Research Archive and a very similar endeavor, the Digital Archaeological Archive of Chesapeake Slavery (www.daacs.org), have been created with the support of the Andrew Mellon Foundation.

I will not focus on the details of the Chaco Archive here, but provide the background to emphasize that I come to this discussion as an archaeologist interested in resolving research questions through empirical tests of alternative answers to those questions. I thus will use the phrase “digital scholarship” purposely because I see limited value in restricting our discussion to the humanities as opposed to social sciences or sciences. Much “scientific” research ultimately addresses humanistic concerns. Moreover, sustainability issues—as well as many other concerns—crosscut the many worlds of digital scholarship and have done so since intensive academic use of computers began in the middle of twentieth century.

As scholars in more and more disciplines embrace the research and educational tools available in the digital world, however, there is little question that sustainability issues have become more complex and more critical. As the British Library has recently emphasized (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/8535384.stm), we face the prospect of a digital black hole in our history if we don’t begin to place more emphasis on digital archiving. Here I focus on organizational aspects of sustainability, followed by a brief consideration of the specific nature of some approaches to digital scholarship.

In my experience, within the realm of archaeology and history there are at least two organizational paths toward sustainability that are not mutually exclusive, with some maintained by universities or foundations and others by professional organizations. Projects developed by faculty of the University of Virginia, for example, have been maintained, some for almost two decades, by university institutions. The latter range from the University of Virginia library to the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH - http://www.iath.virginia.edu/) to even more specialized institutions such as the Virginia Center for Digital History (http://www.vcdh.virginia.edu/index.php?page=VCDH) that have evolved from individual projects into institutions with somewhat broader goals. The long-term sustainability of the individual projects has thus been dependent upon the sustainability and budgets of the supporting organizations. Libraries hopefully will always be with us, but more specialized organizations such as VCDH face much more long-term uncertainty as they are often dependent on soft money or, as institutions with more specific foci, more subject to budget cuts during times like the present, when state support of universities is dropping. The University of Virginia, for example, has decided to end funding for the directorship of VCDH after this academic year.

Both the Chaco Archive and DAACS have been sustained through the support of their home institutions, although there are differences in some important particulars. The Chaco Archive was developed in collaboration with IATH and thus depends upon its continuation. DAACS is part of an institution, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, with a longer history than IATH and, significantly, has through the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Jefferson Foundation been able to build an endowment that will support a full-time director of the archive for at least the foreseeable future. On the other hand, whereas it seems likely that the importance of digital scholarship in universities will only increase in the future, the significance of archaeology and digital scholarship to a more special purpose organization such as the Thomas Jefferson Foundation is harder to predict.

In archaeology, a second organizational path to sustainability has evolved, initially in European countries, based at least in part on governmental support. Perhaps the best example is the England’s Archaeological Data Service (ADS) (http://ads.ahds.ac.uk/), an organization that preserves and disseminates digital archaeological data, promotes standards and good practices, and provides technical advice. ADS archives a wide variety of materials ranging from basic texts, images, and spreadsheet to statistical (e.g., SPSS), audio, database, GIS (e.g., ESRI and ArcInfo), and virtual reality files. Although housed at the University of York, ADS was created through the collaboration of the Council for British Archaeology and several universities, and has been supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and, until a few years ago, by the Joint Information Systems Committee of the Higher Education Funding Councils for England, Scotland and Wales, and the Department of Education for Northern Ireland.

Support for ADS also is provided by a one-time archiving fee, paid by the body supporting the archaeological investigation and estimated to be between one and five percent of the total project budget. The archiving fee is dependent upon the type and abundance of files; archiving GIS files, for example, costs more than image or text files. ADS thus illustrates the possibility, and perhaps the necessity, of addressing sustainability through the collaboration of a number of institutions at both the national and regional levels, as well as the adoption of a business model that generates revenue.

In the United States, a somewhat similar effort has just been initiated with the support of the National Science Foundation, Arizona State University, and, in particular, the Andrew Mellon Foundation. In addition to preserving archaeological data, the Digital Archaeological Record (tDAR) (http://www.tdar.org/confluence/display/TDAR/Home) also has a broader goal of enhancing archaeologists’ ability to pursue synthetic and comparative research. At this early stage of development, tDAR only supports a rather restricted range of digital information—Microsoft Access databases and Excel spreadsheets, reports and other documents in PDF or plain ASCII format, and images in JPG and TIFF format—but envisions broadening the scope of their efforts. Although the Mellon Foundation is supporting the creation of tDAR, after a short period tDAR will become dependent upon the support of Arizona State University and, I expect, a model comparable to ADS in which the group depositing the data must pay archiving fees. Since most archaeological fieldwork in the United States is supported directly or indirectly by federal and state institutions who require archaeological documentation as part of environmental impact statements, it seems likely that the long-term sustainability of tDAR will require that these federal and state institutions mandate the investigating groups to archive all digital information upon completion of the project.

In addition to the two pathways outlined above, it is also worth noting that some publishers have begun to explore, if not require, the archiving of supporting digital information. For example, a group of university presses (http://www.archaeologyoftheamericas.com/) is exploring the establishment of a collaborative, stable, and sustainable platform for the publication of enhanced archaeological monographs, digital and print, that incorporate access to image and video files, GIS maps, 3D laser scans, and databases. Once again, the Andrew Mellon Foundation is supporting this innovative effort. In another instance, several professional journals that focus on issues of ecology and evolution have instituted a new requirement that supporting data for publications must be archived in an appropriate public archive (Whitlock et al. 2010). I expect such policies will become more common in the future; should that happen, the policies will help support efforts such as ADS and tDAR.

Groups such as ADS and tDAR address two key issues that Todd Presner

highlights in his discussion of HyperCities, the importance of both standards and cyberinfrastructure to sustainability. To the extent that the two organizations will provide the cyberinfrastructure that becomes central to archiving archaeological data, they also will encourage, if not enforce, standards by specifying which types of files they will and will not archive. Standards and cyberinfrastructure are thus closely intertwined.

Nevertheless, ADH and tDAR are designed to preserve files, not websites. Certainly if you remove the web-based integration and links that are part of DAACS or the Chaco Archive websites, the core relational databases constructed by the projects still remain, and those databases contain much of the information and research value of the two projects. However, we would lose the tools and links built to enhance the visibility and accessibility of the information; that integrate visual, textual, and quantitative information in ways not provided by the core database; and that allow users to explore and query the information in flexible and ideally intuitive ways that don’t require an understanding of complex relational database programs or the history of archaeological research. That loss would be extremely significant. Thus, although I believe the creation and continued evolution of ADS and tDAR is very important, if we want to retain the full value of efforts such as DAACS and the Chaco Archive, university institutions that will not simply preserve files but also retain the functionality of the websites remain key.

Projects such as HyperCities increase the complexity of the issues because their architecture exploits information scattered around the world. In more centralized projects such as the Chaco Archive and DAACS, by creating and maintaining the core database and supporting website, it is possible to maintain greater coherence and focus, but contributions to the core data are limited to a small group. HyperCities, however, links together geographically dispersed data sets stored on multiple servers. This dispersed collection may give the project more widespread application by attracting a broader supporting audience. However, dispersed projects face greater risks. Multiple infrastructures are involved, and not only must the basic files be maintained but also the links that bridge these files. Those links create new opportunities and at the same time new vulnerabilities. To the extent that the architecture is modular, eliminating one component will not impact the others. If, however, the goal is to gain new insights through comparative, cross-cultural analysis, then the loss of individual components is significant. As more individual components fail, the significance of the impact may well increase exponentially rather than arithmetically.

The focus on sustainability has lagged behind scholarly innovation, and I expect that will always be the case. As research discoveries are made through the development of new avenues of access and analysis, the importance of those discoveries hopefully will provide the incentive to preserve and maintain those avenues. For online digital scholarship, the architectural, financial and institutional issues of sustaining digital scholarship have only begun to be explored. Nevertheless, the increasing focus on sustaining digital scholarship by academic institutions, professional organizations, academic presses, and national libraries is one of the most promising developments of the last few years.

Acknowledgements

I thank Worthy Martin and Simon Bickler for their comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript, and Fraser Neiman for many insightful conversations on digital scholarship over the last several years.

References

Whitlock, Michael C., Mark A. McPeek, Mark A. Rausher, Loren Rieseberg, and Allen J. Moore.

2010 Data Archiving. American Naturalist 175:145-146.

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A lens is a custom view of the content in the repository. You can think of it as a fancy kind of list that will let you see content through the eyes of organizations and people you trust.

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