Electronic Archives

By Eiteljorg, Harrison, II | Antiquity, December 1997 | Go to article overview

Electronic Archives


Eiteljorg, Harrison, II, Antiquity


An archive is a collection of materials intended to be kept safe for the long term. Those materials are gathered by some responsible agency, but they were created originally by others. They were made in the forms and with the methods chosen by their creators. That is, an archive contains materials that have been created by others, that have been formed and informed by the judgements of others and that are intensely idiosyncratic. An archive is not simply a collection of facts or ideas or objects; it is a collection of other peoples' individual or collected facts and ideas and objects. As a result, the contents of an archive are disparate in the extreme, from books to diaries to maps to photographs. A digital archive is at least as chaotic as any other, probably more so. Its contents may include text files, data-base files, images, CAD files, GIS files and more.

An archive, digital or otherwise, for a discipline such as archaeology may contain wildly diverse materials, but it is much more than a collection of things, paper records or computer files. It is a necessary part of the collective memory of the discipline, the more so because the methods of the discipline leave us with records as our only knowledge of destroyed physical realities. Archival storage of records from a project is as crucial as proper storage of the finds for anyone who wants to examine the materials anew. Of course, the point of archival storage is not simply to maintain the finds and the records but to make them accessible to scholars in the future.

The importance of access to archival records was brought home to me recently when a colleague, re-working material from an excavation of his own that had been completed more than 30 years previously, needed to retrieve information from the original records. From Turkey he telephoned the institution which had sponsored the original work - and with which he was no longer affiliated - and was able to get the needed information. That was possible only because the sponsoring institution had taken proper care of the original records. Note that responsibility was taken by the institution in this instance, not by the archaeologist himself.

A digital archaeological archive will serve the same purposes of preserving material for later access, but the nature of the materials - electronic files of many types - will present a host of problems not encountered in a standard archive and will require more active collaboration of the original scholars. The form and format of the files will be the form and format chosen by the scholars who created them, not archivists; the variety thus encountered will reflect not only individual idiosyncrasies but differing technical standards arising from the use of different computer hardware and software, even different versions of the same software. Thus, while many of the concerns of an archaeological digital archive are related to the basic duties of storing and caring for digital data, the diversity and individuality of the files in such an archive create unique problems.

The first responsibility of an archive is to preserve its contents while providing access thereto. For the Archaeological Data Archive Project this means, among other things, that all files are copied onto three CD-ROM discs, one for the original creator, one for the ADAP office, and one that is taken to a bank vault for safe, secure storage. Long-term storage is much more complicated than that, however, because even well-preserved files will become obsolete over time. Hardware and software change, media and file formats also change; as a result, the files, even perfectly preserved ones, become unusable. If the existing files are not changed in tandem with the changes in hardware and software (the process called data migration), the information in those files will no longer be accessible. Thus, in the case of a digital data archive, the contents of the archive must be considered the information content of the computer files, not the physical files themselves. …

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