Based on the article ‘Digital preservation, online access and historical archaeology ‘grey literature’ from New South Wales, Australia’, by Martin Gibbs and Sarah Colley in Australian Archaeology 75.
The importance of digital heritage, the preservation of written materials and online access to knowledge are topics that are becoming of increasing interest to archaeologists. Many are beginning to recognise that the sustainability of knowledge is powerful and worth investing time and resources in to. Projects such as the Archaeological Data Service (ADS) based in the UK, the Digital Archaeological Record (tDAR) based in the US, and Australian based Federated Archaeological Information Management System (FAIMS) are just a few examples that demonstrate the importance currently being placed on the development of digital heritage tools and services.
In AA75 Martin Gibbs and Sarah Colley reported on the first two stages of the New South Wales Archaeology Online (NSW AOL) project. This aims to enhance information using digital technology and it is achieving this, initially, by digitising the wealth of grey literature on NSW’s historical archaeology to create a sustainable digital archive. One of the primary outcomes of this project has been allowing public access to information that has often been shut away and unavailable to all but a select few for many years. The effort of those working on this project is beginning to stem the loss of information, which unfortunately given current standards of preservation, is a very real risk.
‘Grey literature’ is used to refer to a range of unpublished reports, theses and other documents that might be generated in the course of a research or consulting project. However, the term ‘grey literature’ was applied before digital technology made it possible to publish different kinds of content online and is now considered to be out-dated. Archaeologists and heritage practitioners have a professional responsibility to publicise and make their work accessible to others in the field (see Codes of Ethics of AAA and AACAI for specific details on this). However, many reports generated from consultancy projects are held privately and it can be extremely difficult for people other than the authors or clients to access this work or even know that it exists. There is a real concern about where all the information collected by these projects goes and who can access it.
The NSW AOL project focuses on historical archaeology, i.e. the archaeology of the recent past, which in Australia is the archaeology of post-European contact. Aboriginal or Indigenous archaeology is not included in this project yet, for funding and other reasons which make it more challenging to incorporate. The Aboriginal Heritage Information Management System (AHIMS) is a similar resource managed by the NSW state government specifically for Aboriginal cultural heritage.
Whilst the UNESCO Charter on the Preservation of Digital Heritage notes that ‘born digital’ materials should be a priority (article 7), the NSW AOL project has focused on pre-1995 hard-copy, non-digital media as there is a very real threat that this could disappear. It is becoming increasingly difficult for anyone to access this kind of literature, with the lack of a central repository. As reported by Gibbs and Colley in their article, in the 1990s this was not a great problem as the field was small and people seemed to know exactly who to ask for access to reports. Unfortunately this is no longer the case, and worryingly many important reports and previous research is being overlooked simply because only a select number of individuals have access: the NSW AOL project seeks to remedy this situation.
The project was awarded two heritage grants (2009-2013) from the NSW government to digitise pre-1995 hard copy content (legacy data) and create the archive. In Stage One of the project this funding meant that around 600 hard-copy reports could be professionally digitised and be made available on the NSW AOL website in March 2011. These documents were also placed in a sustainable digital archive (i.e. as TIFF files, which are stable image formats that meet archival standards). As the project has continued an additional 400 reports have been digitised and are waiting uploading and archiving. As an expansion of this project, several thousand images from the Irrawang colonial pottery site (more information here) and other rural heritage sites in NSW are in the process of being made accessible via the Australian Historical Archaeology Database (AHAD) and FAIMS.
Ultimately the issue of the digital preservation of archaeological literature needs to be taken up by those with statutory responsibility for its protection, i.e. state and national governments. There is a real need for digital tools and services to preserve and archive archaeological works as digital heritage for the future. Projects such as this demonstrate that this goal is achievable and point to future ways to conserve and make such information publically accessible.
For further information see:
Evans, T.L. and P. Daly (eds) 2006 Digital Archaeology: Bridging Method and Theory. London: Routledge.
McManamon, F.P., A. Stout and K.A. Barnes (eds) 2008 Managing Archaeological Resources: Global Context, National Programmes, Local Actions. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.
Pyburn, K.A. (ed.) 2010 Black-and-White Issues About the Archaeological Grey Literature. Archaeologies [Special Issue] 6(6).
Blogs and Online Resources
AAA: Join us! Introducing the Federated Archaeological Information Management Systems (FAIMS) project
Mick Morrison: Archaeological grey literature in New South Wales