Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The need to preserve documentation grows
The 19th-century physicist Michael Faraday famously offered a young scientist three words of advice: "Work, finish, publish."

This admonition still applies, but for archaeologists, at least, it's incomplete. You must add "curate" to the list of fundamental scientific responsibilities.

Nail, head. He brings up an interesting point about the documentation, which has been batted about in other circles as well: Electronic media. Not only the media itself (tapes, floppy disks, etc.) can degrade but you can lose the equipment to read it with as well. Anyone who's been around computers for more than a decade or so knows all about having to schlep files from various forms of memory to another. And that doesn't even begin to hit the issue of software; there are a lot of old files floating around in things like WordStar; I got a lot of files from a former professor that were in what was an unknown format. Turned out they were WordStar and I was fortunate to have a copy of WordPerfect which had the right import formats.

There are also two large reel-to-reel tapes that has something about some Fayum excavation data on them; no one knows what the data is, but the university says they have an old tape machine they've maintained for just such situations. Of course, reading it and understanding the data are different things.

I got into some arguments with people about this probably 15 years ago, mostly having to do with the permanence of different forms of media. I suggested that perhaps some documents and data really ought to be committed to something of a more permanent nature. After all, we're still reading stuff written on stone tablets after 5,000 years. Obviously, it's not for everything, but there's a range of options available and we should really start thinking about the long term.