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2.0 Public Archaeology…why bother?

It is clear, but often worth reiterating, that not all archaeologists care about the same things. The discipline is not monolithic but instead a loose association of people engaging with the past in diverse ways, with divergent goals, constraints, and values. We differ on what counts as knowledge about the past, how to obtain it, why it is significant, what it is worth, and how we should represent it. Concomitantly varying are our hopes and worries concerning developments in informatics. Thus, it seems appropriate to begin any serious discussion about archaeological communication with a few words about the author's assumed objectives and priorities. Only then does it make sense to proceed to the subject of research into reader reception of hypertext.

Although political commitments, research goals, and theoretical orientations vary, many archaeologists share the conviction that archaeology can be a force for positive change. As Randall McGuire recently put it, 'Many archaeologists around the world are struggling to build an emancipatory praxis of archaeology' (2000, 767). I count myself among them, and this is the reason for my focus on usable public access to archaeological information, and on the effective facilitation of multivocality about human history.

Providing information about the past — while creating space for dialogue about it — is for many a central challenge of contemporary archaeological practice, in this era of struggles to reclaim lost land, preserve cultural identity, and repatriate and protect cultural heritage (Duke and Saitta 1998; Hodder 1998; 1999a; McDavid 1999). Communication with nonarchaeologists is, I believe, one of the most meaningful things we can do.

But what does it take to do it well when you never meet your audience?

Imagine someone who has been searching the Web for some archaeological information, and ends up visiting your website. They stop awhile, read, and go. Maybe they found what they were looking for, and maybe they didn't. But either way, you have no direct contact with them — no more, in fact, than you would have if they had taken out your book from the library, read it, and returned it. The Web is acting in this case only as a medium of publication. This is a very specific situation — though not at all unusual — within the realm of the Internet. It excludes the natural checks and balances that are available in the classroom, and in discussion lists or other locations for bidirectional communication.

This is the situation in which, because communication is unidirectional, the author's writing and the reader's comprehension may both be most vulnerable to any idiosyncrasies of this new medium. Therefore, this is a situation where the author must be very sensitive to the strengths, weaknesses, and probable receptions of hypertext.

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