"The implications of a shift from the library as a physical space to the library as a virtual digital environment are immense and truly disruptive. Library users demand 24/7 access, instant gratification at a click, and are increasingly looking for “the answer” rather than for a particular format: a research monograph or a journal article for instance. So they scan, flick and “power browse” their way through digital content, developing new forms of online reading on the way that we do not yet fully understand (or, in many cases, even recognise)" (Rowlands et al. 2008, 293).
The evolution of the Internet has reconfigured the way in which people discover, understand, use, share and create information, and consequently there is a wide variety of quality of information available online (Miller and Bartlett 2012). The information landscape of the Internet, especially when explored via search engines, can privilege popularity over the 'low-circulation-high-quality' archaeological information that heritage professionals provide (Stein 2012). Internet users have to accept information at face value, depending on the expertise of the author or the institutional affiliations with which it is associated, what Hardwig (1991) has called the 'novice/expert problem'. Discrimination between authentic, credible archaeological information, and populist, inaccurate and misleading archaeological sensationalism, or even pseudo-archaeology, requires an ability to apply critical thought to information retrieved online — digital and information literacy. Information literacy has been a key concept within Library and Information Studies for 40 years, with the concept of computer literacy growing with the development of computer technologies during the 1980s and 1990s (Andretta 2007).
Digital literacy was recognised by the UNESCO Prague Declaration as a key skill for "for participation in the knowledge economy and in civil society"(UNESCO 2003), and was described in the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions Alexandria Proclamation of 2005 as 'essential for individuals to achieve personal, social, occupational and educational goals'. The concept of digital and information literacy has been described in a variety of ways; 'multimedia literacy' (Lanham 1995); the ability to use and understand ideas rather than technologies, and from a wide variety of digital sources; an ability to understand information via hypertext, critical understanding, awareness of networks as information sources and the ability to create and publish one's own material online (Dutton and Shepard 2006). For the purposes of this article, the definition of digital literacy proposed by Catts and Lau (2008) has been used. This defines information literacy as the ability to: recognise information needs; locate and evaluate the quality of information; store and retrieve information; make effective and ethical use of information and apply information to create and communicate knowledge.
One of the central issues with archaeological material found online — as with all other academic subjects — is that information and disinformation can be difficult to unpick without an element of digital literacy (Miller and Bartlett 2012). Offline strategies for verifying archaeological information, through an ability to examine relevant peer-reviewed books, journal articles or archaeological data, may not always be applicable in an online context. Access to this sort of material may be difficult and expensive owing to distance, expense or the lack of academic institutional affiliation, and means missing out on up-to-date archaeological literature, especially for those working outside the academy, such as community archaeology group members or commercial-sector archaeologists.
Miller and Bartlett's collation of issues with digital literacy and 'truth claims' is especially useful to consider in the light of an understanding of archaeological authority and expertise (Miller and Bartlett 2012, 37). Their discussion of the key issues of information literacy is an especially useful overview of the main issues that relate to the retrieval of authoritative archaeological information. The complexity of information provided online, and the lack of specialisms or expertise means that judgements about truth claims are difficult, especially when "much of the discussion on the Internet occurs under the cloak of anonymity, or where identity (and therefore authority) can be easily faked" (Miller and Bartlett 2012, 37). The growth of participatory media, user-generated content and access to an unprecedented level of information means that, as a society, we do not always have the equivalent of newspaper editors, academic textbooks and peer-review before content is made public, so "we sometimes create social epistemological structures and processes to order and categorise information according to its value and 'truth'" (Miller and Bartlett 2012, 37). Many websites do not contain accurate information, although they may be designed to appear authoritative and truthful. The appearance of websites is often a consideration when considering the accuracy of information held within these sites, and misinformation can be professionally presented and well designed and illustrated. Uses of Internet search engines, as well as many sites with targeted advertising such as Facebook, are underpinned by algorithms that tailor personalised online experiences based on our previous interests, so we work and research within echo chambers. Information consumption online does not reflect "critical, deep, single-source reading" (Miller and Bartlett 2012, 37). Instead, information seekers tend to jump through a handful of web pages supported by search engines, and 'skitter' across these pages, viewing information rather than actively reading and absorbing the content. According to Miller and Bartlett an online article is viewed "for around five minutes, and summaries are read much more than the full content" (2012, 37).
The concept of 'information behaviour' describes "the many ways in which human beings interact with information, in particular, the ways in which people seek and utilize information" (Bates 2010). There has been very little research into the phenomena of information-seeking behaviour for archaeological information — only a handful of examples of research exist, from the UK, India and Sweden, which look at the user behaviour of professionals working in the field archaeology sub-discipline and archaeological academia (Corkill and Mann 1981; Stone 1982; Huvila 2006; 2008a; 2008b; Ahmad 2009) and none of these focus on the consumers of archaeological information.
Internet Archaeology is an open access journal. Except where otherwise noted, content from this work may be used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (CC BY) Unported licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided that attribution to the author(s), the title of the work, the Internet Archaeology journal and the relevant URL/DOI are given.
File last updated: Tue Nov 25 2014