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A Whiter Shade of Grey: A new approach to archaeological grey literature using the XML version of the TEI Guidelines.


The debate surrounding the format, content and nature of archaeological publications has been ongoing for many years and will, no doubt, continue. However, in the present climate of developer-funded archaeology, it is unpublished material that is currently under scrutiny. Over the past fifteen years, archaeological grey literature has increasingly become one of the most prolific sources of information about new archaeological discoveries, yet one of the most inaccessible and poorly understood. This is recognised at national and local levels both from within the profession and beyond. With increasing interest in archaeology, there is now a wider audience for this material than ever before; a greater range of potential users with varying needs. Archaeologists face the challenge both of facilitating access and meeting these needs.

One potential solution is the provision of material via the Internet. The majority of grey literature reports are 'born digital'; this electronic data and developments in Web technology offer new and innovative opportunities for data presentation and dissemination. The archaeological profession must ensure that full advantage is taken of these opportunities to promote online access to, and reuse of, data. Allied to this is the need to ensure that these digital records will continue as a viable resource into the future.

Currently in the UK, there are few online grey literature resources for archaeology. There are national and local index-level databases, such as the ADS online ArchSearch Catalogue and those Historic Environment Records that are available online, which provide a bibliographic reference and brief summary of project results. New initiatives are being developed, such as the OASIS Project, which facilitates the upload of a grey literature report to accompany the database record of an archaeological event. The ADS Library of Unpublished Fieldwork Reports now includes an increasing number of grey literature reports.

A number of proprietary formats are used for document creation and dissemination, primarily word-processing packages and Adobe PDF format. These are favoured by the online services which presently offer access to scientific grey literature, but have their limitations, as has been considered as part of this study. (X)HTML is a less widely used format for grey literature. For archival purposes, non-proprietary, plain text formats are preferred. Archaeologists need to consider both short- and long-term needs, and think about the future and the potential obsolescence of both electronic formats and media.

This study has demonstrated how the encoding of archaeological report structure and content, using the TEI Guidelines and XML technology, offers flexibility and a number of advantages over traditional file formats. From a single document, content may be output in different ways for online multi-layered presentation, or for the extraction of XML-encoded data for transfer between systems. For example, the content of an OASIS, or HBSMR event record may be extracted from the report text for input into these datasets, thereby reducing the need to re-key information. If also desired, by applying stylesheets, XML data may be transformed into a number of other formats for online display and dissemination, such as (X)HTML, plain text and PDF format, all generated from a single document. In a variety of ways, therefore, both specialist and lay readers alike may access, use and reuse data for a wide variety of purposes, ultimately in pursuit of promoting and furthering an understanding of the past.

We can begin to see how the boundaries between databases and free text may become transparent through the use of XML encoding. XML has a key role to play in reducing the duplication of effort currently seen in the creation of national and local event and source records. XML encoding will maximise the reuse potential and interoperability of data, if not now almost certainly in the immediate future.

The past fifteen years have seen substantial resources expended upon archaeological endeavour to evaluate and/or preserve 'by record' as the resource diminishes in the face of development. Organisations responsible for the creation of the original electronic texts must view their digital material as a valuable and valid component of the wider digital archive. The creation of an accessible and sustainable electronic resource should be planned from the outset of every project, whether large or small. XML encoding of reports at source will provide a number of long-term benefits in terms of electronic text preservation and repurposing of data. XML is currently gaining a higher profile within the UK archaeological community, especially with the creation of the FISH Interoperability Toolkit for data exchange within the heritage sector. In the author's opinion, to develop the potential benefits identified in this article, a national initiative is needed to lead a pilot project involving a number of organisations in assessment of user needs, training in the use of XML, agreement of appropriate levels of markup, stylesheets for presentation, and potential for data exchange and archiving.

Even if XML does not become the favoured file format, for resource and political implications may outweigh the immediate short-term benefits, other suitable digital archival formats must be adopted. Provision must be made for the deposition of surviving electronic grey literature reports with appropriate, recognised repositories, such as the Archaeology Data Service. This applies not only to new reports, but also to the back catalogue of unpublished grey literature from 1990 onwards, and before, which may still be available in digital format. Archaeologists and other future users will wish to have access to this material, which is a unique and irreplaceable archaeological record, created in many cases as a result of the destruction of original evidence.

In so doing, the archaeological profession will not be as blinkered as those who dismissed the Sibylline Books until the majority were destroyed, but will begin to realise the full potential and value of the ever-increasing electronic resource that is grey literature. Our ultimate goal must be to create an accessible and sustainable, online electronic resource to suit a variety of present and future users and their needs. It is hoped that this article has reinforced this message and shown one potential means of achieving this, should resources and professional will prevail.

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Last updated: Wed Apr 6 2005