Hypermedia problems

Hypermedia documents do not only offer a great number of potentials, but also create a number of problems (cf. Landow 1991). These have to be taken seriously and resolved in one way or another, if hypermedia technology is to have the impact on future archaeology which some people say it deserves.

Among the problems experienced by many is, for instance, the speed of moving from one page to another. Especially on the World Wide Web, large files (in terms of kilobytes) can make page-loading a very slow and annoying process. Individual pages should therefore be no longer than is necessary to make a particular point and offer access to other pages – shorter lengths minimise delays and keep reading an interesting experience.

Another key issue is the provision of adequate navigational information for the reader to allow orientation within the document. Readers should always know how to move forwards, backwards or elsewhere, and how easily to find pages of particular interest within a document, e.g. by summaries or overview pages, a glossary of key terms, or a search engine, as well as where they are at any moment and to where offered links lead. It is therefore important to write each page as a self-contained unit and provide clear information about the topic of the page currently open as well as about the topic of those pages which come up at each link.

A third consideration must be the specific requirements of screen reading. It is crucial to keep the size of the screen in mind when writing in hypermedia. Although it is possible to print out pages, this destroys the unique hypermedia possibilities and should thus not be encouraged by the author. The size of figures and the length of each paragraph should thus be appropriate for the screen. Moreover, the 'cognitive load' of each page or window, as well as that of all pages belonging together, has to be watched carefully, in order not to ask too much of the reader (Bermudez and Palumbo 1994). Clearly, this was one of the (legitimate) worries of the National Library of Wales when considering my proposal to submit an electronic thesis. But perhaps reading habits will change, too, and adapt to the new task.

Permanent storage and accessibility is a fourth important issue. The question is how it can be ensured that links to a document will make sense and work, even when it has since then been updated or even completely abandoned by the author. One possible solution is a commitment of the author to keep all versions of a document available and simply add links to all newer or older versions on every page (see Nelson 1993, 2/36f, 2/43). But this may not only be impractical due to diskspace restrictions on the relevant servers, a 'living' text on the World Wide Web should also offer its readers more than guaranteed access to long outdated versions of what is essentially archive material. A living text has the unique possibility to show readers, whenever they access the site, the most up-to-date version of each page. Since academic discourse moves on, it is logical that bibliographic references include a date, whether this is the year of the edition of a book or the date when a web-page was accessed (or last changed). While it is certainly desirable to have records of past discussions available somewhere, I cannot see why no longer valid or in other ways unsatisfactory records should be maintained in very prominent places for all times to come. As pasts have constantly changed until now, we must allow the past to change in the future too (cf. Durham 1999). This is another reason against publishing accounts of the past on lifeless hardmedia such as CD-Rom.

In the larger picture, it is entirely impossible to predict how durable in general what we write and publish electronically today will be. What is certain is that it is of the greatest importance to develop a sensitivity for this problem and invest funds, time and effort in finding possible solutions. This is done, for example, by the Archaeology Data Service in York, which is a very important initiative. From my own experience I would say that the most permanent form of electronic files is likely to be in softcopies and not in hardcopies. Disks, CD-Roms, tapes or other hard storage media will not be accessible for ever. Files, however, which are 'living' on web servers or other computer-based media and can be accessed from the outside world, will not only be of use to more people but will also remain accessible with every update of the computer on which they are stored.


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Last updated: Mon March 8 1999