Archaeologists are up-to-their-ears in digital data and, just like physical artifact collections and paper records, these digital data must be curated properly so that the information they contain is not lost.  But, what does this mean?  What is good digital curation?  Well, it is more than storing digital data in iCloud or a Dropbox account, neither of which provide for long-term preservation, data-sharing, or future use of the data.  And, it isn’t simply putting your data on a website and hoping that colleagues who might be interested will find it and use it.

The level of understanding of what comprises digital curation and why it is important within the contemporary archaeology community is reminiscent of the situation a generation ago regarding the curation of physical collections and records from archaeological investigations.  Then, many archaeologists did not consider how the physical collections of artifacts, samples, and records they created in each field investigation would be curated.  These concerns were left to be dealt with by museum curators or not at all.  Now, planning for archaeological investigations must take account of how and where physical collections and records will be curated.  Archaeologists are required to consider this aspect of their archaeological projects.  Similarly, planning and appropriate treatment of digital data as a normal part of archaeological investigations is essential to ensure that these results of studies are discoverable, accessible, and preserved for future use. An important challenge for the archaeological community and individual archaeologists is how to bring digital curation into archaeological practice without waiting for another generation to pass.  We need to shorten the period within which proper digital curation and preservation of archaeological data becomes a regular part every archaeological project.

The Digital Curation Centre, a national authority on the subject in the United Kingdom, describes digital curation as “maintaining, preserving, and adding value to digital research data.”  To flesh out these terms a bit, one can describe good digital curation as:

  • organizing a project’s digital files logically for efficient administration, management, and research;
  • creating detailed and “rich” metadata describing the file contents and linking this metadata directly with the files;
  • uploading files to a repository (we would recommend tDAR for archaeological data) where they can be discovered and appropriately accessed; and,
  • managing files in the repository to ensure their long-term availability for future uses. 

Detailed guidance about digital curation is available, for example, the Center for Digital Antiquity and the Archaeology Data Service provide quite body of methodological, practical, and technical information about organizing and treating digital data on their webpages, Guide to Good Practice.  Last year these organizations published a handbook with basic guidance about good digital curation methods and techniques, Caring for Digital Data in Archaeology, available from Oxbow Books.

Now, word is spreading wider.  The recently published Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology, by Springer, includes an article: “Digital Archaeological Data: Ensuring Access, Use, and Preservation.”  A preprint version of this article is available in tDAR, where it can be viewed and/or downloaded by registered tDAR users.

There are positive developments based on broader national and international efforts.  For example, the US government recent policies requiring improved access to research data and information generated by government agencies.  Another positive development is the greater emphasis on requiring good digital data management by granting agencies like NSF and NEH.  Academic and scientific publishers, including the Society for American Archaeology and Elsevier, are emphasizing making data used in published articles available in digital formats. All of these general developments are moving in the right direction for improving the inclusion of good digital curation as part of contemporary archaeological practice.  With all this positive background, there is no reason for individual archaeologists or agencies responsible for archaeological information to delay the incorporation of good digital curation into their own work.  Let’s not wait for 20, or 25, or 30 years for digital curation to become part of archaeological good practice.  We will have lost much too much data and information if we delay.