Digital Preservation and Access (DPA)

There have been great strides made with regard to creating digital object repositories—that is collections of different kinds of digital content—and moving toward interoperability between repositories outside of anthropology. It is prudent to build on rather than reinvent these developments. The best way to do this is to work with experts who are familiar with the accomplishments from these fields. For a review of some of these efforts, click here. For a review of developments in anthropology see below.

Why DPA is vital to anthropology

1. Background materials provide the context for understanding the research undertaken, whether qualitative or quantitative research. The appropriate analog is the “lab notebook” in the physical sciences. These are critical for evaluating published research. But other information about the observer is also important and certainly critical for evaluating any biases. So, preservation of any associated materials (dairies, correspondence, etc.) is also of intellectual value.

2. Physical archives have only stored a very small portion of the anthropological corpus. For example, Robert Leopold of the National Anthropological Archives estimated that 500 anthropologists retire each year, but the NAA only acquires 6-8 major collections each year1. And universities, with limited funding, always make choices about which collections they will take and process. Participants in the workshop on which this report is based speculated on why potential donors have been reluctant to give their materials to archives to date (click for details). Understanding these reasons may suggest how digital preservation may play an important role in future preservation efforts.

3. Many of the anthropological data now being accumulated are “born-digital” and physical repositories will find it difficult to preserve this material in a form that will be accessible in the future. It will be necessary to migrate date from old formats to new ones over time. It is likely that new tools will be invented that will allow updates and data migration to be managed automatically by repositories.

4. Digital preservation can lead to more open access and to productive repurposing of old datasets. Legacy data are particularly important in all subdisciplines of anthropology. Exceptions are to be found in techniques such as three-dimensional modeling and scanning, where researchers are likely to prefer new scans over archived old ones. However, this presumes that the specimens will be preserved for reanalysis as necessary. In cases where the original specimens have been destroyed or are inaccessible, archived scans might be the only option available.

5. Access increases research potential

Background in Anthropology

In anthropology, digital preservation of scientific data is a relatively new enterprise, but as early as 2001 plans were underway to create distributed digital archives of anthropological material2. Table 1 above lists the various types of anthropological material that lend themselves to preservation in a digital archive.

Anthropology has taken some steps to encourage scholars to preserve research data. For example, the American Anthropological Association, at its annual meeting in November 1968, adopted a resolution urging the preservation of anthropological field materials and consideration of the National Anthropological Archives as a suitable repository for materials not committed to other institutions. The need for preserving the anthropological record was clearly stated in 1992 when the Wenner-Gren Foundation sponsored a symposium, “Preserving the Anthropological Record3” . Papers discussed existing archives, preservation issues, and issues of how to preserve and archive the records. The results of the symposium included the passing of a number of resolutions and the creation of the Council on the Preservation of the Anthropological Record (CoPAR). This council meets at the American Anthropological Association, has workshops, and from time to time posts bulletins on the Smithsonian Institution web site. As of 2005, the NSF programs in archaeology and physical anthropology as of 2005 require detailed plans for data sharing as a condition of funding, and NSF’s Documenting Endangered Languages program has instructed applicants to discuss plans for archiving data since its inception in 2004.

Some DPA and interoperability efforts have already been initiated in the individual fields of anthropology. Perhaps linguistics, physical anthropology, and archaeology have talked more about interoperability than cultural anthropology, but there have been no large-scale accomplishments within each subdiscipline and no overall anthropological efforts.

Umbrella digital projects in linguistics include: The Open Language Archives Community; the Rosetta Project; archiving and tool development activities within the DoBeS Project; the Digital Endangered Languages and Musics Archive Network and associated archives; the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project; the Linguistic Data Consortium; TalkBank; a range of projects associated with the Institute for Language and Information Technology, including the E-MELD project and the GOLD Community project, the latter of which sought to enhance interoperability of linguistic data by creation of a formal ontology. In addition, NSF recently funded recent Cyberling workshop, whose goal was to lay the groundwork for the development of a unified cyberinfrastructure in linguistics. Many of these projects have been developed in the context of a rising concern in the preservation and dissemination of data from endangered languages. 4

In physical anthropology, the major digital projects focus primarily on primate morphology and the fossil record including Paleoanthportal with constituent databases called PRIMO—Primate Morphology Online Database, and HOD–Human Origins Database; RHOI—Revealing Human Origins Initiative, an NSF HOMINID project; and NESPOS—Neandertal Studies Professional Online System. For behavioral data there is the Primate Life Histories Database. Finally, there are a number of large biomedical databases that are becoming critical resources to physical anthropological research. These databases include GENBANK, ALFRED — the ALLele FREquency Database as well as dbGaP.

In archaeology, the major digital projects are: Chaco Digital Initiative in cooperation with the National Anthropological Archives; The Digital Archaeological Record (tDAR), which is the core element of the Digital Antiquity Project; ArchaeoInformatics; ArchSeer, a specialized archaeological search engine; ADS (Archaeological Data Service), an on-line service of York University. Open Context ( represents a somewhat different approach in that it emphasizes a publication model and rich APIs and Web services for Web-based dissemination of archaeological data.  It relies on other institutional partners, such as the California Digital Library for data archiving and preservation.

Cultural anthropology is characterized by many individual “silo” digital projects, many self-created and others part of university efforts to digitize faculty material. Some of the larger projects include: Tibetan and Himalayan Digital Library; Melanesian Archive;  Oceania Digital Library; Digital Himalaya project; American Philosophical Society digital collections; the American Museum of Natural History/Digital Library Project, and the digital projects at the National Anthropological Archives. Other projects representing different types of efforts are The Virtual Institute of Mambila Studies and Robert Kemper’s work as literary executor for George Foster, who is digitizing George Foster’s extensive material from Tzintzuntzan. Some scholars who have substantial digital material from a variety of data types include: Michael Agar, Janet Bagg, Brent and Elois Berlin, Neville Colclough, Nick Colby ,Roy D’Andrade, John Davis, Jim Dow, Roy Ellen, Michael Fischer, Joel M.Halpern, Eugene Hammel, David Kronenfeld, Alan Macfarlane, A. Kimball Romney, Henry Selby , Paul Stirling, and David Zeitlyn. While its primary digital databases (eHRAF World Cultures and eHRAF Archaeology) are designed for rapid retrieval of mostly published ethnographic and archaeological descriptive materials, in 2005 HRAF began planning a separate database (called the Culture Conservancy) involving 20 individual collections of fieldnotes and photographs and began looking for DPA startup funding. In the interim, HRAF will incorporate some of this material into its eHRAF Collections. In 2009, HRAF put its first field research photo collection (from Joel M. Halpern) online and will follow with Melvin Ember’s collection.

General Background

There have been great strides made with regard to creating digital object repositories and moving toward interoperability between repositories. It is prudent to build on rather than reinvent these developments. (Click here for an overview.) The best way to do this is to work with experts who are familiar with the accomplishments from these fields.

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  1. Schmid, Oona. 2008. Inside the National Anthropological Archives: An Interview with Robert Leopold. Anthropology News, January: 32-33. []
  2. Clark, Jeffrey T., Brian M. Slator, Aaron Bergstrom, Francis Larson, Richard Frovarp, James E. Landrum III, William Perrizo. 2001. “Preservation and Access of Cultural Heritage Objects through a Digital Archive Network for Anthropology,” Virtual Systems and MultiMedia, International Conference on, pp. 28, Seventh International Conference on Virtual Systems and Multimedia (VSMM’01). []
  3. Silverman, Sydel and Nancy J. Parezo editors. 1995. Preserving the anthropological record. Papers presented at a symposium : Preserving the Anthropological Record : issues and strategies / sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and held February 28 – March 4, 1992 in Rancho Santa Fe, California. Contents: Introduction / Sydel Silverman — The National Anthropological Archives / Mary Elizabeth Ruwell — Discipline history centers in the sciences / Joan Warnow-Blewett — The Melanesian Archive / Donald Tuzin — Preserving the archaeological record / Don D. Fowler and Douglas R. Givens — The records of applied anthropology / John van Willigen — The role of museums in preserving the anthropological record / Thomas H. Wilson and Nancy J. Parezo — Saving the past for the future: guidelines for anthropologists / Nancy J. Parezo, Nathalie F.S. Woodbury, and Ruth J. Person — The physical preservation of anthropological records / Mary Elizabeth Ruwell — The potentials and problems of computers / Robert V. Kemper — The future uses of the anthropological record / Shepard Krech III and William C. Sturtevant — The next steps / Sydel Silverman and Nancy J. Parezo. New York. Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. []
  4. Bird, S. and G. Simons. 2003. Seven dimensions of portability for language documention and description. Language 79:557–582; Gippert, J., N. Himmelmann, and U. Mosel. 2006. Essentials of language documentation. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. []

One Comment

  1. Kathryn Creely says:

    The Melanesian Archive is not at the University of Virginia, it is at the University of California, San Diego. We have an on-going project to collect fieldnotes and other manuscript materials created by anthropologists working Melanesia (not just from UCSD faculty members). We have begun digitizing some of the photographs in the Melanesian Archive and have plans to do other materials as well. Please contact me if you would like more information.

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