Monday, October 19, 2009

Why is it hard to find archaeological information using standard databases?

I have always been struck with the difficulties in finding archaeological information in standard bibliographic databases. I first had this impression in graduate school, when I worked in the Reference Department of the University of Illinois Library. Other fields seemed to be easy to research in the standard printed catalogs and indexes, but archaeology (and anthropology generally) slipped through the cracks between the humanities, social science, and natural science bibliographies. At my former university, faculty personnel cases were required to include bibliometric data (citation counts and the like), and we had some standard boilerplate text to explain why anthropology is poorly served in the standard databases. We also do poorly in journal impact factors and citation data today.

I just came across a recent paper that explores the difficulties of finding archaeological citations in the standard online bibliographic databases:

Tyler, David, Yang Xu, and Emily Dust Nimsakont

2009 Unearthing Archaeolgy: A Study of the Recent Coverage of Selected English-Language Archaeology Journals by Multi-Subject Indexes and by Anthropological Literature. Behavioral and Social Science Librarian 28:100-144.

The authors document the situation: archaeology (and anthropology) are poorly served in the standard multi-subject databases. Anthropological Literature is the best source for archaeological searching, but it lacks key publications that would make it a comprehensive resource.

These are the reasons identified by the authors for the difficulties in archaeological searching. See the original paper for full citations to a number of other relevant publications.

1. Anthropology and archaeology are very diverse fields.

  • In the words of one library research paper cited by the authors, these fields are “hopelessly diffuse.”
  • “Xia took note that archaeologists’ interests are not only broad where topics are concerned, but where techniques and methodologies are concerned, as well, and he noted that archaeologists borrow readily and eclectically approaches from numerous related fields” (Xia 2006:271).

2. It is difficult to bound the field of archaeology.

  • “Since there does not seem to be any way to predict what anthropologists and archaeologists might want to research or how they will go about researching a subject, there consequently does not seem to be any way to predict what resources they might want. As Bower and his team learned during the course of their studies of archaeologists’ use of resources, the term “‘core’ is a meaningless concept” (148). Bower also learned that the currency of resources is irrelevant as well: “It was also pointed out time and time again that the age of a journal issue was irrelevant, and that the 1770 issue of Archaeologia was just as important to some researchers as the latest issue of Industrial Archaeology Review was to others” (148).”

3. The lengthy history of the field:

  • “the lengthy history of the field(s) and from the irregularity of their information collection and publication practices: the anthropology/archaeology literature is widely scattered, has often been poorly collected and preserved, and has been published in a wide variety of languages.” (p.103)

4. The lack of a comprehensive index or catalog of published literature in archaeology.

5. The lack of an authoritative and consistent terminology to use to index and catalog the field.

6. The internet has produced considerable false and misleading information in archaeology:

  • Sturges and Griffin have further noted that archaeology is a subject like health, politics, business and law, that is particularly susceptible to misinformation. The popular appeal of the subject, coupled with the complexity of the issues, allows those with an agenda other than the discovery of objective truth to spin seductive webs of fantasy and selective presentation of data. (2003, 222)

7. Resistance to change in these factors by individual archaeologists.

  • I will refrain from snide remarks here, but see their discussion for documentation of “the fields’ practitioners’ all too human tendency to create difficulties for themselves.” (p.105).

Tyler, David, Yang Xu, and Emily Dust Nimsakont

2009 Unearthing Archaeolgy: A Study of the Recent Coverage of Selected English-Language Archaeology Journals by Multi-Subject Indexes and by Anthropological Literature. Behavioral and Social Science Librarian 28:100-144.

Xia, Jingfeng

2006 Electronic Publishing in Archaeology. Journal of Scholarly Publishing 37(4):online publication.


Sean Williams said...

Hi Michael,

This is an interesting topic and one we'd love to explore at Heritage Key. Take a look at our site, and get in touch if you think you'd like to use the brand as a platform to speak your mind on the topic.

Janet said...

Anthropological Literature indexes the journals in Tozzer Library at Harvard (I am the librarian responsible for building the Tozzer collection), and so the key publications you refer to which are not in the database probably aren't owned by Tozzer but are in another Harvard library. The reasons are historical and programmatic: Tozzer supports archaeology in the Americanist tradition which typically does not include Egyptology and classical archaeology. That said, if there are important publications you believe should be in AL, tell me what they are and I will see if we might be able to index them.

dtyler said...

Janet's point above about the programmatic and historical reasons for the limitations of AL as an index for archaeology are also apropos where the lesser lights of archaeology are concerned. In an earlier study of indexing of British and Irish titles, we found that 86 of the 89 journals selected for the study had been subscribed to by Harvard libraries, but just 42 had been subscribed to by Tozzer. Many of the journals and magazines (70) were at the the Widener Library, instead, and a sizeable number (34) were also scattered about at other libraries in the system. Thus, they were never indexed by AL.

Luckily for the Isles, biab covers many of the lesser county and society journals, but there doesn't seem to be a similar index for second, third, or fourth tier American periodicals. Since AL doesn't index many of these periodicals, their articles are pretty much lost to view and become grey literature upon publication (see, Seymour 2010 @

If AL isn't going to cover these titles, who will? Academic Search Premier unexpectedly picked up Illinois Antiquity a few years back, but I wouldn't expect there's much momentum among secondary services for extending coverage to other little archaeology journals.

For futher information (with apologies for the corny titles) see:

Cordially yours,

D. C. Tyler