Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology salvaging endangered data

Archaeologists spend days, months, even years at digs sifting through mud and dirt searching for artifacts that will lead to an understanding of another time and place. Now, the staff at Indiana University Bloomington's archaeology lab is embarking on a dig of its own -- a data dig.

The Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology, named for the first archaeologist to teach at IU, functions as a museum, library and research laboratory dedicated to understanding Indiana's archaeological heritage. Its largest collection derives from Angel Mounds State Historic Site and National Historic Landmark near Evansville, Indiana, where Black led an excavation from 1939 to 1964 and archaeologists from IU have been working ever since.

Photographs of bits of ceramics and fossilized animals found at the Angel Mounds excavation, a reconstruction of a vessel from the site and photos of Glenn A. Black at work circa 1950 are all part of the Glenn A. Black Archaeology lab's online image collection.   Photos courtesy of Glenn A. Black Lab of Archaeology

From this dig and others, the lab has acquired more than 12,000 archaeological collections composed of nearly 5 million artifacts, 30,000 historical photos, 3,600 books and scholarly publications, and more. It is also the keeper of more than 800 linear feet of documents, field journals, maps and drawings as well as more than 700 legacy data formats like floppy discs, 9-tracks and CD-ROMs documenting excavations.

While 70 percent of the artifacts are card catalogued and more than 1,300 of the historical photos are available in an online archive, much of the research data has yet to be retrieved from deteriorating paper journals and obsolete formats to be digitized for accessibility.

"The nightmare is that there is something really important on a floppy disk that doesn't exist on any other format," said Jennifer St. Germain, collections manager at the lab. "If we aren't able to digitize this data then we may lose it."

So the lab's staff has launched an effort to salvage its data, much like archaeologists salvage artifacts from excavations. They have taken inventory and assessed the current state of collections and are seeking support from IU Libraries to digitize documents, create online catalogs and finding guides, and retrieve data from legacy formats. Their efforts align with IU's larger commitment to digitization led by the Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative, which is working to digitize all significant audio and video recordings on campus before the 'IU Bicentennial in 2020.

"The Glenn Black Lab is emblematic of the rich and varied collections we are dedicated to preserving and sharing at IU. Not only do their collections have regional ties to the state of Indiana and immense research value, but they are closely tied to the history of Indiana University," said Jamie Wittenberg, head of Scholarly Communications at University Libraries. "There is a lot of potential for use of the collection by current students and faculty."

Students at drafting tables at Angel MoundsView print quality image
Archaeologists and students from Indiana University have been working at the Angel Mounds site since 1939.  Photo courtesy of the Glenn A. Black Lab of Archaeology
Glenn Black on a latter at Angel MoundsView print quality image
Much of the data collected from the site still exists only in deteriorating paper journals, microfilm, floppy discs and other legacy formats.  Photo courtesy of the Glenn A. Black Lab of Archaeology

The lab's staff hopes that by sharing collections with the public through online catalogs and finding guides, they will be more easily used as research resources for IU students and archeologists from around the state and the country.

"One of the biggest threats facing data and one of the biggest causes of endangered data is not using the collections," said Melody Pope, curator of collections at the lab. "The more intellectual control we have of archaeological data, the more accessible it is, the more we can promote collections as a research core for students and scholars. Hopefully by the end of this project, a dissertation doctoral student won't have to spend years sorting through data. The data will be accessible and they'll just have to bring their questions."

Beyond reaching students and scholars, the lab hopes the data digitized from this project will be more accessible for the Native American tribes associated with its collections. The lab's Great Lakes and Ohio Valley Ethnohistory Collection -- the fruits of a Department of Justice-funded research project led by IU professor Erminie Wheeler-Voegelin in the 1950s -- hosts information pertaining to 15 tribes and spanning the years 1540 to 1907.

While this particular collection now has an online finding aid, the lab hopes to digitize the majority of the research and make it available online. Many tribes included in the project have already been in contact with the lab and are eager to have more access to information that will tell them more about their histories.

"In general our goal is to spread awareness of the resources we have, but it will be particularly rewarding to assist tribes that are interested in the materials we have but can't travel here to use them," St. Germain said. "Digitizing these items will give us the power to help some people learn more about their ancestors."