Digitization: A Brief Discussion
This post relates to the topic of digitization of objects and texts. While there are numerous conference panels, digital humanities fellows, and academic literature that all relate to the subject, it is my goal, here today, to try and give a very basic overview of: what one can and cannot capture when digitizing, the various forms of digitization, and how digitization impacts our ability to use and utilize the objects or texts.
Firstly, when digitizing a textual record, say a census record, one is able to use an OCR or Optical Character Recognition software. This software (a rudimentary form can be found on Google’s Drive platform), according to Melissa Terras’s article “Digitisation and Digital Resources in the Humanities” from the University College of London, is used to create a digital form of the text by scanning the original document for words. Simply, we are taking an image, or analogue, and making it into a code or digital signal. (Terras) This form of text manipulation works with clearly printed black and white texts that are then “re-keyed” into digital code. (Terras) An example of this is Google’s massive digitized book collection. Google Books offers researchers the ability to text-search within the larger work, and the software allows for highlighting/note taking capabilities. Google Books is an OCR project done a very large scale, a scale that is only sustainable through continual funding. In many cases, digitization project are not finished or are not sustainable because of financial restrictions.
While one might be able to capture texts, it is harder to digitize objects with multiple sides. Meaning, taking a picture of a bowl from Roman antiquity will only tell the viewer what that bowl looks like from one side. In order for the viewer, or even a researcher, to have a full interactive experience, the bowl has to be placed in a digital software were one can move and manipulate the camera for angle adjustment. Paul Conway in his article “Building Meaning in Digitized Photos” presents a set of theories of reproduction. In these theories, Conway states that digitization is a “relationship between maker and viewer”, and that viewing conditions need to be made before a digitization project can begin. In the end, while OCR may allow easy digitization of texts, digitizing objects with multiple sides can be a bit more tricky, often limiting the viewers interaction to only one side of the object.
Secondly, when looking at digitization forms, one must be aware of viewer interaction. It is by understanding viewer interaction that one is able to choose the appropriate form of digitization. In order words, scanning textual records may prove beneficial for single-sided records, but not for larger, more complex objects. Using a video or digital rendering software for more complex objects would allow for a more interactive experience. Using that same bowl from Roman antiquity, one can create a digital representation of the object; allowing one to even view the inside of the object. Furthermore, say we not only find a bowl in the excavation site but also we stumble across a set of table and chairs as well. A digitization project could, theoretically, create a digital mock-up of the house or villa where these objects were found. Once one creates this mock-up one is able to place these objects into their positions around the dinning room or office. Marlene Manoff in her article “The Materiality of Digital Collections” notes that technology has shifted how we study these objects, simply scanning or digitizing the object does not add value. These objects still need to be studied in their respective historical mediums. In the end, Manoff stress the need to keep all original objects based on the notion that it is the original objects that tell the “true story”.
Lastly, let us end with a word of caution. Melissa Terras echoed concerns of digitization in her article “Digitisation and Digital Resources in the Humanities” by stating that digitization is not a substitution for preservation or curation. Moreover, digitization projects are intended to allow for acceptability of objects and texts, yet digitization also impacts how we understand these objects. Going back to Paul Conway’s article, he makes clear that “meaning may be influenced by the decisions that digitizers make in representing historical photographic media in digital form.” Simply, Conway notes the very real possibility of digitization bias. This form of bias is on the part of the collection creator. What the creator names a digitized category or what he or she decides to include in that category shapes the viewers interaction and understanding of the collection. While the historical information of the object is correct, placing a Roman coin from antiquity under the category of “specie” instead of “religion” would tell the viewer that coinage is related to monies and taxation. Placing the coin under “religion” would push the viewer to look closer at who is engraved on the coin and how this coin was placed in, perhaps, a temple and not in a bank. In the end, simply creating a digitized collection does not diminish the responsibility of the curator, in fact, it adds more interpretive elements that need to be continuously addressed by the curator or collection managers.
Terras, Melissa. “Digitisation and Digital Resources in the Humanities,” In Digital Humanities in Practice, edited by Claire Warwick, Melissa Terras, and Julianne Nyhan. Facet Publishing, 2012: Article
Conway, Paul. “Building Meaning in Digitized Photographs.” Journal of the Chicago Colloquium of Digital Humanities and Computer Science 1, no. 1 (2009): Article
Manoff, Marlene. “The Materiality of Digital Collections: Theoretical and Historical Perspectives.”Portal: Libraries and the Academy 6, no. 3 (07, 2006): 311-25. : Article