My Guide to Digitization

Digitization is most helpful to capture and represent an image’s visual appearance. The most important and still probably most frequent digitizing activity of this sort is the capture of the words within printed texts. Microfilm was an early twentieth-century technique to reproduce individual texts, both printed and hand written. These reproductions of original texts did so without reprinting them, but did not allow users to search for key words and phrases, tally word usage frequencies, or quickly identify contexts within which authors expressed certain ideas. Primitive digitization of texts, over time making these techniques nearly as standard ways to use texts as to read them from beginning to end, began in the 1970s. Widespread production of digital cameras began in the 1990s, though they would be nearly subsumed by cell phones with digital photographing capacity by the 2000s. Meanwhile, the advent of personal computers in the 1980s and the Internet in the 1990 equipped not only government agencies and scholars to have access to countless texts and images, but middle-class lay people.

While these developments have proliferated and democratized access to knowledge – and made familiarity with personally usable technology an essential social function – it is easy to ignore those features of original, tangible texts and images their digitized versions do not capture. In the last few decades, digital humanities scholars have begun to identify and warn about such limitations. Depending the archivist’s or other digital image producer’s priority – to capture the image as it exists in the present day, as it existed when created, or enhanced through addition of color or shading, or on the basis simply of what financial constraints allow – an image may artificially gain or lose aspects of its original form. An object’s texture or “feel,” all-around appearance, and even sound are difficult to reproduce, even when the digitization is a video rather than a still image, and an object’s smell is impossible to convey.

Yet despite or alongside these limitations, digitization of objects in still images can provide a fairly true representation of an object’s color, and in video images can convey an object’s size, function, and thus even sound, depending on the setting or context in which the object is scanned, photographed or filmed. These advantages exist alongside the obvious usage of digitization to produce a faithful reproduction of a written source’s word contents. Thus, objects with relatively simple color schemes, of modest size, and/or whose function can be demonstrated (important for rare or obsolete objects in material culture), as well as text-based sources, are the best candidates for digitization.

Generally, use of digitized versions of objects versus the actual objects leads to certain parts of what they are gain more importance than often what the original author, painter, photographer, or woodworker had in mind. Creators of humanist items such as these generally wish their work’s meaning to be most striking when the work is read, viewed, or used in its finished form, allowing the mechanics of its constituent parts – words and grammar, paint and canvas, camera object and lens, tools and furniture – to be unnoticeable. Of course, deconstruction of texts and objects of material culture has long been a scholarly activity predating the digital age. And digital analysis and production of information in virtual form not only deconstructs objects but often reveal their hidden meanings.  But the tendency of rapidly evolving tools of digitization is towards practices that decontextualize words, phrases, and certain aspects of visual images, in service of users’ needs that may be quite divorced and even distortive of the perspective and intentions of the objects’ creators. Digitization began as an effort to preserve historical texts and images.  Its challenge now is to balance the diversity of digital users’ (and producers’) needs preserving what those texts’ and images’ creators wished to capture.  

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