A helpful definition of digitization has been put forth by Melissa Terras, a professor at Edinburgh College of Art,. She defines digitization as “the conversion of an analogue signal or code.” Digitization as I will use it will concern the preservation and creation of sources through the medium of the Internet and online collections.
Digitization is a nuanced process that has many benefits and drawbacks in its current state. With that said, it has only become more accessible for the general public throughout the 21st century. One does not have to be a professional to digitize content or source material when many people own smartphones and laptops to casually document and preserve a memory, person, or event.
Professional projects and efforts revolving around digitization also produce interesting conversations when considering the field of the Digital Humanities. The general field of the Gallery, Library, Archive, and Museum (GLAM) sector for instance is moving towards mass digitization of collections across the globe. In other words, this is a general effort to create digital archives and collections for public research and consumption. Throughout such an endeavor, questions arise; such as the sustainability of digitization, what is lost in the experience, and environmental costs from running hosting servers and maintenance.
In terms of the digitization itself however, there are key things to consider, such as capturing the content as close to its physical counterpart as possible. To provide an example, consider a standard frying pan for a collection revolving around the 21st-century kitchen. One picture will not capture the entirety of the object, as one must consider the bottom being durable enough for the heat source to cook, the ridges on the handle, non-stick materials on the pan if that is applicable, and other visual aspects of the pan. Additionally, one must consider the “experience” that the physical object produces. The sounds, weight, feel, and utility are all things to consider with a frying pan and many other objects. Looking up a picture of a frying pan on Google is not the same thing as holding a frying pan and observing minute details.
This is where, I believe, other forms of digitization can aid in lessening what is lost compared to an in-person experience. Using the frying pan again as an example, videos can not only reveal all sides of an object, but capture audio and its weight to an extent. Utilizing more of one’s five senses, videos or having reference objects in frame can capture the experience, dimensions, and overall feel of an object.
Using an example such as a letter from the 1800s as another example, there are clear benefits to these methods. Digitizing the letter itself and transcribing the text into a digital format, it preserves the source material and can also make the text itself legible, depending on the handwriting. There is a push-and-pull effect in what gets preserved and lost along the way.
With this in mind, we must weigh these factors into research and preservation. While accessibility is crucial and I support this effort to digitize the world’s sources, we must do it correctly, and I believe the right conversations are taking place in order to ensure that to the best of our ability.