Having the ability to digitize texts. photographs, and objects is one advantage to living in the twenty-first century. However, instead of jumping into a digitization project of any kind, one must have an intellectual toolbox full of knowledge of the pros and cons of different types of digitization. Even armed with this knowledge, some trial and error adds to one’s insights about the process.
It is important to ask questions such as:
- What can you capture, and not capture, when you digitize something?
- Which forms of digitization make the most sense for different types of items?
- To what extent does working with digitized representations impact how we understand different kinds of items, and/or our ability to use them for different purposes?
Melissa Terras’s “Digitisation and Digital Resources in the Humanities,” Paul Conway’s “Building Meaning in Digital Photographs,” and Marlene Manoff’s “The Materiality of Digital Collections: Theoretical and Historical Perspectives” provide insights into the process of digitization.
What you can and cannot capture depends, to some degree, what type of digitization one is attempting. Digital photographs, especially those with zoom capabilities, are able to capture an object’s color and texture rather effectively. Size and weight can be gauged, but photographs are not the best ways to examine these features of an object. It is impossible to show all sides of an object or its sounds and smells through a photograph. Videos, on the other hand, provide the ability to capture an object’s size, weight, color, and texture, In addition, one may videotape all sides of an object, and possibly hear the sounds, if any, that it makes. A video also provides the opportunity to show how the weight of an object, such as a dish towel, can change when it becomes wet. Smell is not possible in a video, unless people on the video are presenting their views on the aroma of an object, such as coffee or a flower. OCR technology provides a way for text from objects to be utilized for study, but sometimes there are inaccuracies in capturing words, and lighting issues in the process may cause reading difficulties.
Digital photographs are relatively useful for capturing historic photographs, but, as Conway notes, the photographer must consider questions such as whether to crop, to fix blemishes, to render the photographer’s intent or the item’s original state. One must think hard about what one is capable of capturing with a digital photo and what one;s goals are with it.
For text objects such as a shopping list, a photograph may be sufficient. However, for objects such as a historic newspaper, seeing the object in its physical form is crucial. This ties to the fact that working with digitized representations has a large impact on how we understand different kinds of items, and/or our ability to use them for different purposes? As Marlene Manoff’ notes in her 2006 piece “The Materiality of Digital Collections: Theoretical and Historical Perspectives,” “different modes of material embodiment produce different objects” (316). She also cites both Roger Chartier’s “claims that it is essential to preserve the ability ‘to consult texts in their successive forms,'” (qtd, in Manoff 316) and Elizabeth Aspen’s point about the materiality of the text: “the book both stores and delivers text, where the computer distributes those functions” (qtd. in Manoff 319). For many objects, including books and historic newspapers, photographs are not adequate.
For example, I worked as an indexer on the HarpWeek project, reading scanned copies of Harper’s Weekly and creating appropriate indexing terms related to numerous texts and images. I was pleased by the ability to work with even the scanned images, and I believed that I knew what Harper’s Weekly “looked like.” Recently, I was able to view original copies of many of the issues of Harper’s Weekly that I had indexed years before. I was thrilled to see the originals, but I was shocked when I opened the newspaper to see the drawing-room table size pages and illustrations when the paper was laid out flat. I suddenly realized that I had missed part of how Harper’s Weekly was read by contemporaries.
When digitizing objects it helps to use a video to be able to see all sides of the object or objects, as well as the depth and texture of the object or objects. Videos also allow for close up or far away views of the object or objects. In the case of Harper’s Weekly, a video would have helped historians understand how the newspaper “worked.” Perhaps even a video illustrating the size of the paper and how it opened up would have been useful on the former HarpWeek site.
Jules Prown’s method of analyzing objects focuses on the steps of description, deduction, and speculation. All three steps are influenced by the digital representation of an object. The description stage gathers information about the size, height, weight, texture, color, and other factors about an object. The Deduction stage focuses on the physical connection, intellectual connection, and emotional connection between object and user. Finally, the Speculation stage is the time to determine what the information gathered in the first two stages may mean. We work with what we have, and talented scholars will be able to find meaning from a photograph, if necessary. Yet, if one has the ability to videotape an object before embarking on a Prownian Analysis of it, that would be the better choice in just about every case.