A Guide to Digitization

Digitization is a powerful and useful process, but it is not without limitations. When an object is digitized, it is converted from analog information into digital information. Digitization offers a potent way to represent the appearance of an item, but it does not easily communicate an object’s material essence. A digital image of a physical object can show its shape, its surface appearance, and, to some extent, its coloring, although the color of the digital image is affected by lighting, glare, and the camera one is using. Images are less useful for capturing the dimensions of objects, a 3-D view of them, or a sense of how they might sound, smell, or feel. Videos can do a better job of offering a more holistic view of an object and of offering a sense of its dimensions, but can distort the appearance and color of objects based on filming conditions. Different forms of digitization might well be better suited for different kinds of objects, although I don’t feel that I have enough technical experience to recognize what forms suit which objects most effectively.

Digitizing manuscripts offers a different set of challenges—a simple image of a written or printed page can capture the appearance of a work, but making its content searchable and more easily usable requires running the text through an OCR (Optical Character Recognition) converter. OCR is a powerful tool for converting the image of text to searchable text, although the process requires proofreading and human intervention to ensure that the OCR is correct and fully captures the meaning of the printed text.

But OCR might be a larger metaphor for the process of digitization in that it is extracting meaning in part by diminishing the materiality of a physical object. Trying to digitize my kitchen made me think about the material properties of objects in a way that I hadn’t before. Converting a recipe written on a notecard to a digital format allowed me to easily digitize its specific content—the recipe itself was converted through OCR to searchable text—but it failed completely at capturing the material properties of the object. The digital image of the recipe could be a piece of paper, a whiteboard, or even a picture of a screen. It’s impossible to tell anything about the size, texture, or weight of the physical object.

At the same time, digitizing objects in my kitchen also forced me to think about the materiality of the digital in a way I hadn’t before. An image can be enhanced, distorted, or edited. What they show depends on the decisions made about how to scan or photograph an item, how to edit the resulting digital image, and whether to try to repair or enhance flaws in the original. Digitization is a process of representation and like all forms of representation, it is shaped by the creator, its intended purpose, and the tools used to create it. The more we are aware of digitization as a mediated process, the more thoughtful we can be about what we can use digital objects for.

Digitization offers a limited way to understand the tactile materiality of an object, but it allows for new forms of public access to the appearance and content of objects, and it is an especially useful tool in the case of texts. As someone who studies 20th century history and who analyzes text more than visual images, digitization has allowed me access to an extraordinary wealth of historical sources which I can use in much the same way as I would the original document (although the searchability of digitized sources can shape how one interacts with a text for, by example, leading to a more focused reading of content rather than exploring the text in its entirety). Even so, the limitations of digitization are likely more impactful to those who seek to engage in visual analysis or to study material objects as objects.

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