A Guide to Digitization

This is a brief introduction to some of the questions you will need to ask yourself when you decide that you need to digitize materials for your digital project. Please keep in mind that this guide is not meant as a substitute to more detailed guidelines like those produced by the Library of Congress or Europeana. Rather, I hope you will use the following questions as means to reflect on the challenges and opportunities that come with the use of digital materials.

I.- What are your goals? Who is your audience? 

As with any other kind of project, you should first define your goals. Most importantly, you should ask yourself what is that you hope to achieve by including digital materials in your project. Perhaps you are hoping to make some texts or objects available to people who do not currently have access to them; or you want to highlight certain aspects of these materials to illustrate your ideas, reinforce your arguments, or present them in a different context. In either case, having a well defined set of goals will dictate many of the choices you will need to make when you start digitizing materials. 

You will also need to be very clear about the audience you are hoping to reach. How much familiarity or understanding can you expect your target audience will have of the digitized objects you plan to include in your project? Remember that our perceptions are strongly influenced by previous knowledge so, when thinking on what you can digitize and what is that you need to capture in those digital copies, you will need to take into consideration what your target audience may already know, or not know, about these materials.

Keep in mind that the more numerous or broad your goals are, the more difficult it will be to make digital copies that are useful. For instance, if your goal is to simply make a photograph available to more people, you may choose not to worry about including different versions of the photograph (in different resolutions). But if you are targeting a more expert audience, who may want to make copies of this photograph for use in different media, it may be better to include different versions of the photograph. Similarly, if your goal is not just to show the images in the photograph but also the materials and condition in which the photograph is, you will need to develop a strategy that will capture the specific aspects of the photograph you are hoping to communicate to your audience. This can include video, higher resolution images of specific elements of the photograph, or descriptive text.

II.- What do you need to capture?

Once you have defined your goals and your audience you need to think about what is that you can digitize. Your need to ask yourself the following questions:

What materials do I need?

Do I have access to these materials?

Do I have a legal right to make digital copies of these materials?

Once you have an idea of what are the materials you need, where to find them, and have the appropriate permissions to use them, you will need to decide what is that you need these objects to represent. 

This will force you to refer once again to the goals of your project. How do you expect the users of your project will engage with these objects? Do you want them just to see the general characteristics of the objects, or do you want them to be able to appreciate more details such as size, texture, or even sound. Keep in mind that when digitizing you are making a digital copy of an object, text, or even sound, and that all copies, by their very nature, are an imperfect representation of the original. Thus you need to make decisions on what compromises you are willing to make, what elements of the objects should be captured in your representation, even if this means not capturing other aspects of the original. 

For example, let us say you need to include an Arabic manuscript in your project. Is it important or even necessary that your users see the conditions of the paper, the original calligraphy and how the pages of the manuscript are bound, or is it more important that they can read the content of the text. A good quality photograph will help you achieve the first goal, though you may also find necessary to include a narrative description. If your goal is just to convey the text of the manuscript, you may decide between using a scanner or making a transcription. In this case, your decision will have to take into account whether your audience is familiar with the Arabic language and Arabic script.

Also keep in mind that when we digitize an object we are creating a representation and that context and framing are also part of this representation. Your representation of an object does not end with the digital copy of the object itself, it extends to the webpage in which it appears, the text it is accompanied by, and the other objects that are also represented in your project. 

III.- What media should I use?

Your choice of media will largely depend on:

  1. The nature and condition of the object you want to copy.
  2. What you hope to capture from the objects you want to digitize. 
  3. Your own level of comfort and expertise using different media. 
  4. Technical restrictions such as storage capacity, ease of use, etc.

Most of us are reasonably comfortable taking digital photographs, yet, the pictures we can take with phones and tablets may not always capture all we need from certain objects. Remember that digital photographs are a two-dimensional rendition of what often are three-dimensional objects, so you need to consider whether the photographs capture all the elements of the object that you need to convey to your users. Another option is video, which may allow you to film yourself or others interacting or manipulating an object, thus allowing you to convey a lot more information about it. However, making good, useful videos and editing them requires more expertise and resources that taking a still photograph. Not to mention that videos require more memory to store and display. In this case, you will need to ask yourself if you can work with a combination of media. For instance, instead for taking a video of a painting where you focus on different elements of the painting from different vantage points, you may choose to write a detailed description of the general size and materials used in the painting. But of course, this compromise is only appropriate if the goals of your project only require that users can see the general image of the painting. If your project requires that your users appreciate the conditions and actual size of the painting, you may decide that some form of three-dimensional rendering is in fact necessary. 

Often times the media used to digitize an object will be dictated by the condition of the object itself. It is common these days that archives will not allow the use of scanners or flash photography to make copies of documents. Same rules may apply to paintings, prints, etc. Always be mindful that making digital copies of objects, texts, videos or sounds, allows us to preserve certain aspects of those materials but may also contribute to its deterioration. 

Is it worth it?

There is not question that digital copies are imperfect representations of the original materials and that when digitizing materials one always runs the risk of mis-using them or even damaging them. Yet, much can be gained from this process if it is undertaken responsibly and thoughtfully. In addition to allowing for greater access to materials that may have been out of reach for many people, digitization offers us the opportunity to reframe, rethink and re-evaluate ideas, people, objects.

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