On digitization

In my research into media history, I rely greatly on digitized materials. The ability to request digital copies of newspapers and magazines, or to access them remotely from memory institutions like the National Library of Latvia’s periodika.lv collection, has enabled me to do more focused research faster and without the expense of travel. However, so often I find the digital copies lacking something, whether it is the ability to search text or the clarity of images. The digital copies, or surrogates, also do not provide the researcher with elements that the physical artifact would. Imagine wanting to study printing technology and not being able to see first hand what a newspaper from, say, the eighteenth century looked like, to feel the indentations that individual letters made as they were inked and pressed into paper.

It is precisely issues such as this that have occupied the thoughts of those who work on digitizing collections of libraries, museums, and archives. The word surrogate is an appropriate description of a digital copy. A digital copy is not the actual object; it is a replacement, albeit sometimes far from an optimal one. Those charged with transferring material to a digital format must consider what is being digitized, for what purpose, and for whom.

A recent activity with creating digital images and videos of common items found in my kitchen illustrates the point. I created JPEG still images and MOV format videos of several items. As I made the images and videos, I knew that the digital surrogates were for a course assignment, not for public display or use. Thus, quality of the surrogates was not a primary concern. Even if it had been, I was limited in the resources I had at hand (an Apple iPhone was used for both the still images and videos). If I had been tasked with creating digital surrogates for a museum and that could be seen and used by scholars and the public, concerns about standards and best practices would have been foremost in my mind.

The activity served as a lesson in the limits of digital surrogates. For example, I could make a digital photograph of a red pepper in order to show someone what it looks like. However, the image created was flawed in its color rendition. The surrogate pepper did not look as red as the real vegetable. This most likely was a function of lighting and the digital camera used to make the image. In other words, I could tell someone that the surrogate was an approximation of what a red pepper looks like, but they would have to see the real thing to fully appreciate the vegetable. What, then, would be the point of a digital surrogate? Without a reference, the digital image also provided little clue as to the size of the red pepper, nor could someone viewing the image sense how the vegetable tastes or smells. The texture of the pepper might be guessed at (“It looks smooth.”), but that would be an assumption based on the viewer’s experience with similar objects. (Experiments in expanding the sensory range of digital surrogates have been attempted. For example, digital scent technology in the form of the iSmell device was unveiled in 1999, according to Wired magazine. However, the device failed to impress potential customers.)

In my research, a digital surrogate that allows me to read a periodical and, ideally, search the text, is sufficient to meet most needs. However, that may not be sufficient for another researcher. For example, someone studying photojournalism might be disappointed with the loss of resolution required to keep digital file sizes manageable. The nuances of a black-and-white continuous tone image, already damaged by the halftone process used to reproduce photographs in modern newspapers, could be lost in a digital surrogate.

Still images of three-dimensional objects have an additional challenge because they cannot provide a sense of depth. Video can be a solution here, but high-quality video requires greater amounts of digital storage, not to mention high bandwidth in cases where the surrogate is transmitted via the internet.

If the purpose of digitization is to show what a pepper looks like from one single perspective, a still image could do the job. If the purpose is to show the curves and even the sensuality of a pepper, video would be the better choice (although photographer Edward Weston was able to do it with a still black-and-white image). The form of digitization must follow from the purpose and the audience for the surrogate, not necessarily from the nature of the original.