Digital Humanities

The Step Beyond Digitization

Posted by Emily Crockett

Rather, we believe that we need to critically and soberly assess where computers, networks, and digital media are and aren’t useful for historians—a category that we define broadly to include amateur enthusiasts, research scholars, museum curators, documentary filmmakers, historical society administrators, classroom teachers, and history students at all levels. In what ways can digital media and digital networks allow us to do our work as historians better?

Clearly digitization is an important aspect in digital art history, however I would argue that it is only the first step. It is not enough to just digitize the material, one has to do something with it. Cohen and Rosenzweig briefly touch on this in their “Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web,” writing about Designing for the “History Web”, Building an Audience, and Collecting History. I would say there are two major aspects to doing something with the digitized material. The material needs to accessible, and it (preferably) needs to do something different or as Cohen and Rosenzweig write, “allow us to do our work as historians better”

Access is important because it is fundamental to the process of digitizing. If you’re not increasing access with the digitization of material, what then is the point? As it is best practice to keep the original even after you digitize, you then have two things to preserve- the physical thing and the digital thing (because yes, digital things have to be preserved too!) so why bother if you’re going to continue to limit access? Digitization offers the opportunity for the kid in middle of nowhere USA to see the collection at the Met. It offers grad students doing dissertation work the chance to view a good digital surrogate for their item, (somewhat) diminishing the cost of research. It allows for people groups to try to recreate narratives. (Granted this is all based in access to the internet, which varies widely across the country and is a problem in and of itself)

As an archive or library, providing access is an incredible next step after digitization. After that one can begin to use the digital material in ways that the physical material can’t. The first example I was going to link to was the interactive version of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, however it seems that it has been taken offline (another important aspect to consider when digitizing) Bosch’s Garden is exhausting to look at in one sitting, you have to keep coming back to it to really get the details. This interactive project allowed for annotations of the work and tour through the painting at a zoomed in level, allowing one to focus on the details. It brings the painting alive. When I was teaching this painting this spring, I brought this project in and my students thoroughly enjoyed learning from the interactive version, and ended up retaining it much longer than anything else. In reference to more historical collections, digitized newspapers that have converted into text files allows for using text mining tools to analyze the newspapers in more ways than one could by just reading them.

Ultimately the onus is on the scholar to something new and different with digitized material, however they need that digitized material to do something new and different.

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