A Guide to Digitization

Purpose: To provide a brief guide to digitization that will be utilized in this blog.

Underlying Assumptions: Digitization is the process by which material is reproduced in digital formats.  This guide was written with the understanding that no digital copy replaces the original object. Digitization creates a facsimile of the original and information is lost in the process.  Therefore, the first guideline is that the original should be handled as little as possible and stored as if no digital copy exists.

Digitizing Material: Almost anything can be digitized in one form or another, but not every element of the original object can be captured. The elements that can be captured in digitalization include:

  • Visual elements such as color, scale, dimensions and shape
  • Auditory elements
  • Movement

Elements that cannot be captured in digitalization include:

  • Sensory elements such as smell, texture, weight and taste
  • How the viewer would experience the original- for example magnitude and environment

Digitization is inherently project specific. Not every element capable of being captured is possible in every format. The project leader must make decisions about what elements need to be captured and which can be left out based upon the project. The project goals will determine which digital forms make the most sense for the objects being digitized. Some generalizations, however, can be made. For flat objects such as photographs and documents JPEG, GIF or TIFF formats are well suited for communicating visual information. Multi-dimensional objects such as sculptures and cultural heritage artifacts can be 3D scanned, although at this time 3D scanners are often prohibitively costly. These materials can also be photographed from several points of perspective and saved as JPEG, GIF or TIFF files. A final solution is to create of .mov or mp4 file by rotating a video camera around the object. The limitations of the last two options is that the viewer cannot manipulate the resulting digital product as much as a 3D scan. Audio can be transcribed into a PDF, which would be ideal for a project concerned with the content of the audio only. Projects which seek to explore auditory characteristics would find mp3 files useful. Performances or other objects for which movement is essential would benefit from .mov or mp4 files.

The digitization of material can be broken into four steps, and at each step the project leader must make decisions using the project goals as a guide.

  1. The Object is Captured in Digital Format
    • Decisions:
      • Which hardware to use
      • What conditions are necessary to reach minimum standard requirements (codified before the start of the project)
      • What information is the most important
  2. Import the Digital File
    • Decisions:
      • Name of the file
      • Location of the file
  3. Digital Manipulation
    • Decisions:
      • How much manipulation is necessary for the necessary information to be conveyed
      • What file formats will best deliver this information
      • What metadata can be extracted
      • How will this metadata be presented (if any)
  4. Storage of the Digital Artifact
    • Decisions
      • Creation of a Master File and publicly accessible files
      • Location of files

The Impact of Digitalization: The act of digitalization changes the way in which objects are understood. Digitalization is a wonderful tool for making material available to a bigger audience, and more voices change how material is understood. The digitizer should be aware that the object is not being digitized as though it magically turns into ones and zeros to live on a server. Rather, a digital copy is made, and this copy is incomplete at that.  A JPEG of a wallet-sized photo is a good copy because the viewer sees the object much in the same way he or she would view the photo in life. A 3D model of Stonehenge, however detailed, will never completely capture the magnitude of the structure on a standard computer screen. A digital copy fundamentally changes an individual’s understanding of the object by focusing on some elements and silencing others as a part of the digitization process.

Digitalization does open opportunities for users to transform the object. Sculptors could never make new arms for the real “Venus de Milo”, but they might using 3D modeling software. Users can change a textual document into speech and speech into text. Stills can be extracted from digitized film. Digitalization allows for the copy to be changed in ways the original might be incapable of and without harming the original.


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