Digitization 101

“The National Initiative for a Networked Cultural Heritage (NINCH) is a US-based coalition of some 100 organizations and institutions from across the cultural sector: museums, libraries, archives, scholarly societies, arts groups, IT support units and others. It was founded in 1996 to ensure strong and informed leadership from the cultural community in the evolution of the digital environment. Our task and goal, as a leadership and advocacy organization, is to build a framework within which these different elements can effectively collaborate to build a networked cultural heritage.”

This guide promotes itself as a long term, collaborative effort among professionals in the business of cultural heritage preservation and the technical support professionals who make it possible to digitize historical materials. This comprehensive survey of and guide to digitization programs can, and probably should, be used as a fundamental reference for any serious effort in digitally preserving cultural history. The six core  ‘Good Practices’ put forth by NINCH are:

1) Optimize interoperability of materials

2) Enable broadest use

3) Address the need for preservation of original materials

4) Indicate strategy for life-cycle management of digital resources

5) Investigate and declare intellectual property rights and ownership

6) Articulate intent and declare methodology.

This comprehensive guide is laden with jargon, technical references and anecdotal evidence about digitization projects for professional historians. When your time comes to manage a digitization project, I encourage you to read this guide in full, but for now let’s stick to the basics.

At the beginning of Chapter V, the author lays out some ubiquitous questions and concerns like, what format(s) is best, how much detail is necessary, and what are the user activities we should be supporting when digitizing? We’re told we should also consider the nature of the original materials, the purpose of digitizing something and the availability of expertise, tech support and funding to succeed with a certain project.

Different original materials will come in different shapes and sizes. Let’s briefly consider some of the issues, variations, tools, etc. that accompany each format of original material.

Text-based manuscript material:

  • Issues: ‘Proprietary Software’- word processing/imaging platforms like Microsoft Word & Adobe whose licensing and longevity are unreliable
  • Solution– “standards-based methods”- new encoding language like ‘Standard Generalize Markup Language’ (SGML) and “Extensible Markup Language” XML, which “avoid the problems of proprietary software, offering data longevity and the flexibility to move from platform to platform freely.”
  • Variation– Page Image vs Full Text
  • Tools– Scanners. Optical Character Recognition Software. Data capture service.
  • Formats– SGML, XML, TEI, ASCII, HTML, EAD, DTD, METS

 

Images/ 2D art:

  • Issues– Delicacy/irregularity of materials. Quality of digital image. Consistent standards
  • Solution– ‘Intermediaries”, Prioritization of researcher’s needs and investment in quality digitization tools
  • Variation– The needs of different mediums to produce the best digital rendering. For example, digitizing an oil painting has a different set of requirements from digitizing a black and white photograph.
  • Tools– High quality scanners or cameras, adequate storage space, specialized software
  • Formats– TIFF, JPEG, PDF

 

Audio/Visual materials:

  • Issues– Extinction of recording equipment, transmission of files, time, storage and money constraints
  • Solutions– Deal with it
  • Variation– Many different recording methods over the history of audio material come with their own machines, vices and challenges.
  • Tools– Analog playback devices, analog-to-digital converter, editing software
  • Formats– Audio: WAVE, MP3, RealAudio      Video: MPEG, QuickTime, RealVideo    Metadata: METS, SMIL

 

The NINCH Guide also discusses issues of Quality Control and Quality Assurance that are basically the promises made by contributors to digitization projects to their researchers and audiences. These teams are responsible for “the procedures and practices that [are] put in place to ensure the consistency, integrity and reliability of the digitization process.” Progress and quality standards in a digitization project should be built-in from the start and vetted regularly.

The primary goal of digitization is to preserve the original materials by taking them out of regular circulation. But, much foresight and specificity is required to make a digitization project worth the time and money. The idea is that digitization should only have to happen once and the file format will remain flexible throughout the evolution of technology.

2 Replies to “Digitization 101”

  1. I found the articles interesting in how it presents all the formats for digital preservation. It made me realize how much work and variety goes into this preservation. I did have a few problems with this article. I got really bogged down in the technical details, so much that I forgot the point many times. I also believe the article, while good for general preservation, forgets that many older things are fragile. I'm aware that scholars have had difficulties even turning some historical articles and artifacts into a digital presence as many are too fragile for scanners and such. This article didn't offer much in way of alternative methods. It's fairly easy to transfer audio recordings, but what do you do about rare Old English tales that are already tattered?

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