Consider this digital photo I took of the face of the Albert Einstein Memorial outside the National Academy of Sciences. Although my photo tells us something about what the memorial looks like, I don’t think anyone would say that I “digitized” it. We think about this kind of photo as a creative work (albeit not particularly creative) but it has a creator (in this case me). In contrast, when someone scans a document in a flatbed scanner, or takes a digital photo of a page in a book, we talk of digitizing the document or the book. We tend to think about those digital objects as surrogates for their physical counterparts. I’m increasingly thinking that this distinction between the born digital and the digitized does more harm than good.
What the Distinction Between Digitized and Born Digital Tries to Capture
Cultural heritage professionals often talk about “born digital” and “digitized” objects. In some respect this distinction captures meaningful differences. A digitized object exists to record and present characteristics of some physical object. In contrast, born digital objects began their existence as digital. In the case of digitized materials, we care about the fidelity of a digitized copy to an original. In contrast, born digital materials do not serve as surrogates for physical objects, these born digital objects are originals. That distinction should help place priority on the preservation of these digital originals. With this noted, the distinction between born digital and digitized objects can obfuscate as much as it illuminates.
Digitization is Always the Creation of a Digital Object
The idea of digitization obfuscates the fact that digitization is not a preservation act. Digitization is a creative act. What is the meaningful distinction between using a scanner to scan a document, taking a digital photo of a document and taking a photo of me holding that document? In the end, all of these create a digital files, each of which have authors who made decisions about these compositions. There is no large red button that says “digitize” on it, we make decisions about what significant properties we want to record from a physical object and we work to ensure that those properties are recorded in the newly created digital object. When we talk about the scanner “digitizing” it’s all too easy to forget the history of the creation of the digital object and we can easily forget that there are a range of individual and institutional authorial intentions that go into deciding what and how to digitize.
When One Digitizes One Makes Authorial Decisions
Like most words that end in –ition digitization has that seductive quality of sounding like a trivial and straightforward process. The Federal Digitization Guidelines are a great resource for helping to make decisions about what matters for a given digitization project, however, individuals and institutions always need to make authorial decisions. Although I work on digital preservation I often find myself fielding digitization questions. After doing my due diligence to explain that digital preservation and digitization are fundamentally different things, I go on to help answer these digitization questions. Most questions are something like “what resolution should I scan at?” and my answer is always “it depends, Why you are scanning? What do you want to capture about these physical objects in new digital objects you are going to create.” There isn’t a right way to digitize something, instead there are right ways to make sure that the traces of a particular physical object that you care about are visible in the newly created digital object.
You can say that you only care about the informational qualities of a book, but you still need to go about defining what exactly that information is. For example one can analyze traces of use of texts through looking at patterns of dirt left on high resolution scans (See Sarah Werner’s excellent post, where material culture meets the digital humanities, for more on this dirt example). That dirt represents information that can be captured on scans. There is an inexhaustible amount of information in any physical object and it is up to the digitizer to decide what traces we want to make evident in the new digital object.
Digital Preservation is a Consideration for All These Born Digital Objects
If we want any of these born digital objects to stick around, the ones created on a flatbed scanner or the ones created with a digital camera, we need to be thinking about digital preservation. Beyond the fact that digitization is not digital preservation, digitization always results in the creation of a new digital object. If we want to have any access to that new digital object in the future we need to be actively thinking about digital preservation.
What do you Think?
Do you agree that all digital objects are born digital? Or do you think there are things I am missing in the value of the distinction between born digital and digitized? Let’s talk about it in the comments.