All Digital Objects are Born Digital Objects

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.


  1. David Underdown
    May 15, 2012 at 11:46 am

    The risks you are prepared to take in the preservation of an object created via digitisation may be different to those which are “pure” born digital. After all, if all else fails you can always go back to the paper and redigitise, which you can’t do for digital-only objects.

  2. Trevor Owens
    May 15, 2012 at 11:50 am

    @David, wholeheartedly agree on that. As I mentioned, there is a meaningful distinction between digitized and born digital in the extent to which it helps place priority on the preservation of digital objects that are also the original objects.

  3. Kevin
    May 15, 2012 at 12:00 pm

    While I appreciate your argument for blurring, or removing, the line between digitized and born digital I, in turn, want to blur a line of distinction that you declared. You said “The idea of digitization obfuscates the fact that digitization is not a preservation act. Digitization is a creative act.” I would argue that preservation acts, like digitization, are creative acts. And my intent is not to claim that the people who do traditional preservation are often creative people, although they are, but in the act of repairing or deacidifying a document, or even adjusting the environment, those doing these preservation acts are expressing their own intentions and interpretations and creating something “new.” A repaired book is a new and different thing from it’s unrepaired state.

    I acknowledge my quibble about preservation doesn’t challenge you main point – which I agree with, mostly.

  4. Miriely Guerrero
    May 15, 2012 at 12:04 pm

    Great article! I’m currently working on a project preserving removable media (floppy discs, CDs, etc) and have been grappling with the fine line between digitized and born digital. In my case, the original medium is not paper, but magnetic/optical media. However the end goal is the same, to transfer off the original source in order to preserve.

  5. Nicholas Taylor
    May 15, 2012 at 12:13 pm

    Right on, Trevor, excellent post. I strongly agree with your argument for likening digitized and born-digital objects as both being artifacts of a fundamentally creative process. I’m interested in the implications for quantization of information. It seems like the key distinction you’re making between digital and analog objects is the respective discrete- or indiscrete-ness of their informational content. What does that tell us about the nature of information? Can we define “information” in such a way that the digital object, too, contains an inexhaustible amount of information?

  6. Graham Hukill
    May 15, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    I really appreciate this post, hearing this train of thought out loud. As you point out, the distinction between “born digital” and “digitized” objects is important, but perhaps it is equally important to identify when the distinction is unhelpful, or even potentially misleading.

    It is a very interesting time right now as we continue to intrepidly expand the digital realm. I can only imagine similar distinctions were important as societies embraced volumes created by a printing press as opposed to hand-written ones. Again, while those distinctions are still valuable today, I am willing to bet most would agree that printed and hand-written materials share the attribute of being “analog”. Which isn’t to say “born digital” and “digitized” objects share that self-same relationship, merely that our understanding of these relatively new formats, techniques, and technologies are rapidly evolving, and observations and questions such as these are important and refreshing to the discussion.

  7. Kayla Burns
    May 15, 2012 at 2:36 pm

    I really think your point about making authorial decisions is important. When we “digitize” aka use a scanner, there are so many things that qualify this as a creative act. Do I crop the image so that it looks like a book? Do I play with the contrast so that the text of a handwritten letter is legible?

    On the one hand, I think that these sort of “tweaks” create a born digital item since it’s not merely a replication of the analog version. On the other hand, just the act of scanning can have so many variables (What dpi was it scanned at? How much light was in the room?) that there is no baseline standard. Where is the line then between just making small enhancements and making a new born digital item?

  8. Jim Sam
    May 15, 2012 at 4:27 pm

    “The idea of digitization obfuscates the fact that digitization is not a preservation act.”

    With audio and video recordings, it is.

    If you aren’t digitizing audio recordings, you aren’t preserving the event recorded on the disc/tape/cylinder. Good luck finding a working tape machine in 10/20/30 years.

    This is even more true for video tape, except it’s hard to find a machine *right now.*

  9. Trevor Owens
    May 15, 2012 at 4:34 pm

    @Jim, great point. Digitization does extract information from a physical object. In that respect digitization can be thought of as part of a series of acts that results in the preservation particular information extracted from a physical object even though it is not about preservation of the physical object itself.

  10. Frans Smit
    May 16, 2012 at 4:06 am

    I think a distinction must be made between the object and the information stored in the object.

    Of course all objects, digital or not, were created (or “born”) at some point in time.

    I think the point should be: does the newly created object contain newly created information, or does the newly created object contain information that was previously stored in other objects?

    Terms like “digitized” or ” digital born” should refer to information, and not to objects.

    At least in my point of view.

  11. Tibaut Ulrich H.
    May 16, 2012 at 6:01 am

    @Trevor: I agree with the creative/authoring part. Where digitized and digital-born objects are also different is in the type of metadata that comes with them. Digitized objects will be accompanied with the information of the performer, and will need additional metadata explaining the context of the real object. Digital-born object come with their own metadata as the result of the computing environments thy are born from, and fit in a sequence that helps to explain their context (e.g. Email).
    For preservation purposes, the act of digitizing an object is a conscientious decision where the performer has a motive beyond the new creation: preserve a history or help communicate a fact to posterity. In the case of *naturally born digital objects*, the intention is not beyond the very fact of performing an activity that *results* into the creation of a digital object (e.g. electronic records). In either case, preservation will try to capture the most *significant* properties of the digital objects with regard to current and future value to specific constituencies. Appraisal of digital objects is at the heart of those decisions.

  12. Trevor Owens
    May 16, 2012 at 8:48 am

    @Frans focusing on information stored in the object makes sense, but there is a potentially limitless amount of information in any given physical object and we always need to make decisions about what information on the physical object we want to make sure we have access to in the future. So I think my response here is something like, in many cases yes but it depends.

    @Tibaut I agree that there are important differences in intent behind the creation of the objects. I like your focus on capturing the most significant properties of objects in terms of current and future value to specific constituencies. It’s interesting that you mentioned appraisal. I recently heard Doug Reside, digital curator for the performing arts at NYPL, describe his thinking on digitization as part of acquisition. It is interesting to think about what parts of digitization are like taking a photo, conducting appraisal, and or acquisition.

  13. Simon Tanner
    May 16, 2012 at 10:40 am

    Another main difference would be that now with digitised content you can exert strong control over the format and flavour of digital file you create. In other words, it is absolutely feasible to create preservation ready digital objects.

    With born digital objects there are less controls obviously available. Whilst one can presume a set of desired formats and flavours for the digital object it is very hard to “require” the creation of preservation ready objects.

    So I assume one major difference is that of Purposefulness. With digitization I would assume purposeful creation which engenders good object creation with some metadata at least. With born digital there is a different starting purpose and this may not be subsequently so conducive to digital preservation.

    I would add to the mix the dataset issue. When we create datasets then this provides a whole raft of issues that just cannot be replicated in the digitization paradigm. Thus I think data is a born digital object that has distinct and very different features to digitized content.


  14. Kat
    May 16, 2012 at 10:46 am

    This is a really fascinating topic but I want to ask: is there a cognitive distinction between something that has been digitized versus being digitally preserved?

    My own answer would be metadata and what has been used to contextualize the digital object. If I were to stumble upon Trevor’s Einstein photo on the internet it would mean nothing to me because it contains no context or descriptive content – it has no authenticity, reliability, or context. With metadata, Trevor’s photo could be perceived as an important part of a collection, artistic interpretation of a figurehead, etc. Without it, the photo is just a photo.

    For me, metadata is a leading difference between digitized objects and digitally preserved (the former a bit lacking in metadata).

  15. Sweeney Nightingale
    May 16, 2012 at 11:08 am

    Fundamentally, every act of copying is an act of creation. In that sense, it doesn’t matter if what you are copying was once physical or not. Thus I agree that the distinction between digitized and born digital seems a bit pedantic.

    If there is a preservative act in digitization at all (and I would argue there is), it is in preserving a particular user experience. It’s not enough to say that a book is the words printed inside it. As you’ve rightly pointed out, there are other things that might be of value inside a book besides its original words. The hard part going forward will be to replicate aspects of this experience in a digital format with any fidelity, while being able to provide distinction to future generations who may or may not care about tracing the margin-notes of previous readers (for example).

  16. Euan Cochrane
    May 16, 2012 at 7:57 pm

    To me its fairly straight forward: digitization makes the digitizer a publisher (of some sort). The outputs of digitization are new works based on the old ones.

    The difficulty comes in valuing the new outputs and deciding how much you want to invest in preserving them in the future. If they (the outputs of digitization) contain the only copy of information that used to exist in an analogue form that has since degraded, then you may decide to invest more in preserving them in the future than if they could easily be recreated from analogue material.
    If you either:

    a) assume they have the same preservation needs as things that are not outputs of digitization
    b) assume you will never need to preserve them

    Then you will probably run into trouble at some point.

    In other words (tl;dr), great post, it highlights the need to “plan before you scan”.

  17. Bill LeFurgy
    May 17, 2012 at 10:16 am

    Euan, thanks for your comment. You are right to draw a distinction between degrees of change and also right about the absence of reliable cost models for preservation. The digital preservation community has multiple stressors, including “how much loss can we deal with for the material we care about”? It can be hard to admit that any loss is acceptable. The conservators of physical cultural heritage have faced a similar issue over the last 100 years and their views have evolved quite a bit.

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