Digitisation: Introduction

This is the first in a series of informative blog posts aimed at illuminating the production and use of digitised materials. The posts are part of a larger project for creating sustainable digital learning materials, supported by EDINA, the Centre for Research Collections and the Centre for the History of the Book.

Nowadays, it is highly unlikely that you will encounter a university student who has never had to deal with digital materials: at the very least, they browsed the online catalogue of the university library to find the physical resources they needed. The digital has entered academia in various forms. Many university libraries now simply subscribe to the online editions of academic journals, rather than accumulate piles of the physical issues. Digital collections are created and presented on the libraries’ websites, allowing ready access for more users regardless of geographical distance. Whole books can be found online or in ebook form. Technically speaking, some students might not even have to set foot in the library. The computer screen can be the window to all the resources they need.

Digital materials are here to stay: but do we know where they come from and how they work? Do we know the difference between born-digital and digitised materials? Do we understand the implications of using digitised materials for study and research? Under the guidance of Dr Lisa Otty (EDINA), my colleagues Julia Morales and Rebecca Sparagowski and I decided to look into that matter. We conducted a survey among postgraduate students enrolled in degrees which required interaction both with physical and digital/digitised texts. We got 35 responses (if you took part, once again thank you!). Most of the participants came from the School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures, but we also heard from postgraduates in the School of Philosophy, Psychology & Language Sciences. Fifteen of the participants were doing a PhD. What we learned from the survey answers, was that many students do not feel confident about their understanding of the production of digital materials – especially digitised items.

When it comes to digital materials, digitisation is arguably the trickiest situation, as it involves transition between mediums, and any such transition, James Mussell argues, is a process of gain and loss*. Judging from the results of the aforementioned survey, there is a wide-spread awareness of what the gains are: easier access, constant availability, ability to conduct keyword and more advanced searches, etc. What is lost seems to be less visible. The material features of the item carry information that cannot be easily conveyed in digital form. However, one would object that most researchers are content-oriented, so the materiality of the objects is of little consequence and interest to them. Even then, there are limitations, and a few examples might help to prove this:

You have found the full text of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales online. Do you know where the text came from, e.g. are the publication details of this particular version mentioned? Was the online text typed by a person, or was it transcribed by a computer, e.g. through OCR (Optical Character Recognition)? In either case, can you be sure there are no mistakes, and how would such potentially existing flaws affect your reading and interpretation?

You are searching an online database of digitised books or periodicals for information related to the city of Edinburgh. Will all results be relevant? Will some important entries be omitted, for instance, publications where Edinburgh is referred to solely as ‘the Athens of the North’ or texts that have been transcribed imprecisely and contain misspellings? How does searching as a method compare to browsing and are there any disadvantages to it?

These examples are specific, but they illustrate several problems and concerns researchers should keep in mind when working with digitised materials. Very often the texts we encounter online were made available there by flawed humans working with flawed machines. Digitised materials are always representations, rooted in someone else’s more or less biased interpretation. Researchers, therefore, need to be ever-conscious (if not cautious) of this foreign interference. This awareness can best be achieved by knowing how your resources came about, what their origins were and how they ended up on your computer screen.

Far from being the simple action of taking pictures and uploading them online, digitisation is a complex process that requires careful planning, expert knowledge, significant expenses and, none the least, time. It needs to take into account funding, legal regulations, conservation issues, available equipment and staff, the creation of metadata and choosing a suitable platform for delivery of the finished products. In order to bring about greater awareness of all these aspects of digitisation and how they relate to each other, we are currently working on a video that will take you through the various steps of the process – from the inception of digitisation projects to their completion and presentation to the users. In a series of blog posts, we will delve deeper into some of the more complex aspects of the creation of digital materials and their accessibility and use. Our final goal is to benefit students by promoting a better understanding of how digital materials function. We believe that only when we know what the advantages and limitations of our resources are, will we be able to use them efficiently and produce better research.

* In his book The Nineteenth-Century Press in the Digital Age (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), Mussell focuses on the particular issues surrounding the digitisation of the periodical press.

Written by Mila Daskalova, MSc student in Book History and Material Culture, University of Edinburgh.

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