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Why digitize? | Why follow standards? | Why work with the library?

If you have followed the link to this page, you may already have a digital project in mind, or you may be curious about what is involved in developing a digital project, or why you should consider digitizing a resource. For ways in which Digital Library Services can assist in developing your project, please see the support page. The discussion below is for those interested in the more basic issue of the possible benefits and limitations of digitization.

Why digitize?

When digital libraries and digital archives are discussed in an academic context, it is usually assumed that digital content is generated from analogue sources. For many years, however, a great deal of content has been “born digital.” But having materials in digital format is often just the first step in a digital project. There are further questions of bringing materials into archival formats to assure their continued accessibility, and of adding metadata for effective discovery. Increasingly too, applicants for grants in which digital data is generated are being required to include plans for long-term access and preservation of the data generated, which means that researchers have to devote part of their efforts to the creation of digital archives. The creation and management of digital resources and collections will become more of a necessity than an option in the academy. But whether deliberate or out of necessity, anyone considering a digital project would do well to reconsider the question of why to digitize resources as an exercise in maximizing the benefit of a digital resource.

Typically there are three basic reasons usually given in response to this question—digitizing a resource provides:

  • access to materials via the world wide web, saves a trip to the library, or across the country
  • preservation of original materials is promoted by creating digital surrogates, which reduces wear from handling of original materials
  • searchability of materials, both as a collection, and in the case of full-text resources, of the digital object itself

The most obvious benefit of these is the access to a resource digitization provides, and this is certainly important. Librarians in particular are aware of the benefits of digitizing a resource to help preserve the analogue original. And while searchability is acknowledged as a benefit of digitization, it is perhaps the most under-appreciated benefit. This is because making a resource or collection searchable leverages the digital medium more effectively than simply mimicking the analogue form of the resource. Making a resource searchable, in the case of digitizing a text, not only represents the analogue original but transforms it. As David Gants noted (though he is not the only one to have made this observation) in the recent Workshop on the Construction and Pedagogical Use of Digital Archives, by digitizing a resource, the resource is, by definition, made quantifiable. Most obviously with texts, this allows scholars to be able to instantly discover the number of times a given word is used in a given text, for example. If a body of electronic texts are aggregated, they can be searched collectively, and the use of a given word can be tracked across works. Although less immediately obvious, image data, too, is quantified when digitized. With a digitized image, a critic could track the amount of light used in each painting across a number of paintings by a given artist, with definite numbers to accompany the interpretive description used in the past.

The short answer to the question, Why digitize? should be: to maximally leverage the digital medium of a resource.

Why follow standards?

The examples above are relatively simple, and one could easily imagine much more sophisticated manipulation of quantified digital resources. There are also uses to which scholars and students will put such resources in the future, that cannot be imagined now. While anyone considering a digital project probably has in mind a specific use for that resource, DLS (and the wider digital library community) recommends creating resources that exceed those needs when digitizing or overdetermined resources. One might ask, if a resource is being developed for the web, why it should be scanned as 600 dpi TIF images when the TIF will then have to be converted to a lower-resolution JPG or GIF format anyway? But another significant way to leverage the digital medium is to anticipate re-use of a resource. By creating a rich resource—even beyond one’s immediate needs—the door is left open to other uses of the resources, some of which can be imagined and others which cannot.

One of the drawbacks of digitization is that a resource can no longer be accessed in traditional ways. When we cannot find something in ordinary life, we typically say “I can’t lay my hands on it.” In the case of a digital resource, we can never lay our hands on it. We therefore have to provide other means to track and access resources. Of course, the traditional library has to do this already with cataloguing books in the OPAC (online public access catalogue). And the primary means for the cataloguing of digital objects is the application of metadata. While some see the application of metadata as an unnecessary impediment to the delivery of a digital resource, no one challenges the necessity of cataloguing books to facilitate discovery. The situation is simply exacerbated with digital objects.

While they are all moving targets, there is broad consensus in the digital library community on standards for metadata and file formats. Adherence to these standards promotes re-use and re-purposing of digital objects, and the ability to exchange information across systems about digital resources.

For more about standards, see the standards page.

Why work with the library?

As the examples above (of a scholar tracking the use of a given word across a number of an author’s works, or a critic tracking the amount of light in a series of an artist’s paintings) demonstrate, any digital resource that can be indexed and aggregated with other resources adds value to the existing resource, not simply sequentially, but exponentially. The contents of digital resources can, as it were, be opened up and the contents viewed together, in ways not possible with analogue resources. Therefore, one of the best ways to leverage the digital medium of an existing digital resource is to aggregate it with others. But the idea of an academic digital library is not simply to aggregate as much material as possible, but to do so in ways that can manipulate the quantified information in the digital object, to reveal new perspectives on old materials.

Traditionally, access to resources has been considered distinct from the resources themselves. With the creation of digital resources, and the extensive use of metadata with those resources, the lines between the content and access to that content have blurred. Furthermore, when the digital resource is fully leveraged, the case can be made that metadata does not simply fill the role of providing access to a resource, but of adding information to and enhancing the resource itself.

The development of digital libraries can therefore shine light on the traditional mission of libraries. Libraries have never been so much concerned with books per se, as with the life of the book—the book, and its friends and neighbors. In some senses, the new functionality provided by digital libraries simply makes those connections between books, and books and readers always present in the traditional library more tangible, explicit, and accessible.

By working with Digital Library Services and the University Libraries in the development of your digital project, you will have assistance in making realistic plans for the execution of your project; by following standards promoted by the library you will assure that your resource will be viable—and re-useable—for years to come, and that it can be readily shared between systems and institutions. By aggregating it with similarly rich resources in the Washington University Digital Library, you will add value to your own project, as well as to the resources already present.

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