Digital Humanities
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Inquiries into culture, meaning, and human value meet emerging technologies and cutting-edge skills at Pratt Institute's School of Information

On the Complexities of Digitization (NYU Event)

Digitization: What is Lost and What is Found On 17 November 2015 I attended “Digitization: What is Lost and What is Found?” at New York University.  The event was a conference style panel moderated by Marion Thain (Associate Director of Digital Humanities, Faculty of Arts and Science) and featuring Sebastian Heath (Clinical Assistant Professor of Ancient Studies, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World), W. Gerald Heverly (Librarian for Classics, Hellenic Studies, and Philosophy), Elizabeth Hoffman (Professor of Music), Thelma Thomas (Associate Professor of Fine Arts, Institute of Fine Arts).  The event description read as follows:

We are getting ever greater access to cultural works online through digital representations, but how far are those representations hindered by data losses and the processes of translation into the digital? Conversely, to what extent might they enable us not just easier access to existing objects but, more radically, the ability to see or hear things we have never been able to see or hear before? This panel event will reflect on these questions and present innovative digitization work from across the humanities disciplines at NYU.

Digitization was (quite obviously) the topic du jour.  Dr Thain’s opening remarks highlighted the “changing nature of access” and also expressed excitement– what new possibilities are opened by digitization, and what new interactions can we have with digitized objects?  Overall the event was a positive and thoughtful overview of the topic of Digital Humanities at NYU.

Dr Heath discussed his work in digital 3D modeling, and shared examples of his work. He described taking many images which could then be composited into a 3D model which could then be manipulated on a computer or tablet.  Heath emphasized the possibilities opened by these digital models for scholarly and classroom use as being overall exceptionally positive.  He also shared a website where found objects were paired with field notes to replicate the conditions in which the items were found.  Heath insisted that an archaeologist who was not using digital methods was not using the tools of the trade, and made a compelling case.  It seems absurd, having heard Heath speak on the subject, that any archaeologist would dismiss methodologies which decrease the destructive nature of archaeology and increase the information and data that objects can provide.

Dr Heverly shared and discussed the Broken Books project, which is attempting to digitally reconstruct the Llangattock Breviary.  The original document has long been broken apart and the pages are owned by various people.  The digital recreation then becomes the closest representation of the actual object.  Heverly did emphasize the problematics of such a digitization: copyright concerns, differences in quality of images, a lack of normalized description, the limitations of virtual reconstruction, and the loss of the physical experience of holding the original book.  Heverly brought a librarian’s point of view to the discussion.

Dr Hoffman carried on to speak on digitization and its impact on music.  Hoffman explained that with digital music what was once a specialization has now become the norm, and she emphasized the paradigm shift inherent in this.  She wondered what impact digital representations have on our perceptions of reality.

Dr Thomas shared her work in RTI and textile documentation.  She explained that just a photograph lost too many ephemeral qualities of textiles, such as texture.  Conversely, RTI photogrammetry has the ability to capture things such as the weave of the textile.  By moving around light rather than the object, immense image information can be obtained without the problems that come with handling.

These sentiments were a common theme throughout the night’s discussion.  Several methodologies were explored, from RTI to 3D modeling, but the tone of the evening was devoted to a particularly positive outlook.  Dr Heath emphasized that Digital Humanities are about constant reinvention: a career in DH is to constantly lose old identities and build new ones as changes in technology and methodologies occur.  Multiple speakers also emphasized that new digitization methods and presentations do not replace the experience of an original object, but should rather be seen as an extension of the experience.  The digital representation is thus incomplete and requires critical awareness no matter what.

Eventually the discussion directed toward teaching and scholarship.  When an audience member questioned whether these digital methods could eventually kill scholarship, Dr Heath essentially answered that teaching graduate students traditional scholarship is the way to kill scholarship.  The panel agreed that while more students are digitally naive rather than digital natives, this can be remedied by having students create and take ownership of methods and outcomes.

Also discussed was the sustainability of digitization, and what should be done as formats change and methods diverge.  The consensus seemed to be the preservation of the raw data.  If a 3D model cannot be replicated in the future, at least the raw images behind the model can be preserved and saved.  An archivist in the audience  commented that the discussion was the “sweet sound of job security” to her ears.  Honestly, she’s right.  From the perspective of an information professional, the need to preserve and emulate data, experiences, and objects across disciplines can only bolster and expand the profession.

Overall, I found the discussion incredibly interesting and worthwhile.  It seems NYU has really put an emphasis on the expansion of DH programs and methodologies, and this is reflected by the enthusiasm among the faculty represented, who come from a variety of departments.  I have been following a project Dr Thain is involved with, Victorian Lives and Letters Consortium (VLLC), and I can see that NYU is building an environment which is supportive and encouraging of new methods.  This type of focus is exciting to see.

As a digital archivist I also was glad to find that others also have concerns about the sustainability of our work in digitization.  My work involves the digitization of family heritage documents and artwork, and it is my job to create something that can become an enduring example for future generations.  Archiving is an act of saving for the distant future, not just until the hardware is obsolete.  Digitization which creates approximations of objects should be somehow maintained.  Hopefully conservation and sustainability continue to be concerns to those who digitize all types of cultural artifacts.

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