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

“Digitization: What is Lost and What is Found?” Review

On November 17th I attended “Digitization: What is Lost and What is Found?” held at New York University’s Center for the Humanities. This interdisciplinary panel featured four academics from different departments of New York University:  Sebastian Heath from the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, W.Gerald Heverly a librarian for the classics at the Bobst Library, Elizabeth Hoffman from the Music department, and Thelma Thomas from the Institute of Fine Arts. The panel discussion was moderated by Marion Thain, the Associate Director of Digital Humanities. The theme of the panel was how digitization changes how we access cultural works and how we interact with digital versions of cultural works. The panel also focused on what we lose in the process of digitizing cultural works. Each panelist had ten minutes to discuss how digitization plays into their work and major digital projects.

The first speaker Sebastian Heath spoke about using low cost technology, such as smartphones and chromebooks, in order to create digital surrogates of Greek sculptures. Just using his iphone he’s able to take 360 degree photos of museum sculptures and then upload them into a program, which unfortunately I do not think he mentioned the name of, that renders 3D models of them. Heath uses these 3D models in his classes to help students identify and get familiarized with sculptures without having students go to museums to study them.Carrying out these types of projects using low cost technology I thought was really interesting and could encourage students to create 3D modeling projects of their own. Heath also spoke about presenting 3D models of Greek sculptures next to the excavation reports from the 1960’s that were created for the object during the archaeological dig in which they were discovered. You can see an example of this here. 

The second speaker W.Gerald Heverly used his allotted time to speak about the Broken Books project which collects pieces of the Llangattock Breviary manuscript which has been cut up and sold as individual pages. Pieces of the manuscripts are collected following a crowdsourcing model, individuals or institutions are allowed to contribute to to the project. Heverly expressed the difficulty with crowdsource projects such as Broken Books since the quality of each entry differs depending on who is submitting it, obviously institutions have the capacity to submit high quality scans while the submissions from individuals vary from good scans to images found on Ebay. There is also some difficulty in the quality of metadata assigned to pieces of the manuscript, historians and librarians are both creating metadata for this project and both of those field have their own metadata standards. Heverly also made the point that while projects like Broken Books are great for collecting digital surrogates of printed material, it does not recover the culture surrounding printed material. By not having the physical manuscript collected in it’s original format, researchers lose the opportunity to study the process of creating books and manuscripts.

Elizabeth Hoffman was the next speaker. Her portion of the discussion focused more on how digital technology has impacted her area of study instead of specific digitization projects. Hoffman discussed how technology has made it easier for students and musicians. Musicians can now play digital instruments and use technology in order to create music from non-traditional sources, Hoffman used an example of a student of hers that created a score using sound clips from a tennis video game series. Hoffman also noted that music technology, especially software to create digital scores, has created universal standards that are easier to follow. Regarding what is lost with the rise of digital music, Hoffman discussed how technology replaces the experience of picking up an instrument and playing it. What was once a very physical field could be reduced keystrokes. Hoffman used the example of a metronome, which she actually had one with her to demonstrate, musicians who create music digitally can use apps for metronomes and may not ever use a physical metronome in order to learn how to keep time.

The last speaker was Thelma Thomas from the Fine Arts Institute and works primarily with textiles. Her talk focused on her work with using RTI imaging to create study images for fragile textiles. Thomas spoke about how before RTI imaging in order to create study images the best one could do was take photos of textiles from beneath its protective casings and using potentially harmful flash photography. With RTI imaging, Thomas can now safely create extremely detailed study photographs of fragile textiles. Along with RTI imaging providing a safer way to photograph objects, this method also takes extremely detailed photos of objects. Which benefits Thomas  with her work with textiles since RTI can show even the smallest detail in a piece of clothing without anyone having to touch it. Thomas’ area of loss was, the other panelists, that digitization could (but should not) replace the physical experience of studying an object. She also discussed how she is skeptical of the preservation of these digital works, with standard file formats always changing projects created today may not be accessible in five to ten years.

The point that came up in most of the speaker’s talks regarding what is lost is the ability to experience the object. The panelists discusses how digitization creates a greater and more accessible point of access to objects, the need to experience the objects in the physical sense could be lessened. This aspect of the panel I felt was really important, especially in Hoffman and Heverly’s talks, digitization should not lessen the lessen the importance of the creation of the work. We should not be losing or downgrading the study of creating music or books in favor of creating digital versions of them. With Thomas’ point on possibly losing access to works due to file format changes, preservation is a constant worry for digital projects and it was interesting to see an academic who does not consider herself a DHer express her concern over this issue.

Overall I found “Digitization: What is Lost and What is Found?” to be a very informative panel discussion. It was interesting to see how academics, most who do not label themselves as digital humanists,  from a variety of fields incorporate the digital humanities into their work. It was also encouraging to see how supportive New York University is of the Digital Humanities and encourage faculty to work with technology in order to create a wider access to cultural works for students.

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