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  • Shannon Honl

Does digitization of historical data bring broader horizons or weaker sources?

Short Answer

Yes. Both.

Long Answer

The digitization of historical data – like history in general – is not black or white, one or the other, good or bad. According to digital history pioneers Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, digitization is a complex mix of pros and cons dependent upon various factors. Benefits include enhanced accessibility, a more inclusive user base, easier browsing and searching, preservation of fragile artifacts, and manipulability of data. Most compellingly, Cohen and Rosenzweig argue that digitizing data “allows for new historical questions to be asked and answered.” Digital assets present profound possibilities for innovative historical methodology and interpretation.

But digitization is not all rainbows and unicorns. There are downsides to the process that should be carefully measured before initiating a project. Considerations include the cost of digitization, staff time required, and post-launch sustainability. One might think the most extensive part of a project such as this would be the actual process of digitizing assets. However, as Cohen and Rosenzweig sagely point out, digitization is only the tip of the iceberg. Project managers must account for intellectual costs, such as cataloging, metadata, and administrative expenses.

Besides planning concerns, there is the more significant issue of integrity. When assets are digitized, there is an inevitable loss of data. For example, digitization cannot capture all the colors of a painting. On the other hand, digitization can sometimes enhance data obscured in the original, such as pencil notes in the margins of a text. How much degradation or enhancement depends on the condition of the original asset, the equipment used to digitize it, and the quality and features of the digital representation. Cohen and Rosenzweig advise conducting a cost-benefit analysis that considers all these factors in addition to the final product’s intended use.

Quality variability of text digitization

The archival collection process can also impact the integrity of assets. For example, Cohen and Rosenzweig talk about two types of digital archives: one-way and participatory collections. The latter is far more challenging and has its own pros and cons. An example of a participatory archive is the Remember Rondo History Harvest presented by Dr. Rebecca Wingo at the Fall 2022 Recovery and Community Conference. Collections such as these can often be more extensive, inclusive, diverse, and democratic. Yet they also tend to be less organized, and it can often be challenging to verify the authenticity of the contributed assets.

Digitization of historical data brings both broader horizons and weaker sources. Yet I would argue that the benefits of digitization far outweigh the disadvantages. It would be better to have slightly compromised digital data than no or inaccessible data. Transparency about how assets are processed and their provenance can help researchers decide how to offset or overcome such weaknesses.

The COVID pandemic has wiped away any vestige of privileging paper over digital. Historians lived through a year of closed archives and libraries, denied access to research materials, and stalled projects. Let’s not go there again. COVID broke down digital barriers in a way nothing else had. As a result, we are on the cusp of a new wave of digitization with even more possibilities for sharing knowledge with audiences across the globe. Everyone can be a digital humanist!


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