by Annie Poslusny

Digital History: A Guide

In Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving and Presenting the Past on the Web, Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig unequivocally state that the future is digital, and that the historians of tomorrow will “glory” in a digital historical record. They announce that this digital historical record will transform the way historians research, present, and preserve the past. Daniel J. Cohen is an associate professor in the department of History and Art History at George Mason University, and the director of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. Roy Rosenzweig was Mark and Barbara Fried Professor of History and New Media at George Mason University, where he also headed the Center for History and New Media (CHNM). Rosenzweig passed away in 2007.

Cohen and Rosenzweig have created a guide which is in many ways a primer on how and what to digitize, and the pros and cons of doing so. The authors concede that it may be impossible to move from analog to digital with no loss of information, but that is not what we should ask ourselves. They advise that the first thing we should ask, is what is the cost of representing the original as closely as possible? While technological advances continually improve the amount of information we can preserve from the original, the costs of doing so have not diminished. This presents a quandary for museums. High-quality images are necessary for research, but the cost can be prohibitive. Do museums sacrifice quality, or only provide images for a small percentage of their collections? In terms of loss to the historian, they either would not have access to a high-quality image, or, they (possibly) would not find the object they are looking for because it hasn’t been digitized yet. And who is going to decide which objects are digitized and which are not?

According to the authors, one of the greatest benefits of digitizing material is the advantage of access. An object may be too fragile to be handled, but once successfully digitized, it can now be viewed by millions. In my previous post I discussed researching at the North Carolina State Archives and the process of searching through boxes of letters and documents, hoping to find something relevant to my research. If the information in those boxes were to be digitized, it would make the research process dramatically faster. Digitization affords you the opportunity to view a greater volume of information expeditiously, while granting you the ability to be more efficient.

Remote access is another advantage to digitization. Being able to search the Getty archives, the Frisk’s Collector’s files, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art without traveling is a boon to historians, not to mention less expensive as well. Again, there exists the opportunity to increase our efficiency. Digitization is a tremendous tool for researchers, but it can never replace viewing an object in person. It is impossible to capture (so far, at least) every nuance of an artifact from every angle. I believe it is essential for historians to be able to be in the presence of the object. When I observe an artifact in person, I always notice some new detail, each time I view it. I had the opportunity to view paintings in the North Carolina Museum of Art’s conservation lab once they were taken out of their frames for restoration, and the difference in the level of detail I was able to see was amazing. I noticed aspects of the work I had not before, even though I had studied the painting in the gallery, as well as the digitized image online. The details were so much more accessible, especially the brushwork and paint application. Having that opportunity was remarkable, and one that can lead to new avenues of research for art historians.

A crucial aspect of digitization to consider, is who is going to do the actual work of digitizing the material? The article discusses two options; do the work yourself, or outsource it. This information is somewhat dated, (2005) and while there still may be companies who outsource today, in terms of museums and historical societies, this solution is a non-starter. Many of these items in their collections would be too fragile to be sent to the Philippines, India or China for digitization, and others may be too valuable to leave the museum. With outsourcing there is always a chance that the artifact could be lost or damaged, and that is unacceptable. To digitize the material ourselves requires time, technical knowledge, and funds.

The authors note that in digitizing images, the quality of the digital image rests on the quality of the original, the method used to digitize the material, the skill of the person doing the digitizing, and the degree to which the digital copy has adequately “sampled” the original. I consider the two most significant factors in digitizing materials for museums to be the cost and the technological knowledge required. Many art historians working in museums today have a basic knowledge of technology, but lack the technological skills to successfully digitize material. Even if they had the technological know-how, I suspect that many art historians would prefer to spend their time in research. Funding is an issue for all museums, large or small. Unfortunately, the result is that much of this work falls to interns, which does nothing to increase art historians’ knowledge of the techniques, or their level of engagement with the process of digitization.

In terms of my own work as an art historian, I intend to use technology to organize my research materials. Scanning images, and having the skills to use Photoshop to correct any deficiencies in the original (such as fingerprints or scratches) is essential. Using metadata to identify and locate specific inquiries quickly is also vital. In the digital methods course today I learned about Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software, which recognizes text from scanned documents, and I am excited to learn more and grow proficient in its use. I want to familiarize myself with the technology so that I am aware of what is possible, but for me, research will always come first.

Postcard from Germany featuring the style of American Pop artist, Roy Lichtenstein.

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3 Comments

  1. Michelle

    I think you bring up a lot of important ethical questions in your assessment of the guide. It is important to ask who will be determining which works get digitized and when, something that I don’t think was discussed enough in the reading. I’m sure that digitization efforts will be focused on valuable western artworks that draw public interest rather than other lesser-known or nontraditional works. This would only serve to uphold the western art historical cannon that I think in many ways the authors claim that digitization can start to break down. Furthermore, I like that you highlighted the issue of who is doing the labor, re: interns! The unpaid internship system that is so prolific in the arts world in many ways is perpetuated by these types of projects that require large amounts of (often tedious) labor. Interns and graduate students serve as the perfect dumping ground for digitization projects that require little in-depth knowledge on a subject other than technological skills. While this practice might not make the project any less successful from an art historical perspective, we must ask ourselves if they are worth it. In my opinion these ethical issues are some of the biggest costs of digital art history.

  2. Emily Hynes

    Thanks for this post, Annie! You raise apt points about the aspects of the objects that are lost, like brushwork, that need to be addressed if digitization is to be as successful as some hope. I’d love to hear more about the specific physical aspects that are lost in the translation. I’m also curious about your opinion on digitization efforts – I, too, often will be using it for research purposes, mostly (like using OCR for text recognition). Do you see the less complicated and more accessible digitization tactics used often in work in your field? As a musicologist, I am trying to understand the role of these methods in fields other than my own. Great post! Thanks!

  3. Emily C

    You bring up a lot of great points in this post, Annie! Certainly I think your comment on speed is one of the largest positives for DH, and something that could change the way or perhaps what type of scholarship is able to be done. As you said, “Digitization affords you the opportunity to view a greater volume of information expeditiously, while granting you the ability to be more efficient” in the case of art historians this time is invaluable. Being able to quickly scan through an institutions digital archive, to determine if they have relevant materials saves an incredible amount of time compared to going to the archive, sifting through boxes, and determining if anything is useful. Additionally, you included a very thought provoking sentence when you wrote, “And who is going to decide which objects are digitized and which are not?” I think this is something that is so important to keep in mind when thinking about digital humanities and digital art history as so often it seems like technology is the great equalizer. But ultimately, a museum with limited resources, or even one with large resources is probably going to digitize their most popular items first (gotta get those clicks!!) and while that may seem logical there is an implicit bias in that the object is more than likely popular for a reason. While genius white male artists have been heaped with praise for centuries and thus are considered the most “popular” the public hasn’t necessarily had an equal opportunity to compare against female artists or artists of color, thus instead of being democratizing it perpetuates the systemic bias inherent in the museum or collection.

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