Digitizing objects (#dhb_2)

Although term starts only tomorrow, it is as if I had been on business mode for a while already. The organization of the second workshop of the DH Berlin circle kept me busy all along September and it is only now that some rest is in sight – you know, the rest you get from pagan activities like writing papers and applications, spiced up by some effort to make those generate some synergy for my book (call that a chapter if you want…).

What is it with  the DH Berlin workshops, really? Looking at the big picture of my scholarly activities (like, say, what I would put on a CV to apply for a professorship in German Literature), they have an added value close to zero. This is certainly true regarding the one that took place on Friday, which dealt with “the material object in the digital world”.

You can certainly argue (and you would be right) that texts, in their materiality, are relevant as objects and as much subject to the material turn as any other matter. And pretend that the workshop had to do with texts too.  After all, there were plenty of text people at the workshop. But fundamentally, the discussion engaged was way beyond a split between digital text sciences and digital object sciences.

The three papers addressed the question of the way objects are digitally addressed from the point of view of field research (Archaeology, Elisabeth Lindinger, Berlin), museums (German Technical Museum, Johannes-Geert Hagmann, Munich) and finally libraries (Prussian State Library, Ralf Stockmann, Berlin; the slides are here). Each of them presented the way they deal with objects in their respective research/preservation/display environment. The digitization process itself was discussed from these different points of view and turned out to be a core topic.

I hate nothing more than telling people I am in DH and have them ask me what it is that I digitize. I don’t digitize anything, I am merely an occasional user of digitizations. It is always my point in such discussions to argue that DH are much more than digitization, that what I do has only marginally to do with digitization. And suddenly, on Friday, in the midst of DH people and DH people only, digitization was what structured the discussion.

As irritating as this seemed to me at first, I had to admit that starting from the digitization allows to ask the question of the conception of metadata, thesauri and databases on a pragmatic and eloquent base. The question of the richness of metadata was discussed at length and in direct connection with the question of standards. Rich metadata sets are not only expensive (in time and hence money), they might also restrict the use that other scholars or users can make of them. The difficulty is to find a balance between explicitness and openness (of data in general, but specifically of metadata in that they are at the interface of cultural heritage institutions and research for instance) that allows not only the user you always more or less have in mind (it was said at some point that the “potential user” epitomized in digital project is in general very similar to the person who conceives the project – I would add, either similar to the person or close to some fantasy they nurture of their connection to the outside world), but pretty much any user, even one that does not belong to said fantasy or one that has strictly nothing to do something with it.

In other words: how do you make metadata clever? Through the use of standards, authority files, object identifiers, of course – and preferably not local ones. But also by accumulating documentation, merging and cumulating information connected to single data sets. For instance by making the use of simple, low-budget tools accessible to smaller institutions or university collections that are often not present online at all. Or by implementing the cool “I-am-working-on-that-document” button modeled by Ralf Stockmann after the like-buttons in order to improve communication within the scholarly community and interaction on the basis of common research objects. But all of these excellent suggestions will be of no use as long as long time accessibility has not been addressed on a larger scale. In that respect, Germany should envy the TGIR Huma-Num (and Huma-Num could offer a homepage in English, I can’t seem to find it).

“The” object, digitized, connected, open, rich, as we constructed it during this afternoon spent trying to figure out ways to make ideals come true and objects work as interfaces in the digital world, seems to be still somewhere between stratosphere and troposphere. Almost there, so to speak.


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