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Fourth Piece of the Puzzle: Film

The two videos I have embedded below are quite different in content, but I think they help get at the central theme of my final project – thinking historically/contextually about primary sources and information systems. The Home Economics Story, which was produced by Iowa State, and Design for Dreaming, which was produced by GM, are ephemeral films that happened to be collected by Rick Prelinger (who collects ephemeral film) and then digitized by the Internet Archive as part of the online Prelinger Collection. They are both wonderfully rich texts, but within the context of my final project, they really point to the contingency of primary source materials. These were preserved and eventually digitized, but how much more was lost? Materials such as these films – and other ephemera – were not intended to be systematically collected by libraries or archives, but they provide a very different perspective from university and corporate records, magazine and journal articles, and newspapers.   

A Guide to Digitization

Any guide to digitization should be begin by acknowledging that digitization can only ever be partial, as demonstrated in the Digitizing Your Kitchen activity. Both photography and video cannot convey the smell, taste, or feel of a physical object. But both forms of digitization can convey other aspects of physical objects such as texture, sound, color, shape, size, and textual elements. In many cases, the incomplete access to physical objects through digitization can suffice for users; Terras cites numerous reasons for digitization, many of which can be satisfied without actually accessing the physical object. The Digitizing Your Kitchen activity focused on photography and video, but all methods of digitization (and indeed, representation itself) are incomplete. An audio or video recording will capture the sound of a concert, but not what the audience looked like or what the experience of sitting in the audience felt like. This Digital Sugar Baby cannot capture and convey the smell of the Domino Sugar Factory immediately before the closing of “A Subtlety” in July 2014. Even though the Internet Arcade lets you play arcade games from the 1980s, the context is ultimately missing. I find this aspect of digitization quite interesting, as I was an anthropology major and archaeology courses emphasized the context of items – what were the next to, where were they in space, etc. – in addition to the items themselves. The Digitizing Your Kitchen activity contrasted to an archaeological analysis of my kitchen I did as an undergraduate, which focused much more heavily on the items as part of a larger whole. In some cases, digitization can reproduce some or part of this context; in others, context is not known (due to the histories of the items, collection practices, and so on) or cannot be included for other reasons.


A guide to digitization, following on this, would acknowledge the constructedness of digitized items and collections, or as Conway describes it, it would disavow its own “technological transparency.” Digitization is “a complex, multifaceted process where technological tools, source characteristics and the often unexpressed goal of the collection interact at every step of the process.” People make decisions about what items to digitize and how to digitize them. The Frey/Reilly model discussed by Conway does a great job in demonstrating those sorts of choices – should photographs be digitized as is, as was, as desired, or as seen? – and the results of those choices. I would also emphasize in my guide to digitization that people made choices about these items prior to digitization as well, about which items were saved, about which were sent to libraries or museums, about which were added to those collections and which were scrapped, sold, or weeded. Many students that I work with, both graduate and undergraduate, do not consider the histories of their primary sources. There is an assumption that somehow everything has been preserved and digitized. Part of this I think stems from perception of digital items as immaterial, as Manoff describes.  That immateriality obscures the costs of digitization – labor, server space, etc., which Terras’s case studies describe at length – and the material history digitized objects. I’m very sympathetic to Manoff’s call to bring a historical and contextual perspective to the study of the digital environment, and any guide to digitization I wrote would emphasize this.


This rambling post can basically be summarized by saying my guide to digitization would foreground the partial and imperfect nature of digitization and the context and history of both the items and their digital representations. Digitization captures some elements but will never capture everything; representation, as Conway notes, is fraught, and as Manoff argues, something is always lost in the translation from one medium to another. Photos can’t capture sound or smell. Video can’t capture taste or weight. No form of representation can capture the historical and material context around the item in whole. This does not mean that digitization is not useful. Digitized photos can convey much of the information in film photos, even if other information is added in the process of digitization as Conway describes. Video can convey a lot of information about a three-dimensional item, like my Rolf mug. You can see what size it is, the color, the shape, the interior, the exterior, the bottom, and so on. Neely and Langer describe using 3D printing to create representations of museum objects. I’m a little skeptical, given that the 3D printer at my library mostly produces neon plastic models that don’t reveal a lot about the original item, but I can see the potential in 3D printing to capture the way an object feels. When working with digitized representations, we need to keep in mind that they are surrogates for the physical item and have their own characteristics. Choices contributed to the creation of the digital representation, just as they did in the creation of the physical object. We need to keep in mind that digital representations might be missing some crucial aspect of the object; I brought up “A Subtlety” earlier because the smell of rotting sugar was key to the overall work and no digital representation can recreate that. In many cases, this might not matter to users – undergraduates are unlikely to care about the types of paper and binding seen in the physical collection of EEBO books. In this case, too, the different characteristics of the digital representation such as being able to do a full-text search for words and variant spellings of those word or a metadata search for a subject heading like “witchcraft” might be of greater interest and use to users. But to film scholars, looking at the digitized version of a film might not be able to replace looking at the original film. It is fundamentally about understanding as the object and its digital representation as connected, but also distinct.