What does “digitization” mean to you?

In our last post, Rusty Russell at the Smithsonian (and PI on the really neat Field Book Project) left a great question in the comments — what does digitization mean to you?  This is an important question!  What does digitization mean at all??  “Digitization” is one of those unfortunate words that sounds a wee bit dated, as if inspired by technology from Tron*, or taken from this sentence 30 years ago: “better connect that floppy drive and modem to your terminal to help with digitization.”  Furthermore, in terms of etymology, it doesn’t seem to mean what it sounds like: hey, we are not engaged in the process of creating integers or using our fingers.  Nevertheless, it’s the term we use.  So what does it mean?

Fundamentally, to us, “digitization” means getting collections data into digital formats that promote easy discovery, access, and use.  More abstractly (Rob’s in a poetic mood), it means taking the static, hard-edged ink of typewriter ribbon or ball-point pen and converting it into fluid, digital formats – electrons that move easily through air and wires, to be converted back to us as reflected light.   And, because the bar at which we are drinking (lemonade!) is open to library and information scientists and biodiversity types, the focus here is on natural history data sources.

Practically, digitization in our domain can involve a number of activities:

  • Getting catalogs off paper and into databases or spreadsheets.
  • Imaging specimen labels for import into databases (note: interesting two-step here.  Is an image of a label enough? Or is digitization also converting this into machine-readable text?  Is text enough?  Or ought it to be compliant with schemas such as Darwin Core?).
  • Imaging of actual specimens to include with or link to database records (e.g. everything from basic photography to more advanced imaging techniques, like what the folks at Cultural Heritage Imaging do).
  • Scanning field notes, linking field notes back to collections (Andie is particularly interested in this right now).
  • Data clean up or curation – maybe most notably, as is done with georeferencing (Rob’s note: is this really part of digitization?  It isn’t converting analog to digital but enhancing the digital.) (Andie’s rebuttal: it’s definitely part of data curation, and since on-going curation is a necessary part of digitization, it is therefore maybe part of digitization?).

Finally, it comes with a few caveats:

  • Digital natural history collections cannot replace a physical collection, but physical collections need their data to remain meaningful (see last post)
  • Digitization is an on-going process; paper records aren’t going away anytime soon (see… pretty much any kind of field work.  Laptops are lovely but often unwieldy, and often not water/dust/tar/drop proof.  But paper, to an extent, is!).  There will always will be a sometimes frustrating, but totally necessary, interchange between paper and electronic records.  Or are we wrong and paper is already obsolete and we just don’t know it?  You tell us!

So, that’s a very quick version of what Digitization Means to Us.  What does it mean to you?  What have we left out of these lists, and this definition?  What kinds or levels of digitization should be required or expected of a collection? Could we agree that digitizing labels from specimens is a minimum digitization component for natural history collections?**  Comment away….
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*Andie may have seen Tron: Legacy a little too recently, and may also have liked it a little more than is respectable.  Rob unfortunately kept falling asleep on airplanes when Tron: Legacy was showing, but that doesn’t mean he won’t like it!

**  Rob was taken by a quote from from Ilerbaig, J. (2010). Specimens as Records: Scientific Practice and Recordkeeping in Natural History Research. American Archivist, 73(2), 463-482.  The paper discusses Joseph Grinnell’s very meticulous manner of creating natural history records and posits labels as being of central importance:  “All of these elements formed  an integrated system, ‘a complex information storage and retrieval network’ at the center of which was a labeling tag attached to each specimen, linking it to specific places in the other elements of the system.”  Thanks to Tiffany Chao for the reference.

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About Andrea

Andrea is a Ph.D. student in Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and is supported by the Center for Informatics Research in Science and Scholarship. Her research interests include text mining; scholarly communication; data curation; biodiversity, phylogenetic and natural history museum informatics; and mining and making available undiscovered public knowledge. She is particularly interested in information extraction from natural history field notes and texts, and improving methods of digitizing and publishing data about the world's 3–4 billion museum specimen records so they can be used to better model evolutionary and ecological processes.
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6 Responses to What does “digitization” mean to you?

  1. Hmm… not to be picky, but electrons aren’t “converted back to us as reflected light” unless the item digitized is in turn printed. Digitized items, at least at the time of this writing (I do consider this blog a record for the ages), are viewed via emissive light, on a monitor, for example. But then, too much lemonade.

  2. Matt BK says:

    I just stumbled across this site today while looking for methods people have used to crowdsource data from natural history collections. Hot dog! Your concept of digitization jives with ours here in the University of North Dakota paleontology group, which makes me think we’re at least on the right track (or we’re all down the same rabbit hole together, at least).

    I would say that for the data to be useful in our case, label images are not enough. The particular catch-22 issue we have is getting people to use the collections: we can’t advertise what we have because it’s not digitized, and it’s not digitized because the funding isn’t there for digitization unless people come and use the specimens. So the goal right now is to get a good cross-section of the specimens and localities into the database (ndpaleo.org) and make it Googlable for people looking for collections of a certain taxon, geographic location, or stratigraphic interval.

    What I really mean to say is: I’m glad we’re not the only ones worrying about these things. Thanks for the blog!

    • Andie says:

      Hey Matt — Thanks for the comment! Your guys’ collections database is really impressive; have you been working with anyone else in developing it? And have you been pushing any records into GBIF or anything similar? Your point about the importance of making collections visible and findable is well taken; I think it’s especially hard in paleo collections, where so many of the specimens are incomplete or unidentified. Have you had any luck figuring out crowdsourcing methods?

      • Matt BK says:

        We were originally working with a nother group on a different platform that wasn’t going to work for the needs of our research areas and wasn’t customizable because it was part of a larger system. No records are being pushed yet; I’m still ironing out the wrinkles and making sure the database will work for people on-site. Development is at a lull right now because I don’t have funding for the database this semester, so anything that happens is in my free time. I still think crowdsourcing is a possibility, it’s just key that we’re able to do it while allowing certain information to be restricted to those who need it and not those who would abuse the locality information.

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