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….
*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.