Digitization: a word that is often used nowadays. But what does it mean exactly?
People often think that taking a photo of a piece of art is the same as what we call digitization. But this is wrong. When a museum or a collection take photographs of their artworks, it usually has a special purpose, e.g. promoting their exhibition or creating photographs for their webpage, etc. And unfortunately, it is often thought that this is digitization and the work is done. But what we call digitization is when you make a visual record of an object using the best technology that is available at the given point in time while devoting the geaest possible attention to the process, for the purpose of research and archiving.
Digitization is when a piece of art becomes visually researchable as a result of the process. And when I say a piece of art, I think of paintings, sculptures, textiles, bulidings or even a flea from the insect collection, but we can include all objects that our present culture considers valuable. Digitization has a preserving role, too, as digitized objects remain accessible even in cases when, for instance, the original painting is destroyed by fire.
What can a really good-quality photo tell us about the artwork?
Once we digitized an embroidered tapestry. On the image you could see the weaving of the material and the embroidery technique. Moreover, when we thoroughly looked at the picture afterwards, we found some spider eggs – the image was so sharp that you could specify its type. The latest technology provides such high-resolution and so much details about the objects photographed that you obtain a large number of different pieces of information: the exact state of the fabric, e.g. fungal coverage or pest infestations. Who knows when researchers will find these facts valuable at one point or another in the future? But anyway, you can use these pieces of information at the present time, too, for example for restoration purposes.
Digitization based on recording objects visually comes with a benefit: for example, when a book is photographed, not only its content and text are preserved but its material and printing technique are also visible. These pieces of information will definitely be interesting for historians and linguists later on but experts in the paper and printing industry or biologists will also appriciate the visible paper structure.
I think artwork itself should be preserved both for physical and chemical research.
Yes, and digitization plays a major role in this preservation process. In fact, if you create researchable-quality digital images, original objects don’t need to be touched by hand so many times. The daily use of artwork, old papers and books has a damaging effect on them. In university libraries, it is common to have only one or two copies of the old stencilled sheets or drawings. But students need to browse them for their university work, so these documents are rapidly ruined. Digitization would instantly solve this problem, and students would have an easier access to a particular book.
Furthermore, by means of digitization, the faded parts can be enhanced, visibility problems can be corrected, so information becomes more easy to obtain. Moreover, for research purposes, overwritten, scraped-off and blurred parts of the documents can be made visible again– even on photographes with a normal spectrum.
What other technologies are available apart from high-quality photography?
Digitization generally means recording in the visible range and processing it – and processing is the key. Processed images can be used in many ways and enriched with information. Today, there are electronic libraries where you can search for a special text in full documents and in the metadata linked to them. Pertinent pieces of information can also be linked to image files. For example, former studies and references can be attached to a certain drawing in the digital space.
Or, for example, you can create virtual materials with spatial effects so that artwork can be seen from such angles that have never been seen before. Taking 3D-shots is time-consuming and requires the right technology but using it can provide an experience that has never been had before. Just to mention a practical usage: digitized spatial objects, for example carvings can be recreated via 3D-printing or CNC-milling.
How are spatial shots taken?
Today’s technology is able to map space into photographs. Only reference points are needed and objects need to be photographed from several angles. Then, dimensions of the object and structure of the surface can be defined via complicated algorithms. In the past, lasers were used for this purpose. Today, cameras can produce this result providing colour and detailed surface information of the object. Recently, we created a 3D image of a glass statue. It showed the statue from such an impressive perspective that the 3D image was exhibited next to the statue in Műcsarnok (Arts Hall).
So, let me summarize: presenting digitized materials attractively and transparently is as part of digitization as photography and scannig. Is that right?
Yes, everything depends on the accessability of information. A good digitization system results in a professional electronic library. Of course, there have been electronic libraries for years but most of them have only the titles, not the contents. Or full text can’t be searched. The most advenced digital technology enables character recognition – so book pages that were photographed can be read as texts, not as images. This also applies to letters and numbers of graphic materials. It’s enough to think of captions and labels on technical drawings, for example.
Text-based search in full content allows recognition coherences between documents that were never thought to be possible before. Especially now when the most advanced search tools are also able to look for synonyms and inflected forms. It makes the searching for, sorting and analysis of digitized contents very effective. Relevant contents can be located in no time and are easy to look through. And of course, the full range of metadata that were collected during classical library processing are also still available.
How urgent is digitization? Don’t you think it would be worth waiting for a more advanced technology?
There are pieces of art that can’t wait any longer as their condition worsens by the day. For example, outdoor statues and sculptures exposed to the weather or above all films and photographs. Early film negatives still retain their information and are enjoyable nowadays even if they are aged or cracked. These damages can be very well corrected by means of digitization. But you can’t stop the ongoing damaging process. Let’s think of glass negatives in the case of which the chemical process is still destroying the images on a continuous basis. Photographs taken in the 19th century should be digitized immediately and in fact the same applies to photographs from the first third of the 20th century, too, as their decay can be taken for granted. Furthermore, the cost of digitization is lower than guarding and preserving the original images properly. But, of course, outstanding, precious originals definitely need to be preserved at all costs, like for example the Kossuth-daguerreotype.
But since photography was mentioned, let’s talk about it a bit more: members of the generation of photographers who experienced the great era of photography are still alive today. The ones who saw „Lenin”, namely Robert Capa or Andrew Kertész. Hungarian photography has had a leading positon in world photography, it’s sufficient to just mention a few photographers: Éva Keleti, Demeter Balla, Tamás Féner, János Eifert…, and there are more great ones who are still alive. We should take advantage of the fact that they can tell the story of each picture, for example naming persons in their photos. If one-third of the huge archive of Éva Keleti were digitized and Éva personally commented on all pictures and these pieces of information were linked to the images, that would create an outstanding and precious archive for theatre history. And then, we could sit back with the feeling of having bequeathed something from the past to posterity.
What can mass digitization give everyday people?
Everyday people can enjoy the sharing of knowledge both directly and indirectly. People often complain about the unreliable information mass available on the web. Publishing digitized materials improves the accessing of reliable information, making it easy to reach the greatest and true values of our culture at home (or on the tram, for instance). And materials are available in visual format, which people can accomodate to much more easily than text content. The world becomes researchable. These days teenagers use the Internet as their first source of information and their appetite to learn is big and we need to cater for their quest for knowledge in the interest of the future, too.
The level of human knowledge will improve by digitization. Indeed, digitized materials can be easily searched, analyzed and shared. There will be great realizations once digital contents that have never ’known each other’ are linked to each other. It can be enhanced by artificial intelligence. Just to mention an example: the Hungarian Academy of Sciences has the new theory about Hungarian migration that it only lasted for a lifetime, not for centuries. This theory was formed after scientists had noticed special photographs of artwork in Ukranian and Russian collections.
I like a quotation from Iván Horváth, a literary scholar who is an expert in information theory, too: human culture will be in safe hands if all children have the canonized knowledge of humankind digitized in their pocket. According to our current knowledge, this stae of affairs is not far away. Internet storage space is getting dinamically cheaper. Information is kept safe using the advanced storage techniques under continuous control. The 2-20 petabyte of data describing the whole world can be put in a person’s pocket by 2020.
And how is the cultural heritage digitization going in Hungary and abroad?
Abroad this happens at an intensified pace. The world is digitized in huge, professional studios. From the smallest flea to the largest paintings, using photography for featuring different spectrums. And the information is published on the web in highest quality without censoring contents or being jealous. And it doesn’t reduce but increase the number of visitors of the physical collections. The one who has seen a sunflower of Van Gogh and seen the stripes of paints and the dynamic brush strokes want to see the painting in live, too.
In Hungary, the situation is not as good. Collections have small budgets and if they have some, it is spent on cheap devices. They lack devices, storage space and experts. It would be good to have digital studios in different areas. Therefore, quite few researchable materials are created and they are not published, either. Collections declare that their task is collecting materials and not digitization. So, if the storage room gets wet, the information will be lost. Shall I make a list of such cases just from last year? Not to digitize? It’s not an option.