Is Digital always Enough?

There’s a lot of talk, amongst historians, of digital history. I’ll certainly be writing quite a bit on the subject.  Mostly the discussion seems to be centred on how to teach history in an electronic medium. I, however, am struck by a different question. Is making something digital always necessary? Is Digital always better?

This is very much an opinion piece.

Something can be said for digital preservation. Aging and damaged documents, scanned and saved into a computer’s hard drive can be copied, disseminated and altered at will, without any harm coming to the original. Ancient, faded documents can be restored through the electronic manipulation of ink traces too faint for human eyes. There is, however, a cost. Those electronic ‘saves’ are, in reality, far more fragile than the paper they were copied from. medieval manuscripts, placed in online galleries can be seen, studied and admired by millions, but a power surge at a server farm will destroy that electronic copy completely. Meanwhile, the original, written on parchment and stored in a monastery, will survive forever. The Book of Kells, as an example, is more that twelve hundred years old, and has survived (among other things) Vikings, Revolutions and Reformations. Despite all that, its beauty remains with us.

Even modern, printed books will last for decades, though their cheap paper and glue bindings will betray them eventually (I happen to own a number of new books made with sewn bindings and acid-free paper. They come with guarantees for very long periods of time, although of course they were not cheap!). Most electronic files will not last that long, if only due to technological change. The digitization of files has gone one for quite some time. What happens when one wants to look at something digitized in the 1980s? You better have a computer with a floppy drive, and some emulators prepared to run long forgotten word processors. Electronic files degrade, and do so with surprising speed. Interestingly, the older a storage medium is, the longer it stores information usefully.

The impermanence of digital data is bad enough. What’s worse is a little more ephemeral in nature.

We go to museums to see things. For many, that’s what history is- the remains of the past (the dedicated history may attempt to explain that everything is indeed the remains of the past- but you get alot of funny looks trying to explain how Western culture came about). I believe that digital repositories lose something in the transference. Now, it’s true that digital exhibits and galleries have many good points- no crowds, no waiting, no hours of operation, and often I can stare at the artefact from many angles and in better lighting conditions than can usually hope for. All of these are good things, and I am glad for them. The Internet has made me aware of many things that I would never have none otherwise, and I think myself the better for it. Still, visiting an actual museum- making a pilgrimage to the Smithsonian or the British Museum are far grander experiences than simply touring their collections on line.

Digital facsimiles will never- and should never- replace the real artefact. Digital galleries and exhibits exist to draw people in, to excite them and inspire them to see the real exhibits. Art is better in person and so is history.

Switching to Acid-Free paper,

Scott W. E. Dickinson

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3 thoughts on “Is Digital always Enough?”

  1. I enjoyed this post and defiantly agree with the final sentence. Making a digital copy of a physical object is only a way to make the object more accessible. The physical object still needs to be kept by the organization. This is something that not everyone understands and because of that many documents have been thrown out after digital copies, that will not last forever, have been made. Everyone working on digitization projects needs to know that paper will last longer than the digital file.

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  2. Nice post Scott, it certainly got me thinking about how we can better preserve digital history.

    I’d actually argue that digital data is far more reliable than most would think, as long as proper procedures are in place. Most commercial data is backed up on multiple servers at multiple locations, so that if there was a catastrophic event that took down one server cluster such as a fire or flood, they would be safe in another server across the country. There are a number of user-friendly and inexpensive services that can do this for you, such as Google Drive, Dropbox and OneDrive, any of which would be perfect for smaller collections, or even Amazon AWS, OVH and Rackspace for larger ones. For my own data, I have it backed up first to an external hard drive, and then on to Google Drive. The chance of me losing any data is very small. Unfortunately many smaller museums don’t always practice proper procedures when it comes to backing up data, and this is something that really needs to change.

    You also bring up technological change and a lack of backwards compatibility. This is definitely an issue, but again, if proper procedures are followed there shouldn’t be a problem. In my experience, most museums use TIFF files to scan and archive photos. The TIFF format actually dates back to 1986, so it’s been around for a while. The great thing about TIFF, and practically all other archival standard formats, is that they’re lossless, meaning that they can be converted to other lossless formats without degrading the actual content. If a new format comes along that is in some way superior to TIFF, you would be able to convert them with no loss in quality whatsoever.

    I think one of the reasons that the Book of Kells is so celebrated today is because of the fact that there aren’t too many illuminated manuscripts left. For every Book of Kells there is, there are hundreds if not thousands that never made it to the present day. It’s obviously way too early to tell how many digital files will be usable in a thousand years, but I’d be willing to wager that it’s more than the number of number of manuscripts and other artefacts that have survived for that long.

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  3. I agree with your point on museums. To be fair, I’ve only ever seen one online exhibit, but it definitely wasn’t the same as a physical exhibit. It was posted by LAC about the posters used to encourage immigrants to come to Canada in the 1890s. It was helpful, and interesting, but not the same as a physical exhibit would be. At a physical exhibit, you are surrounded by the exhibit and the artifacts, allowing a more immersive experience then an online exhibit. As well, you can look at an artifact from all angles, something that may not be possible from a picture online. The original will always have something extra that pictures or facsimiles can’t convey. Another less digital example would be an exhibit I went to about the Titanic. It ended up being incredibly disappointing because the majority of the exhibits were movie props rather then actual artifacts from the sunken ship. The movie props just didn’t have the same effect, and it kind of felt like cheating on the exhibit’s part.

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