Digitization, turning something analogue into 1’s and 0’s, is time-consuming and costly. It’s finicky work requiring a balance between efficiency and artistry. The object needs to be well-described with accurate and detailed metadata so that it can be discovered in future. And it needs to be not just saved, but preserved so that the thing remains integral, discoverable, and accessible in the future.
So why digitize?
There are two main reasons: for Access and Preservation.
For some things, it’s the only way to interact with the content now. Many things had special hardware necessary to get at the content: remember betamax video, 5 1/4 floppy discs, Wordstar? We migrate content to newer, open formats in order that the thing is still useful. Here’s a 78 rpm sound recording transferred to mp3, “I lost my heart in Honolulu”
Putting a digital object on the web offers great advantages. That thing sitting on the shelf in a box in an archive? it is now available with an internet connection, 24/7, keyword searchable, perhaps with a transcription. Instead of having to travel to Ottawa to Library and Archives Canada, or to London to the British Library, you can “see” that thing online. Read it, zoom in on features, read commentary or description provided by an expert. For the researcher the cost of getting to that thing may be exorbitant or for some materials, not available at all, but the digital surrogate can be accessed at any time.
Another great advantage of the digital object is that it is keyword searchable. And if the object itself cannot undergo Optical Character Recognition (OCR) then there is well-formed metadata or a transcription, which may even be encoded text (TEI), that is also searchable. Consider newsprint, for example. Most old original newspapers are difficult to handle, fragile, and hard to get to. In the past many institutions made microfilm or fiche copies which preserved the content in context, and microforms have the advantage that they are long-lasting. Yet scrolling through microforms is tedious. The digital copy has the advantage of search-ability, if the OCR is accurate. In Canada, our newspaper digitization lags behind considerably other English speaking nations.