Handbook for Digital Projects:
A Management Tool for Preservation and Access


Scholar Commentary:
An End-User Speaks Up

Charles Rhyne
Reed College

I speak as a scholar-teacher. With my colleagues and students, I am dependent on the great storehouses of information in libraries, archives, and museums. Most of the time we take these resources for granted, but when a document we need is missing, we recognize how dependent we are on these materials and how grave is their loss or destruction. Occasionally, we reflect on the foresight of those who established these institutions and applaud the judgment of those who acquired, organized, and have cared for these materials. We also admire the complex, behind-the-scenes activity that makes these diverse materials available to so many users with such varied interests and needs.

Just now a student has begun a senior thesis with me on the famous pre-Columbian site at Monte Alban, which she discovered last year on a television program and hopes to visit in the near future. Waiting for her in the library are shelves of books filled with text and illustrations, articles in popular magazines and professional journals, catalogs of exhibitions, and newspaper articles on microfilm and microfiche. Several hundred original color slides taken on site are housed in the Art History Department, available for classroom use and student projects. Fifteen minutes away, related artifacts are on display in the Portland Art Museum.

Most Digital Materials Are
Unreliable as Evidence

Now, of course, digital materials are also available for her to study, on CD-ROMs and the World Wide Web. But there is a striking difference between these new digital materials and the traditional analog materials on which we have relied in the past. To put it simply, only a few of these digital materials are reliable as evidence. The commercial hype surrounding computer use has produced CD-ROMs so shallow in content and so poor in image quality that very few would have been published in print. A search for any subject on the World Wide Web produces a dizzying array of sites, most with inventive graphic design, amateurish text, and tourist photographs posted at low resolution. Happily, a rapidly increasing number of high quality sites are being posted on the Web, most based on original materials in the collections of museums, universities, and research institutes. But even here, the images are rarely available over the Internet at high resolution, and even these will be viewed on monitors of unpredictable sizes and viewing characteristics, generally adjusted for speed rather than quality. Only on the most advanced Web sites can the viewer know what s/he is looking at, and even this may be altered or disappear without notice. The unreliable material flooding most of the Web and the lack of recognized standards for judging it has delayed the acceptance of digital publication in evaluating the professional work of faculty at colleges and universities and has not encouraged serious scholars to get involved.

Few Scholar-Teachers Are Involved

For this we are all very much to blame. We are witnessing an immense transformation in the creation, retention, availability, and use of our cultural record, which is already transforming the way we understand our world. One might expect that all intellectually alive human beings at educational and research institutions would recognize the unique opportunity of participating in, possibly even contributing to, such a sweeping historical transformation. Few of us faculty have involved ourselves deeply, however, and, dare one say, too few of us have been asked.
We sit on the sidelines...
Most of us now make use of email, perhaps we have developed Web pages for our classes and, especially where grant money has been available, we may have posted material from our research for student projects. But otherwise we sit on the sidelines, observing, following, sometimes complaining about the Internet as "a black hole" or the control of the digital world by engineers. We have not made it clear that different disciplines have different needs, that there are certain basic needs that must be met if the digitized material is actually to be used, and that the standards and procedures being adopted by technology and information specialists may not provide for our students, fellow teachers, and research colleagues. This is a great loss, because the future of the digital world has a great deal to gain from the active involvement of end users at every stage of the process and a great deal to lose if we continue to follow at a distance.

Leading Prototypes

Some areas of the research community -- most notably, space, military, and medical research -- well funded by government and foundation programs, have been in the forefront of digital developments. Occasionally, the rest of the academic community and the public profit from their innovations, but the primary lesson to be learned is that digital projects in these fields have been directed to provide for the particular needs of their end-users. In these fields, end-users have been sought out and have been deeply involved at every stage of the process.
In the Humanities and Social Sciences, a few impressive prototypes also have been developed with foundation funding, propelled by recognition of the potential of the digital revolution. In the leading examples, national libraries and archives, major universities, and research institutes have begun digitizing their rare materials with high standards, recognizing that it is dangerous to handle rare documents often, expensive to redigitize, and impossible to predict the questions people may ask of these documents in the future. A notable feature of the best prototypes is that leading scholars and curators of the material have joined forces with computer specialists, often producing not only innovative ways to record and access the digital results but also new insights into the primary material, constituting advances in scholarship.

Photographic Images

As an art historian, I am especially aware of the uses we make of photographs of art and architecture, the most essential documentation in our field. Thus, I am especially aware of the characteristics we need in digital images of photographs if they are to be useful as study material for students and as research material for scholars. Let me use the rapidly expanding world of digital images to describe some of the current defects and the immense potential for the future.
In the academy, words have always been privileged over images.

Frequently, when looking at images of works of art on computer monitors, I comment on the lack of detail, the inability to see the way an arch is constructed or to distinguish brush strokes in a painting. Often this is seen as a petty complaint, an unreasonable expectation for computer images. To address this I sometimes call up images of maps. Here, although my desire to see the shape of a hill or the location of a lake may be brushed aside, as soon as I point out that the words identifying these features are illegible, there is instant agreement that the digital image needs to be captured and made available at higher resolution.

In the academy, words have always been privileged over images. But in society at large, photography has claimed a larger and larger place on the front pages of newspapers and in magazines, not to mention on television, and the academy is gradually adjusting. Professional journals contain more and larger illustrations, increasingly in color, reflecting not only the reduced price of reproduction but also the major role now played by photography and film in many academic disciplines. Contemporary biology, medicine, and archaeology are heavily dependent on photographic imagery, and increasingly history, anthropology, and other social sciences have discovered the wealth of unstudied information waiting to be discovered in photographs. What is that person holding? What is the sign in that store window? What did people wear when attending that event? As a result, the acquisition and preservation of photographs is becoming as important as the preservation of words.

We need visual searching tools comparable to those for text.
Likewise, computer search by keywords and category names, so useful for text, serves for searching photographs only when the photograph already has been labeled with the keyword the viewer wishes to locate. As photo archivists know so well, this is an immensely labor-intensive process requiring a degree of expertise in the subject matter; moreover, it is impossible to predict all the categories that will be of interest to future scholars. In addition to verbal searches, many end-users need visual search procedures. Not only artists teaching basic design or architects teaching urban housing, but also botanists searching for certain traits in leaf structure or anthropologists searching for varieties of body ornamentation need visual search tools. It would be more useful to be able to scan thousands of photographs of textiles around the world for certain weaving patterns than to expect every photo archivist to have entered the correct names for every pattern on every textile photograph. Difficult as it may be to achieve, we need visual searching tools comparable in range and specificity to those for text.

Traditional Standards of Evidence

The professional standards for evidence developed in every discipline through professional peer review and debate over the decades continue to hold. Whereas new, improved computer products appear constantly and are rapidly upgraded, research and teaching goals evolve slowly, based on successful approaches currently in use. It is not a natural fit. The challenge is to be open to the dramatic new possibilities of digital technology without being misled by unrestrained enthusiasm for the new technology. This requires above all that we have a firm grounding in our disciplines and a long-term view of what we hope to accomplish in our research, teaching, and the broader dissemination of information and ideas.

Students and scholars will use some digital material because it is readily available on their institution's computers but not in their libraries. The ability of computers to make text and images available worldwide is one of the essential break-throughs of the computer revolution. In the long run, however, for serious scholarship (including term papers, master's, and doctoral theses being written at thousands of colleges and universities every year), digital material will substitute for print material only when it meets the same standards of accuracy and reliability. At present this is far from the case. However, new professional journals are beginning to be published online, peer-reviewed with the same standards as traditional printed journals; and students are gradually being trained to discriminate among online publications in the same way that they have learned to discriminate among print material. Librarians are essential players in this educational process.

Supposed Defects Can Be Turned into Assets

However, we should not settle for matching previous standards because these were themselves often defective. For example, we often hear the complaint that digital images of photographs can easily be changed without the viewer being aware -- but this was true also of photographs themselves (notwithstanding that many changes to photographs were clumsy and therefore easily detected). Digital technology actually offers us the possibility of recording these changes automatically for the first time. This is, in fact, what is needed if digital images of photographs are to serve as evidence. We need a system that provides for the automatic recording of the creation of and changes to each image within the digital record of the image.

Digital images can be made more reliable as evidence . . .
Perhaps this may encourage us to record also what we should have been doing all along, the way in which each photograph is made. We now have cameras that record on the film or digital record the date and time each photograph was made, at least if the date and time are set correctly. But we need to know also the type of camera, lens, and film used. It is now a commonplace that no photograph is the single accurate image of a subject. Everything depends on the lighting, the angle of view, distance from the subject, and of course the characteristics of the film and lens. Many of these things are reasonably visible in the photograph itself, but many are not. To the extent that these can now be recorded automatically in the data that is part of the digital record for each image, there is the opportunity of making images of photographs more reliable as evidence than has been the case in the past.

Digital imagery could make possible other significant advances. To give one example, careful reading of scholarly articles in professional journals in all disciplines that depend upon photographs as evidence is flawed by the inadequacy of the illustrations. The reproductions are too few in number, too small, and too seldom done with accurate color. It has been too expensive to publish the large body of photographs on which the text depends. In many cases, readers must take the arguments on faith or suspend judgment. The illustrations simply do not allow one to test the assertions made about them. But it is much less expensive to publish large, high quality color images on the Web. It would now be possible to publish articles fully illustrated on the Web with high quality reproductions of all the photographs on which the research depended. Likewise, we can now include appendices of the detailed data on which much research depends.

A Fully Participatory Society

I have no doubt that the digital revolution is one of the great information revolutions in the history of humankind, fully comparable to the invention of printing and the invention of photography, but taking place at dramatic speed. We are privileged to be alive with the opportunity to witness this transformation, to experience it, and even to participate in its development. Indeed, only if all elements of society do participate in its development will it fulfill its immense potential. In deciding what materials to digitize, how to preserve them, and how to make them available, let us recognize the serious interest of the public in all area of human knowledge, the public's right to know, and the great untapped resource that these materials provide. The digital revolution offers us our first opportunity for a fully participatory society.

Northeast Document Conservation Center
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Andover, MA 01810-1494
Telephone: (978) 470-1010
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Last Modified: January 21, 2003

Copyright 2000. Northeast Document Conservation Center.