TEI / Encoding Digital Editions

By Jaclyn Saik

Digital archivization is challenging. In theory, it sounds like the perfect solution to preserving artifacts, texts and memories that are in danger of destruction from their physical form. Simply take a picture or make a scan, and we’ll be able to remember everything about it, forever, right?

These readings prove otherwise. There are a lot of implications with encoding digital editions that make this process much more complex, labor intensive and expensive both in money and time. The blog post “WHY DON’T ARCHIVISTS DIGITIZE EVERYTHING?”, written by the archivists at the Region of Peel Archives, goes in depth about these complications. They address this question as one of the most common questions asked on their site (the follow up being “And when do I get to access these files online?). They outline not only why digitization of their archives is so challenging to manage, but also identify the incorrect assumptions people make about the ease of this process. One big factor, and this applies to multiple readings later on, is the volume of most libraries. It’s one thing to scan all of your yearbook photos for digital access. It’s another to tackle even a section of an archival collection. Another big issue these archivists identified is the physicality of the object. Taking a picture of an old slide won’t show the writing on the side, and scanning a document with sticky notes on it will cover likely crucial information underneath each note. In order to adequately document the full physicality of the artifact, it takes a lot of careful attention. So, it takes a lot of human labor. I think this point ties into our discussions about automation and the changing role of librarians and technologists in this age of digitization. No matter how advanced a machine is, would it really be able to scan say, a U.S. president’s agenda full of sticky notes, carefully remove each sticky note to document what’s underneath, and then replace the sticky note?

This topic connects directly to our discussion about digital labor earlier in this semester. In a post written by Scott Weingart (hi!), he toured the USC Shoah Foundation’s collection of 100,000 hours of interviews with Holocaust survivors. There, he saw just how expensive and labor-intensive the process of digitizing these records. I personally was impressed not only with the length of the initial process, but also how much money and work it takes to maintain the server farm where these archives are held. He also made an interesting point based off his first-person account: It’s kind of creepy to visit a massive, concentrated collection of digitized ghosts, confined and maintained solely in this form. I personally think this speaks to the accuracy of the physicality of the artifacts being preserved: interviews with survivors are a really excellent way to remember them, but the proper (and tasteful) metadata categorization and handling are important to preserving memories as well.

A lot of the readings this week centered around a particular controversy in the right to scan. Back in 2016, two German artists covertly (and without permission) scanned the Bust of Nefertiti, the Neues Museums in Berlin’s most prized and valuable artifact in their collection. The two released the dataset online for free download, and used the file personally to create a replica for the American University of Cairo as a permanent display. After a three year legal battle, an “official” scan of the bust was released this past fall under another 3D design consultant, this time with permission from the museum. This debacle brings up a debate about who owns these historical artifacts, and whether a digitization (in this case, a surrogate) of the artifact falls under the same claim. The artists who originally scanned the bust claimed that Germany wrongfully acquired the bust from Egypt, and this was simply a way to reclaim it using modern technology. I thought it was particularly interesting that one main reason the artists chose to do this in the first place was because of the way the Neues Museum chooses to display the bust: without any context to how it was acquired. In a similar vein, the Region of Peel Archives blog notes that one of the best things a viewer can do to support archivist efforts is to make sure to cite anything you take a picture of at an institutional collection.

Readings referenced:

Bishara, H. (2019, November 26). Official 3D Scans of Nefertiti Bust Are Released After Three-Year Battle. Hyperallergic. https://hyperallergic.com/530400/official-3d-scans-of-nefertiti-bust-are-released-after-three-year-battle/ elles, J. & Al-Badri, N. (2015, October). Nefertiti Hack. http://nefertitihack.alloversky.com/ Region of Peel Archives. (2017, May 31). Why don’t archivists digitize everything? Archives @ PAMA. https://peelarchivesblog.com/2017/05/31/why-dont-archivists-digitize-everything/ Voon, C. (2016, February 19). Artists Covertly Scan Bust of Nefertiti and Release the Data for Free Online. Hyperallergic. https://hyperallergic.com/274635/artists-covertly-scan-bust-of-nefertiti-and-release-the-data-for-free-online/ Weingart, S. B. (2015, November 1). Ghosts in the Machine. The Scottbot Irregular. http://scottbot.net/ghosts-in-the-machine/ Weisberger, M., & 2019. (2019, November 25). Long-Hidden 3D Scan of Ancient Egyptian Nefertiti Bust Finally Revealed. Livescience.Com. https://www.livescience.com/nefertiti-bust-3d-scan-revealed.html