Over the past few days, I've had the opportunity to sit in on a number of excellent and exciting research presentations. One session that really grabbed my attention was titled, Of Bits, Bytes, and Books: Use and Meaning in Digital Humanities and the Emerging Library. While we have all heard about the how great digitization is, this group of presenters spoke about serious research problems that have risen in the past couple of years.
The Historic Columbia Foundation's Kyra Herzinger began by comparing digital information dissemination to a buffet style restaurant, meaning that objects were sometimes loosely arranged into arbitrary categories from which the consumer can pick and choose without sifting through the totality of the collection. She went on to say that digitization can cause objects to loose their intrinsic value. For example, a person can view the scanned version of a diploma, but viewing the physical artifact allows the researcher to see if and how the diploma was framed, displayed, etc. She also warned that archivist have a tendency to scan aesthetically pleasing collections and while overlooking documents that many may consider important.
Melanie Griffin, University of South Florida Special and Digital Collections Librarian, expressed concern about the research value of Victorian sensation novels in the digital format. Paraphrasing her description of Victorian sensation novels, Griffins states these are works "appearing between 1860 and 1880 England that are marked by adultery, illegitimate children, poisoning, bigamy by women, paranormal activity, and drug use." Many of these novels were first published in serial format then as as multi-volume sets, then as condensed single-volume books. Additionally, many authors wrote a "base text" and publishers sometimes add details and drama might appeal to their audience. Obviously, this poses problems when presented in the digital format. Often times only one edition is presented and usually it is the most attractive copy or the shortest version. Researchers could be led to believe they are looking at the only copy or the finished text, while in reality the physical archive may contain multiple runs of the novel presented in book and serial format.
Finally, Patricia Sasser, University of South Carolina, discussed musicology and the lack of coherent digital resources available. She states that the study of music history lacks clear and centralized tools and researchers depend on sources ranging from information in scholarly databases in other subjects to YouTube. Sasser laments that even the Doctoral Dissertations in Musicology tool, meant to actively collect citations in a bibliographic format, is not comprehensive and lacks standardization in its information gathering techniques.
All three presenters highlighted problems that are applicable to almost any field in this new technological age and are worth exploring by scholars and practitioners alike. While digitization adds a significant geographic convenience for researchers, many collections are still worth a visit.