Digitize to Keep Culture Alive

Millennia ago, Ancient Egyptian writers penned hieroglyphics onto papyrus paper rolls. Nearly two centuries ago, the first photographic images were exposed onto metallic plates. On the sonic side of human recording, spiraled grooves of vinyl LPs were designed for needles to slide over and emit sound waves–a craft spawned many decades ago that has seen revival in recent years.

Citing such examples of media formats barely scratches the surface of the myriad methods that humanity has invented to transfer millions of visual, verbal, and audio messages onto solid materials for the purpose of later communication.

But whether it’s modern industrial paper or organic earthly clay, these materials are ultimately made of matter, which is vulnerable to breakage, erosion, or undergoing metamorphosis over time. Oil paints corrode off weathering canvases; ceramic jars inscribed with symbols shatter into fragmentary shards; printed newspapers get repurposed as garden mulch.

An immaterial approach to documentation has popularized in recent years, in converting assorted media into binary code so it can be reconstructed into virtual forms: digitization.

Libraries have largely adapted to the digital times. In an era when the catalog card system is pronounced officially dead, many of these institutes have also evolved to embrace digitization tools and discern which of the materials stacking their shelves are suitable for conversion. For instance, to salvage the “crumbling” pages of The Golem, the Prague Municipal Library plans to scan this book, in addition to over 200,000 pages of other historic Jewish literature and musical compositions.

The Harvard College Public Library is currently building its digital collection, prioritizing documents like medieval manuscripts, historical photographs, music scores, and pamphlets. The University of California Libraries are in the process of a mass digitization movement in which millions of books are being scanned.

As such, it’s no surprise that the world’s largest library, the Library of Congress, maintains a substantial breadth of digital collections. The comprehensive National Jukebox collection consists of historic recordings, a compilation of decades-old newspaper scans comprise Chronicling America, while all sorts of audio files–from narratives of former slaves to California folk music to public reactions to Pearl Harbor–are accessible through the Culture, Folklife archive.

Digitization efforts pervade the museum world as well. The Smithsonian team operates an industrial-like digitization effort, operating a conveyor belt engineered with a state-of-the-art, custom-designed imaging system. As of January, the organization was digitizing documents at a rate of 3,500 sheets per day, a factory flow they describe as “rapid culture.”

Meanwhile, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum is executing its own ambitious mission of digitizing its whole collection using manual photography. The staff intends to cover the museum’s one million items, including anything from Vermeer’s The Milkmaid to ship models to musical instruments, by 2020.

“It’s really a fundamental belief of the management at the Rijksmuseum that sharing is the new having,” Cecil van der Harten, head of the institute’s images department, explained to The New York Times.

Given the fact that individuals were bound to steal the collection’s images anyway, she figured that the staff could at least “convince people that they should use the best version available for free.”

It’s possible for 150 to 200 Rijksmuseum drawings and prints to be documented in a single day’s time, but paintings are more comprehensive. The process can take the photographer over an hour, capturing the art in the frame, removed from it, from the front, to the back, and closer in detail. Though it’s impressive that a painting stationed in Amsterdam can be made widely accessible online in a high-quality, high-resolution format, it seems that Van der Harten acknowledges an inherent limitation: the viewer is staring at a picture of a picture on a screen.

“Digital photography gives us the possibility to aim for something that is really, really close to the original,” she said. “But still the sensation of standing before a painting that is real, where you can see all the little nuances in the light, that sensation cannot be beat by a photo.”

But not only two-dimensional photographic depictions have been explored as a means of digital preservation; sculptural simulacra is practiced as well. In reaction to the destruction efforts that ISIS has executed to annihilate pre-Islamic artifacts, Iranian-born artist Morehshin Allahyari is in the process of a project, “Material Specuation: ISIS,” in which she models 3D-printed versions of the demolished objects. So far, several smashed statues have been reconstructed, made possible in part by the online collection of crowd-sourced photographs, VICE’s Motherboard reported.

Embedded into these 3D-printed renditions of ancient artifacts are flash drives and memory cards that include materials like photos, maps, and videos documented around the original objects at their time of ruin.

Allahyari is working with several experts to develop a database to ensure that further reproduction is possible. She wrote on her website, “In the coming months and as the final stage of the project, these 3D printable files will be archived and available online to download and be used by the public.”

Is digital, then, a divine code that will sustain the world’s cultural products into the future, or are such conversions fundamentally inferior to their original forms? Does digitization serve us the best means to preserve and publicize our documents, or are such computerized records vulnerable to the forces of technological obsolescence and obliterating hacking efforts?

Beyond the matters of subjective or speculative responses that may avail, for now, we can at least enjoy the many resources that are made available through digitization.

Feature photo courtesy of Molly.