Digitization: A Modern Chapter in Research

Author:  Katie Campbell
Institution:  University of Florida
Date:  July 2012


In this modern world of constantly evolving technology, researchers today have the advantage of extensive technological resources that allow them to take their questions to a new level.

One such resource is still growing, but has already increased scholars’ ability to reach out and use materials that had once been unavailable. Online databases and the digitization of libraries and museum collections have opened up an unprecedented opportunity for collaboration and comprehension.

One Man’s Role in Digitization

 Professor Gregory Crane from Tufts University spoke on the growth of digital libraries and museum collections at the University of Florida (UF), where over 7.6 million pages have been digitized and made available for free to researchers all over the world, according to the UF Digital Library Center’s Laurie Taylor.

Crane is the founder of an online database called the Perseus Project, which deals mainly with Roman and Greek texts that are now widely available to researchers. He was invited to speak by the UF’s Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere, and he addressed how important it is to make material available to students and researchers of all nationalities. In particular, he argued that materials must be available in their entirety.

“Nobody really wants anything dumbed down,” said Crane. “They want to get down to the nitty-gritty.”

Sophia Acord, the associate director for the Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere, said that while there are many exciting people in the field of digitization, Crane is a pioneer because of his work on the Perseus Project.

The Perseus Project, however, is not the only one of its kind.

The Digital Library Center of UF

UF’s involvement in the use of digitization began in the early 1990s with the advent of a Melon-funded project to digitize Caribbean newspapers and mail them out on CDs. Since then, Richard Bennett, an associate with UF’s Special Collections, said that thanks to various grants, including grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Libraries Services, many components of UF’s Special Collections have been digitized and made available online for free. As more funds become available, much more will be added in an ongoing effort to digitize important research materials.

“This isn’t just a project,” Bennett said. “This is a way of life.”

Within the Digital Library Center, UF employs students and trains them to handle delicate materials and bring them into the modern age. Programs such as font recognition are used to optimize the digital experience, presenting not only full material, but material that is accurate in its representation of the print or physical original.

Taylor explained that the material that has been digitized so far – in which audio, video, archival pages, newspapers, letters, journals, books and fine artworks are all represented – has been organized into thematic collections. These collections include rare materials that are sought by scholars worldwide and include The Isser and Rae Price Library of Judaica and The Digital Library of the Caribbean.

By organizing materials into these thematic collections, the university intends to use digitization technology to not only present original pieces but to create a context around the content. The context tells a researcher how the materials work together to create the big picture.

“Context is always king,” Taylor said.

Though Crane agreed with Taylor’s statement, he explained that within the goal of helping researchers find the broader context, we have a logistical problem.

Overcoming Scholarly Barriers

Many researchers may only speak one modern language, such as English or French, but they need, and would benefit from, material that was written in one of 20 historical languages, such as Biblical Hebrew or Latin.

Using Latin as an example, Crane demonstrated during his lecture how online databases can solve this problem with just a few clicks and allow scholars to pursue what he called a “beautiful interest in the past.”

Online databases go beyond simply providing access to material. Using tools such as language ID, which Crane used to locate Latin in original texts and thereby open these texts to translation, scholars - both professionals and students - can collaborate over a text to share interpretations. This means that a text originally found in Latin can be translated into numerous other languages, including modern languages, by scholars and are then available to those researchers who may not have otherwise been able to use the Latin text.

As Crane sees it, the only real obstacle in the way of this tool is convincing researchers to contribute their time to scholarship, especially those at the collegiate level. To appeal to the scholar, databases  must provide immediate engagement with sources in their original languages and allow scholars to improve the databases by giving input on what they have learned.

Alpheios.net, another database project that Crane is associated with, does exactly that by allowing for “translation as notation.” Using this system, the texts are displayed in their original language, with translation to a more familiar language notated beneath.

“You’re inside the language looking out,” Crane said.

Any cost then, Crane said, becomes investment in research.

Though Taylor called the cost of this digitization initiative at UF significant, the resulting preservation of these materials and the involvement of the global community in a scholarly discussion have been worth pursuing.

By making more digital media available online to scholars on all levels, Taylor and Acord, along with the Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere, hope to allow for more meaningful and inquiring public scholarship, where researchers – from university professors to the curious citizen – may have otherwise been inhibited.

“We have a public mission,” Taylor said, “a service mission, a mission to engage the public. Being able to have access to the material has just made those communities stronger, and it’s allowed them to connect better.”

As digitization technology leads to more digitized materials, research will grow in a wide variety of subject areas. Collaboration on a larger scale will also be facilitated, thereby strengthening the overall scope of research.

Preserving a Precious History

Extended communication and the sharing of material is not the only benefit to come out of digitization, however. Many of the collections that are digitized contain old and rare pieces; some are even one-of-a-kind. These materials are delicate and difficult to access if they are not located in a researcher’s immediate area. But when they are digitized, the materials are not only more available, but also preserved.

Physical materials are subject to damage and deterioration over time. Something as simple as the collection of dust or oil from a person’s fingers can cause irreparable damage.

On the other hand, digitized materials are not subject to such damage and can be ‘handled’, so to speak, by millions of researchers without being altered and potentially ruined for future audiences. Digitization technology, therefore, has become a means of conservation of information for all time.

So long as digitization efforts such as those of UF’s Digital Library Center exist, digitized libraries and museum collections will only continue to grow. These efforts will strengthen and promote research while preserving pieces of history that may have otherwise been lost forever.

This science feature article was written under the guidance of JYI Science Writing Mentor Robert Aboukhalil.