What is digitization?

I was attending an authors’ workshop in Vienna on the first days of October, a bunch of Austrian, German and French scholars are preparing an anthology on practices and perspectives on digital humanities. A stunning experience, since this was much more than your standard conference, but an internal meeting of like-minded colleagues who pursue a cultural studies perspective on the digital turn, just as I am trying to. No “proper” papers were given, it was more of an open discussion, “thinking aloud” together, exchanging thoughts, stimulating new takes on the topics discussed, challenging seemingly fixed views on the matter at hand. A very fluid process in a way and even somewhat demanding, a fact that often made me sitting silently because so many thoughts were running through my head. Plus I had a bad sleep on the one overnight stay I had, so the second day I wasn’t that lively.

I was the first to present some thoughts and I had chosen to propose a contribution on digitization “as a cultural technique” as I had called it first. Honestly, I chose the title since I thought it sounded cool, as I even admitted in my presentation. I then had chosen to change it to “digitization from a cultural studies perspective”. Now I am not even sure that is better…but the good thing was the openness that lay at the core of the workshop. So it was accepted that everyone came with unfinished thoughts, first drafts, albeit the level of elaboration differed.

I had been so naive as to have a take on digitization in a very concrete manner, namely the process of retrodigitization of archival or library material. When the discussion began, I instantly became aware of how little I had thought of the societal and broader cultural context of “digitization”. It wasn’t something I had never thought of, just when scribbling down some loose thoughts on what I would be trying to achieve with my contribution, it was all in a hurry and for the sake of having something to lean on during my performance.

The overall idea that I will maintain however, is that one should not see digitization as simply the technical process of transferring an analogue original into digital form. Instead of narrowing it down to the scanning or photographing or transcribing of the primary material, there are many steps in the process of digitization which are based on scholarly competence, intellectual resources and cultural bargaining processes about the standards and methods to be used. What’s more – what good is a digitized source when it rests unused on some server nobody knows about? So, dissemination is one of the key elements of anchoring the digitized material among the users.

We’ve been given scarce time to work out our contributions for mutual commenting among the authors. Sitting here, trying to elaborate the initial thoughts I had, I am sitting with my notes from the discussion and I notice how demanding it is to come up with a 20-page explanation of what digitization actually is. I am assuring myself that there is neither a possibility nor even a necessity to believe it has to – or even can be – exhaustive.


Jan Hecker-Stampehl

wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter für nordeuropäische Geschichte · Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Nordeuropa-Institut · Begründer und Administrator von NordicHistoryBlog

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