As pointed out by Tim Sherratt, we all love the smell of old library books and the nostalgia associated with them so digital content is not always welcomed with open arms by audiences. However, we are doing a disservice to digitization efforts in claiming that it is less than “real life” interactions and experiences.
Yes, of course, digital and physical manifestations are different, the point is whether we get anywhere by arguing that one is necessarily inferior to the other.
If we continue to view digital content as inferior, where is the future headed? We obviously live in an increasingly technology-based world but if we refuse to extend those advances to digital collections & exhibits, where are we going? Sherratt quotes Jim Mussell and poses the point
The key is to reconceive loss as difference and use the way the transformed object differs to reimagine what it actually was. Critical encounters with digitized objects make us rethink what we thought we knew.
It currently seems that we think of online historic content as something that we’ve lost from its original form–for example, Clara Barton’s diary has been digitized thanks to efforts by the Library of Congress. However, now that it is online, has the value of
the physical diary changed? Is it somehow less special because it’s physical context is now almost irrelevant thanks to the digitization? To me, it seems that is how we would currently think of this situation. But, if we are to take Mussell and Sherratt’s advice and rethink what we thought we knew, this situation may be viewed differently. Maybe this digitized version of the diary is seen as an extension of the physical form–a new way to view it that may open possibilities to linguistic analysis in addition to the possibilities available by viewing the physical diary. This is just one example but if we can change our frame of mind and positively reflect on digitization, then the possibilities of accessibility, analysis, and discovery are endless!
By thinking about digitized pieces as a positive, collections as a whole will become more useful. Digitizing objects allows more pieces to be seen and therefore, are more accessible to a historically curious audience. This also increases opportunities for differing interpretations of objects by the public instead of one interpretation that has been deemed “right” by professionals. Offering more options to explore puts collections to good use and gives them meaning. After all,
Hiding collections in repositories and storage units seems ridiculous; what’s the point if no one can see them? Digitization offers a medium through which collections can be publicized without the restrictions of physical space. This seems like a win win to me. So why don’t museums and other historic institutions take advantage of this technology? Sheila Brennan suggests that this technology isn’t full heartedly embraced because many museums feel that their collections can only be experienced and interpreted on their terms. But these restrictions are a disservice to the public. Brennan advises museums and historic societies to
Invite scholars and enthusiasts from outside of your museum to contribute curated content, that includes some of your collections, publish it on your website and possibly make the process visible.
Suggestions such as these are the first step to making greater use of collections and engaging with substantially larger audiences so that they too can share in the enjoyment of historical collections. Publicizing collections is important to this process as well so that people know the extent of collections. In this way, MuseumBots can be very useful as pointed out by
Steven Lubar. Though thiese bots showcase seemingly random objects in collections, that randomization should be embraced because it shows pieces that otherwise may go unnoticed if they don’t, for example, align with current exhibitions sponsored by hosting institutions.
All of these efforts to embrace digitization can ensure that collections are more accessible and valued while also inviting various interpretations by the public. These new ways to engage with history are the starting point for the future of historical technology. We just have to accept it rather than condemning it for its “difference.”