The Narrative Content of Digitization: “I am here.”

When I was looking at the Government of Ontario funding for museum and technology projects for 2012-13 I was happy to see that more than half of the projects involved some level of digitization of artifacts.  But it got me thinking about the gains and losses of digitization.  Clearly, digitized artifacts will be more accessible, more easily, to more people.  As well, digitization means that the artifacts themselves will be able to be better preserved since they won’t be being pawed at by people, and exposed to light, humidity and other damaging crud in the air.  In addition, digitized artifacts may be able to be better protected, and be less likely to be stolen and sold on the black market.  Arguably, digitized artifacts will attract more attention for study and also be studied for longer periods of time since that study can happen from the comfort of one’s office, coffee in hand, cat purring in lap.  But what, conversely, do we lose?  I was in the library this afternoon looking at maps of southern Ontario and was told that I could have my chosen map digitized.  I leapt at the chance, but I know that it will not be quite the same, looking at it on my computer screen, compared to spreading it out and peering over it, in the basement of the library.  But even there in the library, it is encased in plastic to protect it from my greasy hands, so it appears shiny and crackles loudly when moved.

But I feel I should not wax too sentimental about this large paper map, since it too is an abstraction from the real thing.  For what is “the real thing”, after all? A map-maker stands between me and southern Ontario, and he – it was undoubtedly a ‘he’ since this map is dated 1920 – he will have made countless decisions about what to include on this map and what to exclude.  J.B. Harley, the famous cartographic historian, said that, as historians, we should read maps as critically as we read texts, understanding their meanings and their narrative voice.  But as I think of the narratives in these maps-as-texts, I am reminded also of the words of literary historian, Hayden White in his The Content of the Form.  He talked about using narratives to demonstrate the feasibility of a proposed historical reality, and to thereby defend an argument about, and prove the truth of that reality. So, what is the narrative of my map of southern Ontario and what reality does it propose?  And what will be added to that narrative when it becomes a digitized artifact?  Perhaps it will only add something simple to the artifact’s original story.  Perhaps digitization will add no more to the map’s own narrative than to say “I am here…and I will not be forgotten.”