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Digital humanities: humanities research in the digital age
Digital humanities: humanities research in the digital age

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2.2 Digit[al]isation: the challenges of a new kind of archival system


It is worth spending a moment to consider the structural counterpart of digitisation, ‘digitalisation’. Digitalisation, as it appears in the academic context, is the conversion of the structures of collection, organisation, storage, finding, retrieval, delivery, access, and response through which we encounter objects (our libraries’ digital interfaces, for example).


Digitisation is a process of remediation and worth considering in light of Stuart Hall’s theory of encoding/decoding in which the acts of encoding by creators, transmission to viewers or users, and decoding in the new context of those viewers and users all have an impact on the understanding of the thing initially encoded. The digital representation that we decode is not the same thing as the source that was encoded. When considering digitised objects, or digitising objects, we must always consider what is lost and what is gained through digitisation.

Digitisation and structures of knowledge

Digitisation promises the liberation of materials and the revelation of new insights, but digitisation and digitalisation impose their own structures on access to and use of materials: decisions made by the creators of a digitised dataset have long-term and significant implications for how it can be used and understood.

The digital gap

Digitised materials only represent a small proportion of all of the historical materials available: matters such as potential popularity, economic value, suitability, and the interests of stakeholders often dictate what materials are digitised, and, therefore, what materials we have access to digitally. We must be mindful of the digital gap, how it is created, and how we can compensate for it.