Digitisation in a Day

About three weeks ago I took a workshop with An Foras Feasa at NUI Maynooth called Digitisation in a Day (and have been planning ever since to write about it but never quite got around to it). I’ve always been interested in technology, my undergrad was in Computer Science, Linguistics and French, and during my studies this year I found myself drawn to the more techie side of librarianship and the digital humanities. So when the most recent Digitisation in a Day workshop was announced I jumped at the chance to attend.

The course was fantastic. It was designed to give a brief overview of the process and the whole day was a bit of a whirlwind as we attempted to pack in as much as possible. I particularly liked that we were working with real documents, in a semi-real project so we got some hands on experience, as well as learning best practice. We digitised a Guest Book from a cafe.

I was surprised at first that so little of the day focused on the actual digitisation (capturing the image) process. But there is so much to digitisation than just taking a picture. The first lesson I took from the day was don’t digitise for the sake of it. Our digital libraries lecturer had already drilled into us that digitisation is not preservation. Let me say that again – digitisation is not preservation. Digital copies also need to be preserved.

The fist session descirbed An Foras Feasa’s digitisation process, then we moved on to user requirements. This was a total lightbulb moment for me, and also clarified a few issues in terms of our Capstone (group thesis). How can you do anything without knowing what your users might need!?!? So before you digitise your resource you need to know WHY you are doing it, and what research questions your users may have. This makes so much logical sense to me, and is something we had discussed in my Information Architecture class in our first semester. But unfortunately users don’t always seem to be at the core of many projects.

We also looked at some software, which only slightly went over my head. And that’s ok, if working on a large project there would be a software engineer on the team. But at least most of the terms used (such as Fedora, XML, XQuery, Apache web server) were familiar to me. This is yet another theme I keep returning to. Although I studied Computer Science I’m not, and never will be, a developer. But as a librarian I don’t need to be. I only need to be able to communicate with the developer, and I feel I have sufficient competency in that area to be able to do just that.

Next up: we actually took our digital images of the guest book, and got to have a look around An Foras Feasa’s labs, which was very exciting. Once the image was taken we had to segment them using software and created a map so we could tell the XML encoding where each bit of transcription was on the page. We used Map Edit and the online version available at http://www.maschek.hu/imagemap/imgmap.

After lunch we encoded our transcription in XML. Having said I’m not a developer, I do love a bit of coding. The logicality of it all appeals to me. XML looks quite similar to HTML, which I studied in Web Publishing, so that really helped me understand what was going on in our very brief introduction to this encoding standard. I’m also writing about XML for my Capstone and firmly believe that an open standard is the way to go. Using XML also means that once your data are encoded (and yes, data are plural) you can transfer them from one system to another, making sharing of your resource easier.

A question was asked later in the day about TEI, which is another encoding schema used in digital humanities. However our facilitator vehemently defended XML as being superior. We didn’t cover TEI in our course, so I won’t attempt to regurgitate her defense of XML, except to say I was totally convinced by her.

At the end of the day we got to see our live, online, digitised guest book. So much of this day strengthened for me that I want to be working in the digital aspect of libraries, in some capacity at least. Speaking to one of the facilitators during a break he also mentioned that my linguistics qualification could come in useful with the natural language analysis in these types of projects. And so many of the themes from our lectures cropped up here again, particularly the focus on the user and the use of open standards.

I drove home feeling exhilarated and motivated by my new (and reaffirmed) knowledge and excited about what the future holds for me and my new skills.