No matter how carefully an institution cares for and protects its physical collections, they will still degrade due to physical handling and environmental factors. Some do so slowly, others quite quickly. However, at some point, every collection will be lost to the tidal forces of time. Proper digitization can both directly reduce degradation of the original physical collection, and provide for the survival of the content of a collection in the case of any physical loss.
A Digital Copy Does Not Degrade
In contrast to a physical object, a Preservation Digital Object (PDO), correctly archived, can completely retain its fidelity over time. Every PDO is comprised of a discrete, countable number of bits which can be verified and audited to ensure fidelity. An unlimited number of exact copies or lower-quality derivatives can be made for redundant backup or dissemination, without any loss of fidelity to the master PDO. Correct management of a large digital collection is neither simple nor inexpensive, but it offers complete resistance to degradation. If the PDO is properly formed and maintained, it can retain its faithfulness to the original physical object, and serve as a visual record of that object when it was imaged, thus also providing a time marker of that object’s state.
Reduced Material Handling Protects our Cultural Heritage
No matter what handling procedures are put in place, physical handling of an object always causes degradation of its condition. If care is taken to digitize with preservation grade image quality [see FADGI & METAMORFOZE], future handling can be entirely eliminated for entire categories of access, and greatly reduced for others. We believe strongly in the “do it once, do it right” model, which calls for digitizing all material to meet or exceed industry standards to ensure adequate quality (resolution, color fidelity, tonal accuracy, etc) is available for any foreseeable future use. Digitization reduces the amount of future physical handling a collection will undergo, but it’s still important to minimize the handling required by the digitization process itself. A proper digitization program makes use of hardware, software, and workflow which prioritizes the safety of the material and reduces the handling to the absolute minimum required. For instance, when using the DT BC100 Book Capture System, bound materials are opened to only a 100 degree angle, and both sides of a spread are imaged simultaneously so that the material only needs to be opened to a particular spread once. “When you’re digitizing rare books image quality is really important. You want to digitize it once and not have to bring that material out again.”
– Eric Philcox, CEO, Pixel Acuity
“The most important thing as a Cultural Heritage Institution is preserving the rare material. Only a certain number of people can look at a 700-year old manuscript without creating a lot of damage to that manuscript, but by having very high quality imaging, the need for handling is greatly reduced.”
– Graham Haber, Photographer, The Morgan Library & Museum
“Parts of our collection are too brittle to handle without loss of text and have been withdrawn from public use. Having a digital capture system allows us to gently handle one last time, tuck the original away for rare use, and provide the researcher with high quality images.“
– Nancy Kraft, Preservation Librarian, University of Iowa Libraries
Digital Phoenix: Rising From the Ashes of Catastrophe
The history of Cultural Heritage Preservation is full of tragic tales of enormous loss. Such losses undo the countless hours dedicated to protect these collections. Natural disasters such as wildfire, flood, earthquake, tornado, hurricane, blizzards, avalanches, mudslides, ice storms, tsunami, volcanic eruption can all threaten the safety, and sometimes very existence, of Cultural Heritage collections. It is not just the scale of these disasters but also their unpredictable nature which create such an ongoing danger. “[During Hurricane Katrina] the worst damage to our physical collections and buildings occurred at the Old U.S. Mint location at 400 Esplanade Ave. The hurricane winds tore off the copper roof of the building, allowing a great deal of rain to enter. There was damage to some collections… All digital assets were backed up and copies were stored off-site. There was no loss of digitized materials.”
– Jeff Rubin, IT Director at Louisiana State Museum during Hurricane Katrina
Finally, theft, vandalism, war, famine, nuclear incidents, fire, systematic mismanagement, or extreme changes in budget environments can result in massive losses. These threats can seem remote to those in developed nations, but the time horizon of cultural heritage preservation is millennia, and few places on earth have escaped significant strife for a millenia. From the Library of Alexandria and Hurricane Katrina to the losses of fine art under Nazi Europe and the ongoing losses of Cultural Heritage sites in Iraq and Syria, history teaches us that no state or institution lasts forever. There is no shortage of dangers to the integrity of our Cultural Heritage collections, and preparing emergency responses to the above described threats is beyond the scope of this document. What is clear is that digitization can play a vital role in salvaging value from a collection which is otherwise lost. While nothing can completely replace a damaged or destroyed object a Preservation Digital Object can act as a surrogate in the event of complete loss; in any event, it’s the best failsafe option available and a critical part of disaster planning.
Counterfeit Detection and Defacement Identification
A high quality digitization program can provide a forensic record against which to compare for the identification of counterfeits or defacement of the true original. This can be especially useful in the case that an item is stolen and thought to have been recovered. For famous and well-known pieces it is likely specialists could identify counterfeits or defacement by a variety of means, but for many items in a collection a Preservation Digital Object may be especially important in this process. “A Preservation Digital Object (PDO) digitally fingerprints the physical object it records. It precisely records imperfections in handmade paper and inconsistencies in handpress printing. In the event a book is stolen and later recovered, it can be conclusively authenticated by comparing it to the PDO. This theft-resistance does not require physical alteration to the object (e.g. library stamp) and is therefore invisible to the thief. Such security is virtually undefeatable, since these imperfections are scattered throughout every page of a book, sometimes many to a page. Effacing all the individual distinctive features would be virtually impossible.”
– James R. Voelkel, Curator of Rare Books, Othmer Library of Chemical History