Photography has helped capture moments in time since its creation over 150 years ago. A baby’s first cry, the first kiss of a married couple, a killer shot on a goal by a hockey player, or a family’s last photo together, all can be captured by a photograph as a lasting memory of an event, item, place, or person. While that photograph may trigger memories for individuals, such as feelings, touch, smell, weight, or taste, when it comes to the photographing of objects for museums, libraries, schools, etc., they are not able to capture those same memory triggers. I can assume that since I am looking at an image of a copy of the Gutenberg Bible that I would be smelling the scent of old paper and old ink, combined with the staleness of the air surrounding it in order to preserve it. I could also assume the feeling of frailty of the pages if I were ever to be able to touch it. But I do not know the exact flavors or textures without being able to handle the object myself. These are some of the limitations to digital representations of humanities objects.
As of right now, it is impossible to taste, smell, or touch images of the Mona Lisa, the Gutenberg Press, or the Star Spangled Banner. We are simply able to take pictures from every angle possible of the objects, and then turn it into 2-D or 3-D photographs. We have been able to create 3-D printers in recent years, which could probably print out a representation of the Gutenberg Bible, but it would not convey the exact same feelings or smells. It’s also very difficult to get a full representation of all sides of an item. For example, it would be incredibly hard for me to get a representation from underneath the feet of a Gutenberg printing press. There are ways to get as many angles as possible, but the question of safety for the preservation of the artifact comes into play. Is it too dangerous to try to get a photographic representation of the bottom of the feet of a Gutenberg printing press or is it something worth doing? Would resources be better spent on getting the best digital representations of other objects than focusing on that one small part of a larger item? These are questions that digital historians must address when it comes to approaching digitization of objects.
In terms of the appropriate kinds of digitization, books and other forms of written objects are best digitized by scanning and/or photographs. It may make sense to make a 3-D scan of an old book, such as the Gutenberg Bible, but it does not make sense on a larger scale. When it comes to paintings and other flat artwork, again, scanning and/or photographs would probably be the best option. As to artifacts and objects that are 3-dimensional to begin with, such as a statue, it depends on the resources available. If it is a smaller museum with fewer resources, they may not have the capabilities to have 3-D renderings of the object. It also comes down to the worth of the item and whether or not it is worth it to digitize it in a 3-dimensional format. Does every Tiffany lamp need to be digitized in 3-D, or will a 2-D photograph from multiple angles suffice? The more important the 3-D object is, the more likely it should be mapped in 3-D.
Working with digitized representations allows us to get a little more up close and personal with artifacts that we, otherwise, may not have the ability to come in contact with, due to the condition of the artifact, location, or lack of credentials. The likelihood of the average historian, student, or amateur researcher would get to handle the Michelangelo’s David is incredibly slim, but being able to visualize it, up close and personally, so to speak, with 3-D representations, or even photographs from every angle, is incredibly helpful to an art historian looking to study representations of the human figure from the Renaissance period.
It is also incredibly helpful so that, as researchers, we don’t have to visit every library or no longer wait for that inter-library loan to come in and we are able to research much more effectively than even 10 years ago. We can view the digitized content instantly, or nearly instantly. I can quickly do a database search and see if there are any articles or books on the topic of Michelangelo’s human anatomy study to better fit my research needs, and then pull them up in real time to be able to study them. As technology evolves, so do the research and digitization methods, which help to disseminate the information to more people and allow more collaboration to happen, which may not have happened otherwise.