Exploring the Limits of Digitization

Jane E. Klinger

In the context of how we view collections, an object is more than its physical attributes. Each one carries meaning imbued with the events of the Holocaust and the experiences of those who suffered, which goes beyond its material reality. How the object was used and damaged during the war years--through being hidden, through use, or through neglect--are important parts of the story it has to tell. Damage to a Holocaust artefact therefore has historical significance that will influence the course of conservation treatment. Some of the issues that must be investigated before devising a course of treatment are the broad context of the Holocaust, the place of the artefact within that context, and the provenance and particular history of the artefact itself, which can only be determined in collaboration with historians, curators, and, at times, the donor. Determination of Holocaust-era damage from post-period damage not only greatly influences the course of conservation treatment, however, but also how the artefact is used and interpreted. Treatment may be based on the imperative to conserve the damage itself, which carry intrinsic as well as evidentiary value.

Digitization, by its very nature, privileges the information contained in documents versus the documents materiality, and it is the desire to make this information widely accessible to researchers and the general public that drives the development of digitization programs – often more than the desire to protect collections from excessive or unnecessary handling. And, the push to digitize documents increases proportionately with the perceived value of the document, based on its rarity, uniqueness, or historic importance.

While both programs – conservation and digitization – maintain the value of the collections as the focus of their activities, each defines that value, as well as its informational content, quite differently. It would be too simplistic to distinguish one as concerned with intellectual content versus the other as only concerned with material attributes. The program to digitize Holocaust diaries will be used to illustrate this point and highlight the limits of digitization.

The Frederick Weinstein diary was written while he was in hiding in Warsaw between September 1939 and January 1945. It consists of loose pages from various ledger books. The sheets are not uniform in size or composition. Many of the pages were written on highly translucent paper which allows for the writing on the reverse to bleed through. In order for a digitized image to be easily legible, the skilled technician will do what is possible to avoid any ghost image of the handwriting from the other side of the page. The online reader will therefore not have any sense of one of the primary characteristics of the paper on which the diary is written, nor will they gain any sense of its fragility, a characteristic that reflects the precarious situation of its author.

However, it is not necessary to produce an image that is flat and devoid of the inherent characteristics of the paper support in order to produce a legible image. Figure 1 is the type of image fairly common in conservation documentation of a page from the Weinstein diary.

Figure 1. page from the Frederick Weinstein Diary. Courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Taken in raking light, the photo illustrates the three-dimensionality of the paper, its surface texture, and the variations in the intensity of the ink across the surface. Even with the elements that give the page from the diary its material identity, the information it contains is legible and highly accessible.

Many of the torn and damaged pages of the Weinstein diary have folds that obscure some of the writing. It is not a simple matter of opening the fold for scanning. The diary papers are brittle and the simple act of unfolding may cause a loss in the sheet. So after a thorough review by a conservator, it was determined the diary must undergo conservation treatment to gently unfold, reinforce the weak areas, and mend the tears before the digitization. In this case, conservation is at the service of digitization in order to insure all the information the document carries will be captured.

In contrast to the Weinstein diary, it was determined that scanning of the two volumes of the Chaim Kaplan diary could and actually should take place before conservation treatment. After treatment, the volumes would be more robust, but the binding structure would be less forgiving of the manipulation needed for scanning purposes. The author accompanied the diary to the contractor in order to provide guidance for and help with the handling. It was very worthwhile to work directly with the people who do the scanning. Direct knowledge was gained regarding their handling protocols for a variety of materials, regarding their procedures for and processing of the images, and regarding their genuine curiosity and interest in the materials, as well as their goals for scanning.

A simple comparison of Figure 2 and Figure 3 is useful.

Figure 2. cover, Chaim Kaplan Diary, book 3. Courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Figure 3. spine view, Chaim Kaplan Diary, book 3. Courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

They are both of one of the same volume of the Kaplan diary. Figure 2 was taken by the digitization contractor as the first image in the image series of the volume. Figure 3 is a quick shot taken in the conservation photo studio. It better expresses the three-dimensional aspect of the diary, the wear and tear on the volume and its constant use in order to write a daily entry. It also hints at being hidden as it was smuggled out of the ghetto, in other words, at its history.

The digitization contractor was not happy with the scan shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4. interior page, Chaim Kaplan Diary. Courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The diary pages are not able to lay flat, but have the natural curvature of a bound volume. The scanning bed that was used consisted of two platens that can independently adjust up and down. While it does not perfectly mimic a book cradle, adjusting each platen to different heights can accommodate loosely bond materials such as this diary. The scanner head is at a fixed angle and distance from the dual platen bed as it sweeps across the material. The scanner’s computer program automatically adjusts for color and contrast, and has a limited depth of field, both of which tend to flatten the image, average the contrast, and brighten the overall tone. Furthermore, the machine seeks to square the image. Openings of a bound diary, such as seen here, test the limits of the scanner.

The natural curve of the bound pages was frustrating for the contractor and led to difficulty getting a clear image. But the contractor accepted that the pages could not be forced flat for scanning. A working protocol was therefore developed which included checking the positioning of the platens for each page opening to insure there would be no damage to the binding. Each scan was reviewed for legibility. Slight adjustments were made as necessary to the position of the platens, and, another scan taken. The process was repeated as needed, the results compared, and the preferred image saved. This, of course, slowed the process down considerably and nearly doubled the estimated time for the project.

The Otto Wolf diary reveals more information than can be expressed through a traditional scan. One of the entries casually mentions his father helping him put the diary together. Only by examining the spine, can one understand the reference. Normally, digitization will only show information on the page. Here, information can be found in the physical characteristics of the volume that are only briefly alluded to on the page. By viewing the spine of the book the details of the handmade binding can be understood (Figure 5).

Figure 5. spine view, Otto Wolf Diary, volume I. Courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

An examination of the interior of the volume shows that the diary was constructed of different composition books and that over time, Otto used different types of inks (Figure 6).

Figure 6. detail of pages, Otto Wolf Diary, volume I. Courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Such evidence informs a full understanding of the diary and the circumstances of its creation that do not convey in typical digital scans which have as their focus the information on the page rather than information conveyed by the page and the volume as a physical object.

One of the more problematic items for digitization is one that contains various inserts and accretions such as the Egon Weiss diary. The diary is slated for digitization, but prior to that a meeting is needed with the curator to discuss how to organize the scans. Later inserts such as a typewritten translations of parts of the diary, may have been important to Weiss at the time he donated his diary, but how important is it to the researcher? Other than these inserts, the diary is illustrated with photographs, newspaper scraps, documents and pockets that contain more documentary materials. The pockets may be the most problematic for scanning. How will it be best to show them and their inserts as well as the relationship between the various components? Digitization of such a complex diary will require a high attention to detail and a mechanism for the viewer/researcher to experience the relationship of all the component parts. It, therefore, requires a more nuanced approach than straightforward, traditional scanning.

At the beginning of this paper two views of what constitutes informational content were briefly outlined. One views what is written on a page as distinct from the page itself and the relationship of the page to the whole object, and the other incorporates the physical nature of the document as an important conveyor of historical information. But these do not need to be in opposition to each other, nor does digitization need to be approached as rote scanning of a series of pages. For that is precisely where the limits of digitization are found. Such an approach obscures the relationship of the text to the physical construct of a diary, such as was seen with Otto Wolf. It also obscures the history of the diary itself as an object of daily use which was later hidden and smuggled out of the ghetto, such as can be seen with the Kaplan diary. And with more complex structures as found in the Weiss diary, the need to re-evaluate traditional approaches to digitization becomes critical. Once the limits of digitization are addressed and scanning procedures modified or discarded altogether in favor of digitization through digital SLR camera imaging, then the complete information these objects contain can be accessed and made widely available.

Furthermore, the impetus for digitization may originate in a desire to protect materials from handling, and thus, is seen as a primary preservation technique. Current evidence shows, however, that this is not necessarily the case, as increased visibility has led to an increase in requests to borrow the materials for exhibition and an increase in requests from researchers to see the originals. From this it can be seen that digitization cannot be relied upon as the primary preservation technique, but must be coupled with conservation treatment and appropriate housing and storage as part of a complete preservation program.

Jane E. Klinger is the Chief Conservator at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.