In the academic paradigms of twenty-first century scholarship, the notion that technology is here to support our research is often taken for granted. What is lost in the expectation that such technology exists expressly for our collective benefit is the reality that countless hours of labor—both intellectual and manual—are involved in the production of the very resources we increasingly rely upon to conduct digital scholarship. The fact remains that these digital resources do not emerge “out of thin air.” Accordingly, having some knowledge of what goes into producing the more commonly used digital resources can help us to better understand some of the difficulties inherent to the processes involved with their production. Here is a brief list of some examples of these resources, the labor involved with their production, and the challenges one can encounter when using them:
1. Digital surrogate – The digital surrogate, otherwise known as a digitized primary source document, is a high resolution image of an individual item or a research collection. These can be surrogates of photographs, drawings, prints, manuscripts, printed books, monographs, correspondence, or a range of other materials. The items have to be physically scanned or photographed by specialists in order to produce the surrogate. Researchers should recognize that, as surrogates, not every physical characteristic of the physical item can be captured in the digital image. Some research questions might necessitate an analysis of the original source.
2. Online Index/Bibliography – These resources help researchers to navigate through a large body of primary or secondary sources. They are intended to promote either discovery or the singling out of relevant materials for one’s subject of study. Production of these resources is time consuming, meticulous, and involves both subject-level expertise and a knowledge of metadata standards. Researchers should understand that the level of comprehensiveness and the range of metadata will vary widely across different platforms.
3. Online transcript – The online transcript is a readable reproduction of a handwritten, audio, or even a printed physical document. Since the information must be manually typed into a word processing program and then coded for online access, researchers should be aware that the end result can include errors, deviations, and omissions when compared with their source of origin.
4. Oral History – The oral history is a multifaceted online resource that can include surrogates, indexes, and transcripts in addition to audio/visual files and born digital information objects. Ordinarily, there are a number of legal and privacy issues involved with the production of these resources which can delay or even prevent their public release. When consulting these materials, a researcher should consider that these resources can take anywhere from several months to several years to produce. They should also expect to find a wide variety of informational granularity from one oral history to the next with some examples containing audio or video recordings, some with transcripts, some featuring indexes, and others having all of the above.