Is digitisation opening up a can of worms?

Source: Livemint

Relevance: Digitalizing heritage assets is an important topic in art and culture.

Synopsis: Digitalizing heritage assets need a careful assessment.

In recent years, cultural institutions across the country have advocated for digitisation and the pandemic has only accelerated this. For instance,

  • The National Mission for Manuscripts’ project: The pilot was set up in 2006. It aims to create a digital resource that spans themes, aesthetics, scripts, and illustrations.
Advantages of Digitalizing heritage assets :
  • Many heritage custodians see digitisation projects as a fantastic means to organise data, enable accessibility and also meaningfully build a repository that provides accountability and security.
  • Digital technology, will open up incredible frontiers of sharing and collaboration. For example, collaboration with Indian and Foreign historians without coming together physically.
Challenges in digitalizing heritage assets:
  • The records might create an accessibility barrier: For instance, in the National Mission for Manuscripts project, the catalogues are mostly available in English and Hindi, creating an accessibility barrier. Some state archives have digitised thousands of portfolios and now rely on hard drives. That makes them inaccessible without meaningful interfaces.
  • Digitisation throws up ethical, legal, and copyright complexities all institutions must think about as they continue to fulfill their mandate. For example, Indigenous communities sometimes have no say in how the digital material originating from their material culture is used. For instance,
    • In 2018 Sarr-Savoy report commissioned by the French President highlighted this. The report recommends the complete digitisation of material that belongs to African ethnic communities and suggests making it available as part of an open-access digital initiative.
    • But the decision should perhaps come from the communities themselves since many artefacts might be sacred or sensitive.
    • Additionally, each time an artefact is digitised, a new digital asset is created. This will create a violation of copyrights.
  • Digitisation is also high-cost, and, typically, digitisation priorities are decided by funders and their interests or biases. So many marginalised histories don’t find space in digital archives. For instance,
Suggestions to improve Digitalizing heritage assets:
  • To protect copyrights: Copyright laws in all countries are territorial, so custodians must consider that these “digital” assets are imbued with the copyright and intellectual property rights applicable in the country of digitisation.
  • A slow-digitisation option with moderated debates will benefit individuals, institutions and nations alike.
  • It might be best to proceed with balanced moral and ethical interests when digitising heritage. Such as adopting an inclusive and participatory approach that at the very least attempts to protect and inform all stakeholders.
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