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How can a digital file become a digital asset?

14 November, 2019

What is the difference between a digital file and a digital asset? I know this sounds like a semantic argument to find out who is top geek but please bear with me, as it potentially plays a huge role in digitisation for the public good.

So, firstly, what is a digital file? I guess the most basic definition would be, ‘A stored segment or block of information that is available to a computer programme’ or, if one wanted to be more technical, ‘A file is a named and ordered sequence of bytes that is known by an operating system.’

Visual representation of Digital files

Digital Files

According to Wikipedia the idea of a digital asset contrasts this by describing it as, ‘anything that exists in a binary format and comes with the right to use’. I’d like to expand this definition by adding Theresa Regli’s definition from her book, Digital and Marketing Asset Management, ‘something represented in a digital form that has an intrinsic or acquired value.’ To further add to this definition I’d like to bring in the Digital Asset Manager Learning Centre’s views on the subject. In an article entitled, ‘What’s a Digital Asset? Defining the Asset in Digital Asset Management’ Edward Smith adds that, ‘they’re only assets if you can find them’ and then, finally, gives the digital assets the following technical definition, ‘[A digital asset is]… A media file plus metadata’.

I bet you, the reader, are looking at these definitions and thinking to yourself, ‘BORED!’ So let’s break these concepts down into examples from our everyday digitisation process.

Firstly, we have the physical object, let’s say a priceless medieval Russian manuscript, and our camera, perhaps a Hasselblad medium format digital camera, and through the wonders of digital photography (and immense skill on our parts) we create a digital representation of this object by photographing it.

Image of Studio photographer

This resulting image is a digital file. This photographed manuscript is now part of the Chester Beatty’s digital system but it is largely unusable because it is on a computer that is only accessible to the digitisation department. In this sense we have created a representation of our object that is both in digital form and as an image has an intrinsic value BUT, as Edward Smith pointed out, digital files are only assets once people are able to find them.

The second problem with this digital file is that, at this point, there is very little metadata attached to the image and so it is impossible to provide the context needed for understanding the image. Yet without the fundamental metadata associated with the object, a viewer with no background knowledge might not be aware that it is a Russian manuscript let alone the time period it was from. In this sense the image is largely unreadable to the general public except as an aesthetic image.

This is why our next step in the digitisation process is to enrich these digital files with metadata. This process will include the relevant curator, in this case the Curator of Western Collections, adding essential metadata to the image such as the title, creator, medium and materials used, etc., all the information required to provide the framework needed for someone unfamiliar with the original object to gain a greater understanding of the global context within which it was created.

Visual representation of metadata

At this point, we now have images that can be searched using the country it was created in, when it was created or any other pieces of information contained within the metadata added by the Curator of Western collections. These images should be of a high enough resolution to allow the viewer to zoom into tiny details within the image. These files are now brimming with information and are certainly an asset to anybody within the museum but since we are a public institution, until they are accessible to the general public, I would hesitate to call them a true digital asset.

Visual representation of high resolution image

To achieve this, the image files and their accompanying metadata should be placed within an easily searchable database allowing those who are interested, convenient and efficient access to these digital representations. In our case we are using cultural heritage specific software named, Goobi. This software has been added to our website and allows viewers to access all of the images through a specially created image viewer. This viewer allows access to high resolution images and the contextual metadata that accompanies them.

As one can see this process is relatively context specific. In this case as we are a public institution and to achieve our ultimate goal, our information should be publically accessible. However, in essence, the concept remains the same whether the images are part of a public or private institution: for a digital file to become a digital asset it needs to be accessible to those who may need it and contextualised enough so that it is usable to those who might access it.

In our eyes it is only after this process, once the digital file has become accessible and contextualised that the original digital file becomes a digital asset.

Jon Riordan, Digital Photographer at the Chester Beatty

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