Teachable Features 14: Working with Digital Objects: Digitization as a Teachable Feature, or “How did Those Images Get There?!?!”

Astrid J. Smith has been digitizing materials as rare book and special collections digitization specialist for Stanford Libraries for over a decade. With a background in fine art, and a master’s degree in liberal arts, she strives always to ensure that cultural heritage preservation imaging best practices are combined with her own aesthetic and phenomenological observations to create meaningful new digital forms.        

Digitization Preview
Figure 1: Septistellium Meditationis (Mss Codex 1126) digitized by Stanford’s Digital Production Group. Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries. Click to visit the digitization.

            When viewing a digital object on a screen, our experiences and interactions with the images are quite different from how we would interact with a physical object: we might find ourselves immediately zooming-in to the highest extreme, in which follicles on parchment become craters, and ink marks stretch across the terrain like the stained remnants of a once-fluid lake. We might be inclined to advance wildly through the sequential images of the pages of a bound object, or even to simultaneously view the entirety of its contents at a glance in a dizzying array of thumbnails. The rapid succession of images, and the deeply navigable functionality of the image-viewer, alters the manner in which we might have slowly and thoughtfully approached the object in the physical realm. And yet despite the fact that we are aware that this screen-entity is quite different from its material point of reference, it may still feel deceptively as though we are looking through a window at the physical object itself, rather than at a technology-mediated series of individual pixels with color-codes defining their respective bits. At some point, we might finally pause to ask ourselves, “How did these images get here?!?!” What I argue in this blog post is that the mindful researcher must slow down when approaching digital objects and attempt to both observe visual clues and investigate further, as needed, in order to understand how it came to exist. Digitization is an intrinsic part of the digital object and should therefore be considered a fundamental “teachable feature” for anyone wishing to understand the archival object itself.

            The digital object is distinct from the physical object by its attributes and phenomenological features. And yet, the digital object is both a compliment and a corollary to the archival object referenced for its creation. Welsh medievalist Elaine Treharne encapsulates this duality of distinctness and correlation by using the term “digital aspect” to describe digital objects, which thoughtfully acknowledges their own unique phenomenological qualities while denoting their innate relationship to the physical material.[1] The digital aspect and the archival object each exist for different reasons under different contexts, which should influence how we approach and interpret them. Having a philosophical understanding of the distinctness of the two forms of objects underscores the importance of their respective stories: the most diligent scholar is as interested and curious about the origin and development of the digital object as they are in that of the physical. This leads to the unpacking of the question of how the images “got there,” in that we might further inquire as to who, what, when, where, and why. In order to do this, I’ve selected a case-study that is both an extremely interesting object and a fascinating example of the digitization process: Stanford Libraries’ MSS CODEX 1126, Septistellium Meditationis, dating from the 13th or 14th century, which will be looked at in depth (Figure 2).[2] Click on the image to be taken to the online viewer.

Figure 1
Figure 2: Screen capture of the digitized codex, as seen in the Mirador viewer embedded in the Ancient, Medieval, and Early Modern Manuscripts at Stanford exhibit. Digitization by Stanford’s Digital Production Group. This image has been rotated one hundred and eighty degrees. Septistellium Meditationis (Mss Codex 1126). Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

            When conducting research by way of a digital object, it may be tempting to delve into one’s analysis of the related physical object without first addressing the fact that what we are working with directly is not the same form. In order to step back and acknowledge the digitization that occurred, I would suggest that you first ask yourself the following questions as a framework for your evaluation:

  1. Who: Who were the individual people, teams, or departments involved with the digitization of this object?
  2. What: What visual clues are observable in the images? What decisions were made about the way the images were cropped or displayed?
  3. When: When did the digitization occur? Had it been previously digitized, and if so, why was it digitized again?
  4. Where: Where was the digitization performed? Was it done in a dedicated lab, offsite by staff, or by a vendor?
  5. Why: Why was this item, in particular, digitized? Was it part of a programmatic project, or was it a specific request? If the latter, who asked to have this work done?

Going back to the object in question, Septistellium Meditationis is described in its catalog record as such:

Sammelband containing florilegia from the Church Fathers as well as medieval theological writings, particularly on the theology of love, the soul, and confession. From the 13th Century to the late 14th Century. Includes a table of contents indicating seven separate titles. And with two additional sections added at an early date. Among these titles are selections from the works of St. Augustine, St. Bernard, Hugh of St. Victor, and Honorius of Autun. [3]

This unusual format meant that it had some leaves of differing sizes and textures, in addition to the considerations that are always made for fragile medieval rare materials. Below are the answers for the questions posed in the proposed evaluative framework.

Who: The digitization of Septistellium Meditationis was performed by Astrid J. Smith, Rare Book and Special Collections Digitization Specialist within the Digital Production Group of Stanford’s Digital Library Systems and Services, along with Micaela Go, a Digitization Lab Assistant also of the Digital Production Group, with further assistance from Kristen St.John, Head of Conservation. While Astrid and Kristen were doing the object-handling, Astrid was also pressing the trigger for the camera, which both took the photograph and flashed the lights, and Micaela was reviewing raw images in real-time as they appeared on the computer monitor. Micaela later performed the post-processing, such as straightening and cropping, and quality assurance steps to prepare the files. During this work, Astrid and Micaela discussed shadows, crops, and made choices about how best to channel and represent the physical object through these still images that would be accessioned into the digital repository and made available online. Afterwards, once the images had been processed and fed into the pipeline that leads to the digital repository, Michelle Paquette and Arcadia Falcone, from the Special Collections Manuscript Processing and Metadata units, respectively, updated the catalog record and metadata for the physical object, and Rare Books Curator Benjamin Albritton released the digital object to the library’s public catalog where it was made visible in a user interface on the item’s record.

What: The photographs of Septistellium Meditationis are cropped outside of the codex at the fore-edge, top, and bottom, thus showing a small portion of the black background underneath the object, and the crop extends slightly beyond the gutter to show a strip of the facing leaf in the opening. This cropping model is common for rare materials that will be used for research purposes, especially in cases when there may be content loss in the gutter due to tight bindings. There are visible shadows in some areas where the stiff parchment has resisted being held flat, and these were intentionally retained, not minimized, as they were not obscuring any text and give valuable insight into intangible physical qualities (Figure 3). All leaves were imaged, including blank paste-down and flyleaves, as these give structural information about the object, as well as an uninterrupted look at the follicles of the parchment (Figure 4). The spine, fore-edge, head (top) and tail (bottom) of the codex were imaged as well, which is less common in routine digitization work due to the modifications to the setup they require (Figure 5).

Figure 3
Figure 3: Shadows showing slight curvature in a stiff parchment leaf of the codex, visible in the digital image.
Figure 4
Figure 4: Follicles visible on the image of the blank pastedown at the back of the codex.
Figure 5
Figure 5: Images of the fore-edge and head (top) of the codex.
Figure 6
Figure 6: Example of the crop for the images of the codex, showing a margin all the way around the object and slightly into the facing leaf of the opening. Holding aids created by the author.

When: The request to digitize the volume was placed at the end of October 2017, shortly after which Astrid performed an initial physical assessment for digitization. These assessments are performed on all objects and collections slated for digitization. Due to the exceptionally tight margins and stiff parchment leaves, as well as some leaves of different sizes, the manuscript was going to require a custom setup for both safety and to achieve useful images: the leaves would not lay flat, and as glass may not be safely placed on items with pigment on parchment they would stick up like a spring and stubbornly refuse to be documented. Astrid performed some initial imaging tests, then consulted with Kristen, and they decided to complete the imaging together in the new year (Figure 6). Over winter break, Astrid designed and had some clear acrylic holding aids made in order to lightly secure the parchment in place during the imaging process—these had been something she had been thinking about for quite some time, and this object was the catalyst to finally making them. She and Kristen reviewed her holders together, and Kristen approved their use for working with that and any other codices or parchment objects. With a safe plan now set, the imaging of Septistellium Meditationis took place in early January of 2018, and the post-production steps occurred over the following couple weeks.

Figure 2
Figure 7: Handling of codex during imaging by Kristen St.John (left) and Astrid J. Smith (right.)

The files were then deposited into the Stanford digital repository and the workflows set up by the infrastructure team performed automated steps to eventually made them viewable online. When viewing the resulting images—including those holders, their particular placement, various shadows, and all the crops—we may observe numerous clues that offer a visual impression of the materiality of the object and of the digitization process.

Where: The digitization of the codex took place in one of the Digital Production Group’s imaging labs within Stanford Libraries, at an overhead camera rig that is mainly used for imaging bound volumes and fragile archival materials. The station is surrounded by a thick, black curtain in the corner of a large room filled with other imaging and quality assurance stations. The post-production and quality assurance steps took place in the same lab, and all other work by library staff was performed remotely from their respective offices.

Why: The impetus to digitize originated with a researcher who had asked for a few images for their own personal analysis. Kathleen Smith, Curator for Germanic Collections & Medieval Studies, placed the request to have the entire object imaged and made part of the library’s digital repository.

            As with physical objects, for every digital object there are people, processes, workflows, technology, and countless decisions behind their existence. How much of the information above could be gleaned from the catalog record page where the digital images are hosted? Researchers and digital humanists use images and data mediated by infrastructures that strive for seamlessness, but that seamlessness has consequences. As Leo Settoducato states in “Intersubjectivity and Ghostly Library Labor,” “Libraries are haunted houses…we workers are hidden, erasing ourselves in the hopes of providing a seamless user experience.”[4] This is true of digitization labs: the end products served out to users erase the many people involved in building those digital objects. As this is the case for most institutions with digital collections, it is the responsibility of the diligent researcher to inquire further as to the story and context behind the images they are investigating. While the answers may not always be available, the pursuit could yield valuable information about objects.

One of the most significant points that I hope readers take away from this blog post is that there is much creativity, thoughtfulness, and artistry involved in the acts of visual transformation that digitizers perform, and while digital objects are representations of physical objects, they are also the product of many people’s work.



  1. 1. An item that is tangible, especially one with significant depth relative to its height and width; an artifact or specimen. 2. Computing: A collection of data with defined boundaries that is treated as a single entity; a resource; a digital object. 3. Computing: An instantiation of a class or entity that forms a component of a system. Dictionary of Archives Terminology, Society of American Archivists (17 Feb 2021).

digital object

  1. a unit of information that includes properties (attributes or characteristics of the object) and may also include methods (means of performing operations on the object) Dictionary of Archives Terminology, Society of American Archivists (17 Feb 2021).

Further Reading

Astrid Smith, Stanford University Libraries

[1] Treharne, Elaine. Perceptions of Medieval Manuscripts: The Phenomenal Book.: Oxford University Press, 2021.

[2] Physical object, Septistellium Meditationis (Mss Codex 1126). Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries, Stanford, Calif.

[3] Description taken from the descriptive metadata in Stanford library’s catalog record.

[4] Settoducato, Leo. “Intersubjectivity and Ghostly Library Labor.” In the Library With the Lead Pipe (March 2016). Accessed October 21, 2020.

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