Dal Digital Cultural Heritage alla Digital Culture. Evoluzioni nelle Digital Humanities

Nicola Barbuti (nicola.barbuti@uniba.it), Dipartimento di Studi Umanistici DISUM – Università degli Studi di Bari Aldo Moro, Italy and Ludovica Marinucci (lud.marinucci@gmail.com), Scuola a Rete per la Formazione nel Digital Cultural Heritage, Arts and Humanities – DiCultHer


Digital has transformed the way to produce, transmit and share knowledge. The increasingly widespread diffusion of digital methods and techniques in all the social and cultural levels of the communities, in fact, brings an unheard democratization of knowledge and culture, making the citizen a privileged and intelligent actor in the sustainable development of the new smart societies which are based on the process of digitization, digital co-creation and digital design.

art. 2 of the UE “
Council conclusions of 21 May 2014 on cultural heritage as a strategic resource for a sustainable Europe” (2014/C 183/08) states: “Cultural heritage consists of the resources inherited from the past in all forms and aspects – tangible, intangible and digital (born digital and digitized), including monuments, sites, landscapes, skills, practices, knowledge and expressions of human creativity, as well as collections conserved and managed by public and private bodies such as museums, libraries and archives. It originates from the interaction between people and places through time and it is constantly evolving. These resources are of great value to society from a cultural, environmental, social and economic point of view and thus their sustainable management constitutes a strategic choice for the 21st century”.

It is therefore inevitable to rethink digital and digitization as social and cultural expressions of the contemporary age. This implies the need to rethink data as cultural entities and no longer as mere tools for simplifying administration management, or as extemporary surrogates for enhancing the fruition of tangible and intangible cultural heritage.

The current process for archiving and storing data, although they generate from the awareness of the need to preserve them, don’t solve the problem of their both current and historical reuse, because they are still strongly conditioned by the instrumental function that presides over their production and use.

Towards a first classification of Digital Culture

This paper aims to provide a new definition of methodological and technological approach to digital and digitization, with the goal to guarantee data stability, sustainability, usability and reusability so as to foster their long term preservation.

The research originates from observing that, in the human evolution, the survival, preservation and permanence over time of any entity has always been strictly linked to its identification as cultural heritage, because of its value of historical witness which conveys knowledge.

For several years, authoritative scientific voices have highlighted how long term digital preservation is the real emergency to be faced worldwide. In 2015, Vinton Cerf raised the alarm about the risk that the Twenty-First Century will become for posterity the first black hole in human evolution since the establishment of intelligent communication. The alarm resumed what was debated in the 2012 UNESCO Conference held in Vancouver with the significant title “The Memory of the World in the Digital Age: Digitization and Preservation”.

In order to start a serious and shared process for cultural identification of digital and digitization, it is therefore essential to recognize data as cultural entities, defining a clear and regulated position in the contemporary cultural scene. In fact, several existing digital entities could be considered contemporary
Digital Cultural Heritage (DCH), expression of the
Digital Culture of the Twenty-First Century smart societies.

A first useful identification could come out from a classification of
digital cultural entities, which can be traced back to the following three basic categories in which the Digital Culture could be declined:

Digital FOR Cultural Heritage: process, methods and techniques aimed at co-creation of digital artifacts reproducing in their contents tangible and intangible cultural heritage: e.g., digital objects, digital libraries, virtual museums, demo-etno-anthropological databases.

Digital AS Cultural Heritage: approach, process, methods and techniques aimed at recognizing and preserving both digital artifacts reproducing intangible and tangible cultural heritage, and dematerialization as expression of contemporary cultural
facies to be known, safeguarded, preserved and transferred in time as witness and memory of the current
Digital Age.

Born Digital Heritage: process, methods and techniques aimed at co-creating and managing digital entities that record the current activities of contemporary communities, to be safeguarded, preserved and transferred to future generations as witness and memory of Twenty-First Century culture and societies.

Digital Culture as identity of contemporary age

According to the above classification, Digital Culture could therefore be defined as implementation of integrated cultural and training approaches, processes, methods, and techniques aimed at co-creating an ecosystem of aware digital knowledge. This, in fact, will be enabled to trigger processes for the construction of networks to safeguard, preserve, sustain, transfer, reuse
DCH through awareness of its identity as historical memory of the contemporary age and, therefore, as source of knowledge for future generations.

So, starting from the analysis and co-design of a digital entity, whatever it is – one digital artifact, a digital library, a management system for Public Administrations or an app for Augmented Reality –, the focus on preservation is primary to define it a digital cultural entity. It will determine and regulate both the co-creation process, and the methodological and technological approaches, systems, information, metadata schema, digital image content structures, data description, complex data set, and their any further development and sustainability. This approach can only exist in an ecosystem of aware digital culture, in which digital and digitization with their processes are recognized as DCH.

In this regard, our opinion is that what differentiates DCH from the non-cultural digital artifacts are the descriptive metadata for indexing digital object. Above all, it is primary the correct proportion between:

quantity: it is the correct ratio among exhaustiveness of information, knowledge to be provided, number of metadata elements and attributes necessary to retrieve, reuse and store it;

quality: it is the correct ratio among choice of the informative and cognitive level to be given both to each descriptor and to set of descriptors, and the variables of information and cognitive need of the users, according to whether they are current or future.

Descriptive metadata as sources of Digital Cultural Heritage

The issue is addressed with regard to the preservation of
Digital AS Cultural Heritage. The case study object of the research is the metadata schema co-created for the digitization project «Historical Archive of the G. Laterza & Figli Publishing House», undertaken at the end of 2015 and today publishing in the Puglia Digital Library of the Puglia Region.

The metadata schema used for managing and indexing the digital artifacts scanned from the original documents has been co-created with reference to the Italian national METS-SAN standard structured by the National Archival System.

The preservation of both the process of digital co-creation and of the digital resources themselves has been the focus of the project. So, attention has been focused on descriptive metadata both of the project as a whole, and of each section of the original Archive (series, sub-series, etc.), and of each one digital artifact. The starting point was the awareness that, at the state of the art, the images present great difficulty for long term digital preservation. The planning and structuring of the metadata schema has therefore been focused not only on the needs of contemporary users, but above all on the cognitive and informative needs of future users about our contemporary culture. So, metadata will be the only sources of knowledge on both the digital artifacts we produce today, and the processes by which we co-create them.

We preferred to use «granular» indexing, describing each digital document with its metadata.

In structuring the metadata schema, we considered the tag sequence as an organic structure composed of forms entities (elements and attributes) and descriptive information. The narrative contents have been articulated hybridizing methods and techniques of archival description with cataloguing solutions, and they have been written with stylistic criteria deduced from the storytelling methodology, providing information on both the whole project and the detail of each section and, inside the sections, of each partition.

In each metadata, the <header> section, after the namespaces (<xlmns: —>) enbeds the descriptors related to:

– project: body responsible for the project, owner of original Archive, editor of digital resources;

– history of the original Archive;

– structure of the original Archive;

– historical/biographical profile of the owner of the original Archive;

– rights that regulate the use of original documents.

The <desc> section has been divided into two sub-sections:

1. context: it enbeds the data relating to entities involved in the ownership and management of the original documents;

2. description: it describes the consistency of the sub-fund to which the resource described in the sub-section <File> belongs.

The <File> section dedicated to single document describes:

– the original document represented in the image: subject, text abstract, creator, contributors, chronic date, topical date, support, language;

– the physical position of the original in the Archive;

– the editor who creates the descriptions.

The section on rights follows, which describes:

– ownership of the digital artifact;

– accessibility and reuse of the digital artifact;

– ownership and accessibility of the original document.

The schema closes with the technical metadata describing the different image formats in which each digital objects relating to the respective pages of a document have been reproduced, with their structural components.


Starting from the art. 2 of the UE “Council conclusions of 21 May 2014 on cultural heritage as a strategic resource for a sustainable Europe” (2014/C 183/08), the paper focuses on the need to rethink digital and digitization process for long term digital preservation, aiming to redefine them as the new Cultural Heritage of the contemporary era.

This new way to observe digital artifacts and their co-creation process is the indispensable prerequisite for co-creating aware Digital Culture and for giving due importance to digitization and dematerialisation, whose process, from the planning stages, need an approach focused on data preservation and, to this goal, on the decisive role that the descriptive metadata play.

The case study was the digitization project of the “Historical Archive of the Giuseppe Laterza & Figli Publishing House”. In particular, the attention to preservation focused on structuring the schema of metadata and, above all, on descriptive writing, with regard to the choice of tags, elements and attributes, and to draft descriptive information of each digital artefact. In fact, our opinion is that they constitute the main source for the knowledge of both the single digital artifact, and the full project and its evolution, thus configuring itself as fundamental elements to validate and certify the data, guaranteeing quality, authenticity and sustainability as witness and memory of the contemporary Digital Age, with the aim to increase the knowledge of future generations about Twenty-First Century.

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