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Digitization in the British Library

The term digitization (from Latin digitus , finger and English digit , number) has been used since the 1970s to describe the conversion of analog values ​​into digital formats and their processing or storage in a digital technical system . The information is initially available in any analog form and is then converted over several stages into a digital signal that only consists of discrete values. Increasingly, however, digitization was also understood to mean the creation of primarily digital representations, for example by digital cameras or digital sound recording systems. The data obtained in this way can be processed using information technology , a principle that underlies all manifestations of the digital revolution and digital transformation in business, society, work and private life. The treatment of a human or warm-blooded animal with digitalis was originally referred to as digitization .

Expansion of the scope

Since around 2013 - as Google search queries show - the term digitization has been used less and less in the German-speaking media public in the sense of its original meaning (conversion from analog to digital data formats), but almost exclusively (and increasingly indefinitely) in the sense of the comprehensive megatrends the digital transformation and penetration of all areas of economy, state, society and everyday life. It is about "the targeted identification and the consistent exploitation of potentials that result from digital technology". There is also talk of “digitization ability”, which like many other combinations with “digitization” is semantically nonsensical.

Often all forms of technically networked digital communication such as broadband communication , the Internet of Things , e-commerce , smart home or Industry 4.0 are subsumed undifferentiated under the keyword. Peter Mertens , Dina Barbian and Stephan Baier show the increasingly inflationary and questionable use of the term, which not only marks an important trend, but also bears the characteristics of a fashion ( hype , bland ). This fashion is associated with overly optimistic expectations and feasibility illusions; their realization could lead to risky exaggerations and bad investments. From 2013 to 2017, the number of Google search queries for “digitization” and “Industry 4.0” rose by around 600 to 700 percent, a classic sign of hype.

In fact, technically networked digital communication increases the variety of technical and organizational solution options considerably. Therefore, it does not create long-term stable structures, but increases their flexibility and complexity and reduces their predictability through the processes of disruptive change it initiates .

The following statements refer primarily to digitization in the original, narrower sense as a process of data conversion.


Digitization as the creation of digital representations has the purpose of storing information digitally and making it available for electronic data processing . Historically, it usually began with an analog medium (photo negative, slide , tape , record ). The product of such digitization is sometimes referred to as digitization . Increasingly, object digitization is also understood to mean the creation of primarily digital representations by means of digital video, photo or sound recordings. The term digitized is usually not used here.

The first attempts to digitize analog information go back to Leibniz's binary calculus and cryptographic experiments of the 17th century. Plans to build a digital calculating machine failed because of the limits of mechanics at the time. The first practically significant engineering implementations of the principle can be found in the form of card control of the jacquard loom and telegraphy . The fundamentals of the paperless storage and processing of digital data were the flip-flop circuit in 1918, which - assuming a permanent power supply - can store one bit for an unlimited time, as well as the electron tube and the transistor (1947). Ever more powerful storage media have existed for mass storage and processing since the 1960s and microprocessors since the 1970s .

It is estimated that 94 percent of the world's technological information capacity was digital in 2007 (down from just 3 percent in 1993). It is also assumed that mankind was able to store more information digitally than analogue for the first time in 2002 (the beginning of the “digital age”).

The quantity to be digitized can be anything that can be measured using sensors. Typical examples are:

The sensor measures the physical quantity and reproduces it in the form of an - still analog - electrical voltage or an electrical current. This measured value is then converted into a digital value, in the form of a (mostly electrical) digital signal, with an analog-digital converter . This process can be carried out once or at regular intervals. From here on, the measured variables are digitized and can be further processed or stored by a digital technical system (for example the home PC or digital signal processors ), for example also in a non-volatile memory such as a compact disc or a USB stick .

Today's digital technology usually only processes binary signals . Since a distinction only has to be made between two signal states ("0" or "1" or "low" or "high"), the requirements for the accuracy of the components are lower - and consequently also the production costs.

System-internal representation of digital data

How the digitized values ​​are then displayed internally in the system depends on the respective system. A distinction must first be made between the memory-independent coding and then the storage of information blocks. The coding and format depend on the type of information, the programs used and also the subsequent use. The storage can take place in the volatile main memory or persistently, for example in database systems, or directly in a file system as files.

File formats that standardize both the binary coding and metadata are of essential importance here . Examples are, for example, text files in ASCII or Unicode coding, image formats or formats for vector graphics , which describe, for example, the coordinates of a curve within an area or a space.

Interfaces to the physical world

With a view to process digitization, interfaces between the digital world and the outside world are of crucial importance. Digital information is output on analog devices or attached to physical goods so that it can be read again by humans or by the same machine with a time delay or by other machines.

In addition to classic techniques such as the output of digital information on carrier materials such as paper using human-readable characters (and their reconversion through text recognition ), this also includes specialized techniques such as barcodes , 2D codes ( e.g. QR codes ) or radio networks that can be used in the Internet of Things without Visual contact and without electrical connection can be used for communication between devices (for example via wireless local area networks (WLAN) or with radio frequency identification (RFID)).

Digital twins can be modeled from real objects or processes , with which virtual simulations can be carried out without influencing reality.

Digital copies

The end product of media digitization is often called digitization, based on terms such as condensate or correlate.

Example A
A photo is digitized for printing:
  • A file is created with the desired pixels .
Example B.
A page with text and photos is digitized, the text is converted into a form that can be further processed using text recognition (OCR), and these two are saved in the original set ( layout ) using a markup language, for example as a PDF file:
  • The resulting PDF file consists of several individual elements: raster , vector and text data .
  • With the PDF format, the individual elements are stored in a file, each in a memory-saving manner .
  • The individual elements represent fully-fledged and usable digitizations (digital copies of individual parts). But only the connection of the individual elements in the end product creates a real reproduction, because this file links the individual elements in the original arrangement, so it is a publically correct reproduction of the original.

Advantages and disadvantages

The availability of information and data in digital form has the following advantages, among others:

  • Digital data allow the use, processing, distribution, indexing and reproduction in electronic data processing systems.
  • Digital data can be processed, distributed and duplicated automatically and thus faster.
  • They can be searched (also word by word).
  • The space requirement is significantly less than with other forms of archiving
  • Even with long transport routes and after multiple processing, errors and falsifications ( e.g. noise superimpositions ) are small or can be completely eliminated compared to analog processing.

Another reason for digitizing analog content is long-term archiving . Assuming that there is no forever durable data carrier, constant migration is a fact. It is also a fact that analog content loses quality with every copy process. Digital content, on the other hand, consists of discrete values ​​that are either readable and thus equivalent to the digital original, or are no longer readable, which is prevented by redundant storage of the content or error correction algorithms .

Finally, analog originals can be spared by creating digital copies for use. Because many data carriers, including records , analogue films and color slides , lose their quality through playback or even just simple aging processes. Printed books or newspapers and archival materials also suffer from use and can be saved through digitization.

It should be noted that the digitization step is generally associated with a loss of quality or information, because the resolution remains “finite”. In many cases, however, a digitized version can be so precise that it is sufficient for a large part of the possible (including future) applications. If this quality is achieved through digitization, one speaks of preservation digitization , i.e. digitization for preservation (= replacement copy ). However, the term fails to recognize that not all future use cases can be known. For example, while high resolution photography allows the text of a parchment manuscript to be read, it cannot be used, for example, in physical or chemical processes to determine the age of the manuscript. For this reason, it is also highly controversial, for example, newspapers and books, which could only be preserved through costly restoration due to their inferior paper quality, instead digitize and dispose of the originals.

Historical development

Digitization has a long history behind it. Universal codes were used a long time ago. Historically early examples of this are the jacquard loom (1805), Braille (1829) and Morse code (from 1837). The basic principle of using fixed codes to transmit information also worked under technically unfavorable conditions via light and sound signals ( radio technology , telephone , telegraphy ). Later followed Telegraph (among other things using the Baudot code ), fax and e-mail . Today's computers process information exclusively in digital form.

In science, digitization in the sense of changing processes and procedures due to the use of digital technology ( digital revolution , digital transformation ) is a cross-cutting issue in many scientific disciplines. The technical development is the core topic in computer science , the economic-technical development is the core topic in business informatics . In the German-speaking area, the first chair to officially take up the term digitization as its main task was created in 2015 at the University of Potsdam .

Areas of digitization

From a purely technical point of view, the digitization process is carried out by an analog-to-digital converter , which measures analog input signals at fixed intervals, be it time intervals for linear recordings such as in measurement technology (see also digital measurement technology ) or the distance between the photocells during scanning (see also sampling rate ) and these values ​​are digitally coded with a certain accuracy (see quantization ) (see also codec ). Different processes are used depending on the type of analog source material and the purpose of digitization.

Digitization of texts

When digitizing text, the document is first digitized just like an image, i.e. scanned. If the digital version is to reproduce the original appearance of the document as precisely as possible, no further processing takes place and only the image of the text is saved.

If the linguistic content of the documents is of interest, the digitized text image is translated into a character set by a text recognition program (for example ASCII or, in the case of non-Latin letters, Unicode ) and the recognized text is then saved. The memory requirement is considerably less than for the image. However, information that cannot be represented in plain text (for example the formatting) may be lost.

Another possibility is the combination of both, in addition to the digitized image of the text, the content is recognized and stored as metadata . You can search for terms in the text, but still display the (digitized) original document (for example on Google Books ).

Digitization of images

In order to digitize an image, the image is scanned , i.e. broken down into rows and columns ( matrix ), the gray value or color value is read out for each of the resulting image points and stored with a specific quantization. This can be done using scanners , digital photography , satellite or medical sensors . Image compression methods can be used for the final storage of the digitized material.

In the case of a black-and-white raster graphic without gray tones, the value for a pixel then assumes the values ​​"0" for "black" and "1" for "white". The matrix is ​​read line by line, resulting in a sequence of the digits 0 and 1, which represents the image. In this case, quantization of one bit is used.

To represent a color or grayscale image digitally, a higher quantization is required. In the case of digital copies in the RGB color space , each color value of a pixel is broken down into the values ​​red, green and blue, and these are stored individually with the same quantization (maximum one byte / color value = 24 bits / pixel). Example: A pixel in pure red corresponds to R = 255, G = 0, B = 0.

In the YUV color model , the color values ​​of a pixel can be stored with different quantization, since the light intensity, which is registered more precisely by the human eye, is separated from the chrominance (= color), which the human eye registers less precisely. This enables a smaller storage volume with approximately the same quality for the human observer.

In large format scanners, the individual color separations of the print films are scanned, combined and "de-rastered" so that the data is again available digitally for a CtP exposure.

Digitization of audio data

The digitization of audio data is often referred to as "sampling". Sound waves previously converted into analog electronic vibrations (e.g. from a microphone ) are randomly measured and stored as digital values ​​in quick succession. Conversely, these values ​​can also be played back quickly one after the other and "put together" to form an analog sound wave, which can then be made audible again. The measured values ​​would actually result in an angular waveform during the reconversion: The lower the sampling frequency, the more angular the waveform or the signal. This can be reduced both by mathematical methods ( interpolation , before D / A conversion) and by analog filters. In sampling, the bit depth denotes the "space" for values ​​in bits that may a. are necessary for the resolution of the dynamic range . From a sampling frequency of 44.1 kilohertz and a resolution of 16 bits, one speaks of CD quality.

Due to the large amounts of data that arise, lossless and lossy compression methods are used. These allow audio data to be saved on data carriers in a space-saving manner (see flac , MP3 ).

Common file formats for audio are: wav , aiff , flac , mp3 , aac , snd or ogg Vorbis .

Common conversion methods see analog-digital converter .

Records can be read and digitized without contact using software, in that a high-resolution optical digitized version of the sound carrier is "scanned" by a program. This method is used in the reconstruction of historical sound recordings.

Digitization of archaeological objects

This mostly involves the digital recording of archaeological objects in writing and images. All available information (classification, dating, dimensions, properties, etc.) on an archaeological object (e.g. a vessel, stone tool, sword) is digitally recorded, supplemented by electronic images and drawings and stored in a database. The objects can then be integrated in the form of a data import into an object portal such as museum-digital , where the objects can be freely researched by everyone. The reason for the digitization of archaeological objects is usually the recording of larger holdings such as archaeological collections in museums or the authorities responsible for the preservation of monuments in order to present them to the public. Since in everyday museum life all objects in a collection can never be shown in the form of exhibitions or publications, digitization is a way of presenting the objects to the general public and also to the scientific world. In addition, an electronic inventory is carried out, a not insignificant aspect in view of the collapse of the historical archive of the city of Cologne .

In special cases, digital imaging, non-destructive processes are used to document the found situation of an object and to provide a decision-making basis for the further procedure for securing and restoring, for example with the gold hoard by Gessel .

Digitization in healthcare

In the healthcare sector, innovative digital applications from telemedicine offer new opportunities to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of service provision, improve patient care and increase the transparency of service and value-added processes.

The aim is to make medical knowledge and therapeutic options more widely and more easily available through the intelligent use of electronic data and to relieve doctors, nurses, nurses and other service providers from administrative and routine activities in order to significantly improve the quality of health care in rural areas as well .

Digitization of production technology

The digitization of production technology includes design and code generation processes ( CAD , CAM ), manufacturing processes (for example with the help of CNC machines or 3D printing ) and assembly processes (for example with industrial robots ). Increasing networking requires the creation of common standards so that the increasingly complex production systems can be controlled.

Digitization of traffic and logistics

Like Industry 4.0, digitally controlled warehouse technology , navigation systems and digital traffic management systems represent special branches of technical development.

Digitization in agriculture

The digitization in agriculture is progressing ever since it the personal computer is. While it was initially the bookkeeping and field documentation in the company office that could be done more quickly using agricultural software, since the 1990s various developmental advances such as precision farming , smart farming and, most recently, digital farming have made computer and sensor technology widespread in current agricultural machinery . Autonomous vehicles, tractors and field robots are now not only available as prototypes in agriculture .

Digitization of mail delivery

Post scan services offer customers the option of having their physical mail forwarded to a correspondence address by means of a temporary forwarding order , where it is scanned and forwarded to the customer as digital mail . The physical mail is usually sent to the customer at a later date. The providers in Germany include Caya, DropScan,, dogado and Deutsche Post AG . Such a service is also called "digital mailbox" or "digital mailbox".

Economic and legal consequences of digitization

The fundamental advantages of digitization lie in the speed and universality of information dissemination. Due to inexpensive hardware and software for digitization and the ever increasing networking via the Internet , new application possibilities in business, administration and everyday life are emerging at high speed. When the logic of production and business models , value chains , economic sectors, administrative routines, consumption patterns or even everyday interaction and the culture of a society are profoundly changed as a result, we speak of digital transformation . This entails both opportunities and risks. An example of this is:

Influence on the legal system

Digitization places new demands on the legal system, although jurisprudence only began to deal with this problem a few years ago. The “theory of fuzzy law” assumes that the law as a whole will change fundamentally in a digitized environment. According to her, the importance of law as a control agent for the Company stark perspective, as the claims of the company based in addition to intangible assets, which the nations limits exceed.

The possibility of simplified and lossless reproduction has led to various conflicts between creators and users of digital content. Industry and collecting societies react to the changed conditions in particular with copyright protection of intellectual property and the technical implementation of copy protection .

Cost consideration

A key feature of digital content is a change in the cost structure. A cost reduction often relates to the duplication and transport of the information (for example via the Internet ). In this way, the costs initially decrease for each additional digital copy (see marginal costs ). Once made available centrally on the Internet, digital data can be made available anywhere in the world at any time and at the same time.

In contrast, the costs can rise again due to increased expenses in the area of ​​copyright protection of intellectual property and the technical implementation of copy protection. Requirements for the security of data transmission and the reliability of the computer systems also increase costs.

Influence on operational processes in companies

In the operational processes of a company, digitization enables an increase in efficiency and thus an improvement in their profitability . The reason for this is that business processes can be processed faster and more cost-effectively through the use of information and communication technology than would be possible without digitization. This is done, for example, by converting physical documents and analog information into digital form. For example, many companies have letters that they receive in physical form scanned and distributed by e-mail.


By storing data on networked computers, companies, politicians and associations in particular are at risk of hackers gaining access to this data. There is also a risk that data will be evaluated, disseminated and changed by unauthorized persons. Protection against this is sometimes only possible with considerable technical effort.

labour market

Employment growth through digitization
Corporate division Expectation: increase in jobs
Information technology 54%
Sales / customer service 50%
Research & Development 43%
marketing 43%
production 40%
Corporate management / development 39%
human Resource 37%
logistics 36%

Dieter Balkhausen stated in his book The Third Industrial Revolution as early as 1978 that by the end of the 1980s, 50 percent of jobs in Germany would be changed by microelectronics.

A survey of 868 decision-makers from Germany, Austria and Switzerland by the personnel service agent Hays revealed a difference in the mood in society. The respondents rather expect a “chance for new job opportunities”, but “there are a lot of breaks in it. […] We are experiencing an evolution, not a revolution. ”The study director was Jutta Rump , who is the director of the Institute for Employment and Employability at the Ludwigshafen University of Applied Sciences . The downsizing of the core workforce and the replacement of activities with digital technology were cited as negative by managers. Individual desires (rest, relaxation, activity) contradict the demands for lifelong learning and work-life balance . 44 percent of the companies report measures as important, while only 32 percent are implementing them. In management, too little attention is paid to the new forms of work: personal responsibility and self-organization are the focus, team aspects are underestimated. The extent to which digitization leads to an increase in unemployment is controversial. Jeremy Rifkin even fears an “end of work” due to the digital revolution . However, computer programs are only able to check a text for formal errors to a certain extent using electronic word and concept catalogs ( dictionary ) , for example . Therefore, some professions such as proofreading will not completely disappear in the long term. In contrast, new job profiles such as mathematical-technical software developer are emerging .


Digitization creates new consumption of energy and resources. These include:

  • Energy consumption: consumption when operating IT systems. Worldwide, the electricity consumption of information and communication technology in 2018 was around 2300 terawatt hours (TWh). The internet alone has a share of 10 percent of global electricity consumption. According to a study by the Federal Ministry of Economics , the energy demand of the data centers including the server, storage and network technology as well as essential infrastructure systems in 2015 in Germany was 18 terawatt hours (corresponds to 18 billion kilowatt hours ). In terms of information and communication technology as a whole, electricity consumption in Germany in 2015 was 48 terawatt hours, i.e. around 600 kWh per German citizen.
  • Ecological consequences: The consumption of raw materials is criticized. When manufacturing a laptop, only around 2 percent of the materials go into the product itself. The breakdown of lithium, for example, which is used for the batteries, uses an enormous amount of water.

Problems arise with recycling and disposal, especially of privately used devices. Digitization can help save energy and resources in individual cases. One example is intelligent traffic management systems. However, more negative than positive aspects are discussed.

See also


  • Volker Boehme-Neßler : Unclear law. Considerations for the relativization of the law in the digitized world . Berlin 2008.
  • Marianne Dörr: Planning and implementation of digitization projects. In: Hartmut Weber, Gerald Maier (eds.): Digital archives and libraries. New uses and qualities. Stuttgart 2000, pp. 103-112
  • Peter Exner: Filming and digitization of archive and library material. In: Hartmut Weber, Gerald Maier (eds.): Digital archives and libraries. New uses and qualities. Stuttgart 2000, pp. 113-127
  • Thomas Fricke, Gerald Maier: Automatic text recognition for digitized archive and library material. In: Hartmut Weber, Gerald Maier (eds.): Digital archives and libraries. New uses and qualities. Stuttgart 2000, pp. 201-221
  • Jürgen Gulbins, Markus Seyfried, Hans Strack-Zimmermann: Document Management. Springer-Verlag, Berlin 2002.
  • Jeanette Hofmann , Norbert Kersting , Claudia Ritzi, Wolf J. Schünemann (eds.): Politics in the digital society. Central problem areas and research perspectives. transcript, Bielefeld 2019, ISBN 978-3-8376-4864-5 . (PDF; 4 MB)
  • Till Kreutzer: Digitization of works in the public domain by libraries . (PDF; 741 kB) Office for Information Law Expertise, Berlin 2011
  • Gerald Maier and Peter Exner: Economic considerations for the digitization of archive and library material. In: Hartmut Weber, Gerald Maier [Hrsg.]: Digital archives and libraries. New uses and qualities. Stuttgart 2000, pp. 223-229
  • Peter Mertens, Dina Barbian, Stephan Baier: Digitization and Industry 4.0 - a relativization , Wiesbaden: Springer, 2017, ISBN 978-3-658-19631-8 .

Web links

Wiktionary: Digitization  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wiktionary: Digitized  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Commons : Digitization  - collection of images, videos and audio files

European Union:



Individual evidence

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  6. In the English-speaking area, the term has long been used to describe the use of digital technology in business processes . See digitalization in Gartner Glossary .
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