Marlene Manoff, "The Materiality of Digital Collections: Theoretical and Historical Perspectives," portal: Libraries and the Academy 6:3 (2006), 311–325. [available via Muse]

Digital and textual objects are coming under a new kind of scrutiny as scholars are becoming more interested in physical artifacts and their relation to their social and cultural environment. This study of material culture suggests a need to explore the nature of digital materiality, as well as the broader historical context in which electronic objects and collections are created. The following essay analyzes the implications of this work and related research into the ways in which knowledge is shaped by the technologies used to produce and distribute it. Understanding the materiality of digital and textual objects will be crucial for charting the future of libraries….

Early theorists of the electronic environment made much of the ostensible immateriality of digital objects. More recently critics have acknowledged that electronic objects are as dependent upon material instantiation as printed books. We access electronic texts and data with machines made of metal, plastic, and polymers. Networks composed of fiber optic cables, wires, switches, routers, and hubs enable us to acquire and make available our electronic collections. Why does this matter to libraries? As we preside over the explosive growth of digital content, we cannot simply ignore what these material changes mean for our users or ignore what the long term impact will be on the scholarly community. Our evolving collection practices promote new ways of conducting research and limit or constrain others. We must try to understand the implications of our decisions as we allocate our resources and decide what to acquire. If the role of academic and research libraries is to support and facilitate teaching and research, we must understand the nature of the objects we provide to support those activities.

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