Materiality in the Library: Review of Marlene Manoff’s “The Materiality of Digital Collections: Theoretical and Historical Perspectives”

Independent Study

In “The Materiality of Digital Collections: Theoretical and Historical Perspectives” Marlene Manoff gives a good overview of how Library Science can learn from media studies and material culture studies. Her essential purpose in writing is simply to note that different formats of content are not interchangeable. Although we often forget this, digital formats are material in nature: “electronic objects are as dependent upon material instantiation as printed books” (311). Librarians, who are at the forefront of digital media collection, need to acknowledge physical differences between formats and the false myth of digital immateriality in order to “understand the implications of our decisions as we allocate our resources and decide what to acquire” (312). As the gatekeepers between users and materials, we need to understand the nuances of materiality.

Manoff uses Early English Books Online (EEBO) as an example of how content differs between mediums. This collection consists of four types of formats: the original books themselves; microfilm; online, scanned pdfs of book pages; and, online transcripts . Each different format serves a different purpose for the user. She writes:

Why are there four different instantiations of the works in the EEBO full-text database? These exist because different modes of material embodiment produce different objects. Many researchers simply cannot get access to the print originals. Microfilm provides access for much greater numbers of users than could ever examine the print versions; digitization generally provides even broader accessibility. But consulting a page in a 400 year-old book, deciphering a microfilmed image of that page while sitting at a microfilm reader, deciphering a digital image of that same page on a computer screen, and reading a modernized digital version of that page on screen are significantly different experiences.

None of these formats can be substituted for another without creating differences in accessibility and use.

Manoff draws on enough theorists and disciplinary definitions to make her essay substantial, but overall her focus is limited. While I find her argument for differing formats compelling, with me she is preaching to the converted. The reason that librarians do cancel print subscriptions in favour of digital access is that there is something fundamental about the a text that transcends format. Differing formats provide for different experiences of a text, but at the core of Manoff’s essay there are larger philosophical questions that she never fully addresses. When we consider a work, what part of that is intrinsic to the medium? I think it’s fair to say that there is something intrinsic to the text that transcends mediums, and something that does not. Exactly what remains and what is lost is difficult to define. Librarians will have radically different viewpoints on how different texts are embodied. Manoff’s reminder that digital formats are always also physical is very helpful, but a more fully articulated differentiation between work and text is needed to more fully address why materiality matters for librarianship.

Further work is also needed to make the case for materiality in light of the push towards digital technology and the economic conditions that drive libraries towards digital adoptions. Case studies for choosing one format over another would be helpful reading, and would help emphasize why materiality matters even in cases unlike EEBO: where only one format can afford to be purchased. After all, the concerns of a library are practical in nature, no matter how theory-based.


Notes on Manoff, Marlene. “The Materiality of Digital Collections: Theoretical and
Historical Perspectives.” Libraries and the Academy 6.3 (2006): 311-25.



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