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Apr 09 2021 - 12:06 PM
Digital Materiality

Materiality, with respect to digital text, refers to the physical medium used to store and convey that text. This term was coined as long ago as 1570. Scholars have been developing ways to think about and analyze texts since the Middle Ages. Understanding digital materiality is crucial for charting the future of academic libraries as they support teaching and research, according to Marlene Manoff, the author of The Materiality of Digital Collections: Theoretical and Historical Perspectives.


1. Aesop's fable of the crane and the peacock.pngAesop's fable of the crane and the peacock, woodcut, 1489, by the Library of Congress. Credit Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


The topic of materiality engages librarians and the public. It has inspired papers, bibliographies, conferences, and exhibitions. There is a special connection between materiality and artists’ books. In 2017, University of Pittsburgh undergraduate Carolyn Fazzini explored the relationship between the physical form of an object and its meaning in her poster project, Materiality as Method: Communicating Through Form in Artists’ Books. In 2019, services associate Jackie Duvall Smith drew attention to the artists’ books in the Gottesman Libraries own collection in a written piece that explored the intersections between education, technology, data, art, and media.


2. Incunabula.pngA piece of incunabula, or printed material made before 1501, from the McDonald Rare Book Collection at Oregon State University by Theresa Hogue. Credit Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


The catalog of the Gottesman Libraries holds many resources that invite patrons to explore the materiality of the incunabulum, or early printed book. One excellent example is the works of Alfred W. Pollard, 1859-1944. A hundred years ago, Pollard published a volume on The romance of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table; abridged from Malory's Morte d'Arthur. Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d'Arthur is itself a 15th-century Middle English prose reworking of tales about King Arthur. Mainly composed of folklore and literary invention, the tales of King Arthur describe his defense of Britain in the late 5th and early 6th centuries against Saxon invaders. Pollard’s 1926 work, held in print in Gottesman Libraries closed stacks, is now in the public domain, cataloged in CLIO Quicksearch, and freely available online through both the HathiTrust and the Internet Archive. See previous Gottesman Libraries blogs on Copyright, Open Source and Education and HathiTrust and the Internet Archive Digital Libraries for more information on Open Access resources.


Interest in digital materiality has gained even wider currency with the limitations COVID-19 has posed on multi-sensory, face-to-face, learning. More detail follows on two valuable guides to teaching materiality: Teaching Materiality with Virtual Instruction from the Women in Book History Bibliography’s website, and Teaching Materiality Online with the Rubenstein Library at Duke University.


The Women in Book History Bibliography’s website offers a great resource list for Teaching Materiality with Virtual Instruction. It was compiled by Kate Ozment, an assistant professor of English at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Divided into four sections, and much in the form of tweets, it covers:


The LibGuide, Teaching Materiality Online with the Rubenstein Library at Duke University, is a cornucopia of facts, activities, external resources, and instructional videos. It covers:

Along with information on how to make a foldy zine and a quarto, I learned that the art of folding and securing a paper or parchment letter so it functions as its own envelope is known as letterlocking. With that lesson, rushed in a memory of the aerograms of my childhood.


3. Israel aerogramme 1958.png. “Israel aerogramme 1958” by Alhazred. Credit Courtesy CC BY-SA 2.0 Creative Commons.


Each written on a single sheet of blue paper, and mailed halfway across the world, these many aerograms were exchanged over the years between me and the overseas relatives of my mother and father. These relatives resided in: Beauchamp, Toulouse, and Montpellier, France; Antwerp, Belgium; Riga, Latvia; and Haifa, Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan, and Kiryat Moshe, Israel. In the collections context of materiality, this lesson was a surprising and rich sensory experience. It is just one example of the enormous power to be found in the physical attributes - materiality - of digital texts.


4. 1947-US-Aerogram-Plane-Kansas.png1947-US-Aerogram-Plane-Kansas: the first US aerogram” by the United States Post Office Department. Credit Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.