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Digital Portal

THE NEW E-BOOK: A DIGITAL PORTAL

In the five years since Lyman and Varian’s report titled “How Much Information,” the total of new information, including scholarship, in stored media in the form of paper, film, magnetic, and optical media has grown from 5 to 18.5 exabytes. These narratives, documents, texts, databases, visual and aural resources and their analyses are enough to replicate the Library of Congress’s print collection 100,000 times over. This figure grows by 30% a year. Only one-thirtieth of one percent of this material is created in print. This reality poses an unprecedented challenge and opportunity for scholarly communication in the humanities. The print “monograph” was long the staple in the humanities for both scholarly communication and professional assessment—250 print pages bound between two hard covers and physically distributed to 500 libraries and a few dozen interested scholars. But this is increasingly giving way to the electronic book that allows both writers and readers to survey a vast array of primary and secondary source materials now available, and to analyze and to derive a theoretical frame from these materials.

Just as the collection of footnotes in the traditional print article or monograph once acted as a portal to other scholarship in the print domain, so now the hyperlink, the pop-up image, and the database serve the same purpose of scholarly focus and referral. In a certain sense, then, each new e-book acts like the old print footnote or bibliography: as a portal to the best and most useful scholarship available on any given topic. But like its print analog, the digital book remains the work of the individual or of individuals in collaboration, with limited access and subjective approaches to primary sources and their interpretation.

At the same time venerable print formats have grown permeable: the old distinctions among monograph, article, reference work and primary source are breaking down and reassembling in the digital environment.

Thus no one e-book—or single website no matter how comprehensive for a given subject—can possibly incorporate all the necessary referents to the quantity of material now available in any one discipline, area, or research agenda. Only well constructed digital collections that pay special attention to collaboration, and the quality, interoperability, and depth of their content can even hope to begin to achieve this goal.

rev. 11/30/2016