Jordan Ballor, looking at the excellent example of the PRDL, gives a brilliant but too-brief consideration of the production and use of electronic archival instruments, and their meaning for learning, here.
But if the reach of our ectypal bibliographies comes increasingly closer to our ideal archetypal bibliographies, the challenge is for our grasp to sufficiently match that reach. This digital renaissance raises serious issues for the orderly accessibility of digital sources. This is, at its core, a problem of curation – the management, organization, preservation and care for and the stewardship of – a set of digital artifacts.
The problem of digital curation differs perhaps only materially from the inherent problems of encyclopedic ambitions of late medieval and early modern librarians, which Chartier chronicled in The Order of Books. Although some of Chartier’s skepticism of the library without walls has already been answered in large part by the successful creation of digital archives, the question of how the reader is affected by digital texts and the archival frames within which they are made available, as well as how the reader will affect them, is something still to be reckoned with. And the question of who keeps the archive, and who writes the encyclopedia, is still being vigorously debated.
The older archival system, in its eventual form, revolved around ideas of strongly unitary authoriality and fixed artefact which developed in early modern times; will the curatorial practice and order of the digital archive simply preserve those assumptions, albeit in a subtilized medium, or will even older ideas of intellectual commons and less absolute distinctions between text and gloss, recur? And if they do recur, will the distinction between archivalist and reader – or, to pick a more ambiguous but perhaps more revealing term, patron – become less absolute? People’s use of tools, often enough, changes the tools themselves.