Scholarly Pursuit of Knowledge on the Web

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When founding the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson had a vision that culminated in his creation of the Academic Village. This vision expressed his desire for an integrated educational environment, the encouragement of intellectual exchange across interdisciplinary boundaries, and the cooperative pursuit of knowledge. The acceptance of the Internet, or Web, into mainstream culture can be seen to elevate Jefferson's vision to an entirely new level. Although it has existed for some time, this recent popularization of on-line sources has numerous implications for the means and breadth of the scholarly pursuit of knowledge.

The World Wide Web is an infrastructure of images, audio bits, and text. Unlike other sources that contain these sorts of information, the Web is publicly accessible and is characterized by what are called hypertext links. A hypertext link is a connecting point, or trace, between one Web document and another. This differs from similarly structured self-contained forms, such as CD Roms, in that the accessible information is virtually unlimited. A person browsing, or surfing, the Web can follow limitless hypertext connections with no preordained trajectory. This nature of the Web creates a "practically infinite lateral connectedness with other [Web] archives" (Unsworth 6, "Electronic Scholarship").

Another unique characteristic of the Web, as compared to traditional scholarly texts, is its ability to present multimedia information. Not only can it create text based documents as already found in both book and computer formats, but it can store and display both visual and audio bits. While for some texts these options may simply be a nice, but unnecessary, extra, for others they are central to the text. In Jerome McGann's essay "The Rationale of HyperText" he provides the following example: "Burn's work is grounded in an oral and song tradition. Paper editions are incompetent to render that most basic feature of his verse..., [in their] inability to preserve the memory of his work in living forms" (3-4).

Scholarly research has traditionally been intricately involved with printed text, thus "the scale of the tools [has] seriously limit[ed] the possible results" (McGann 2, "Rationale of HT"). Not only are actual books unwieldy when shifting from one document to the next, but certain texts are "rare and can be quite expensive" (McGann 3, "Radiant Textualities"). With the assistance of the Web and its hypertext links, documents become connected in complex and manageable ways unimaginable in previous printed formats.
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