An object that takes physical, material, or corporeal form can be held and seen by humans. When we describe the opposite, something that cannot be held or seen by the naked eye, words like spiritual or non-material are used. I'm looking for a word that's more specific: something to describe the sequences of numbers packed into data chips and technology whatsits.

"Information, whether of material or ________ form, can be found at the library."

Assume that the library carries books and CDs/DVDs. In order to avoid wordy descriptions, does anyone have any suggestions for a single word that can fill the blank? I avoided antonyms of "physical" because they refer to things that are otherworldly.

  • I'd prefer physical to material, unless everything is written on cloth.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Aug 8, 2016 at 6:40
  • 1
    I think people usually say virtual for this don't they? eg "Written knowledge, either printed or virtual, is often recorded, stored, and managed within physical or virtual libraries that are either publicly available or open to target audiences such as universities." google.co.uk/… Commented Aug 8, 2016 at 8:41
  • But both material and physical apply to discs — the main difference between them and print media is the (lack of) human readability.  I would be reluctant to use even the word virtual to refer to an optical disc. Commented Aug 8, 2016 at 15:56
  • "Information" refers to the things printed in the books or on the discs; therefore, virtual is fine in my opinion. Written knowledge can be printed (I like that!) or virtual sounds alright to me.
    – Symantra
    Commented Aug 8, 2016 at 18:57

2 Answers 2


Electronic data is physical or material, even though it may not be visible. For example it may be in the form of positive and negative charges on magnetic media. I have therefore revised the left-hand side of the juxtaposition in the answers I offer:

Information, whether human-readable or machine-readable…

That addresses the visibility question, but may sound too technical (and I personally find ‘human-readable’ ugly)

So it may be better to describe the difference in a more mundane manner:

Information, whether in traditional or electronic format…


Information, whether in electronic or non-electronic format…

Although ‘digital’ is frequently used to describe electronic media, it doesn’t make for a good contrast here as its opposite is generally ‘analogue’, and there are visible objects like clocks that can be either digital or analogue. Furthermore most people would not think of a book as an analogue device.

  • @Helmar — Wheter or not data and information are synonymous (I think not), I never suggested the OP change the word information. Or am I going blind? All my suggestions lack either word, and I only suggested he take data out of the title because he implied it was confined to electronic media.
    – David
    Commented Aug 8, 2016 at 13:12
  • Maybe you should elaborate then which terms (plural!) you deem incorrect, since that is highly confusing.
    – Helmar
    Commented Aug 8, 2016 at 13:24
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    @Helmar — OK. I've replaced the "..." by "Information," so as to make clear I had not rejected that. I'll propose a change in title to the moderators as "Word to describe information in electronic form", and the remove "data" from the question where it suggests it is a synonym for electronic data. It may not be accepted, though.
    – David
    Commented Aug 8, 2016 at 14:47
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    The question has now been amended so I've removed my previous initial remarks about about data not necessarily being electronic.
    – David
    Commented Aug 8, 2016 at 16:27

Electronic (4th definition) is probably the best word, for the reasons that David mentions, though I think digital (4th definition) could work too.

'Electronic' covers not only CDs and DVDs that you refer to, but also online databases and catalogues.

This document from the Library of Congress on Electronic Resources shows the use of 'electronic' in a professional, library context, and is also useful in that it describes the items that in their view are 'electronic'.

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