Saturday, December 03, 2011

What the Future of Libraries Looked Like in 1961

Last month I had the great honor to give a talk marking the fiftieth anniversary of Schaffer Library at Union College, my alma mater.

When I got to campus on the morning of the talk, I asked if there happened to be a copy of the remarks delivered at the original dedication of the library building, in April 1961. Sure enough, in the archives there was a printed copy of the dedicatory speech, delivered by Edward G. Freehafer, then director of the New York Public Library. It was titled "Libraries and the Future," and once I read it (fairly gleefully, I admit) I knew I had some very useful rewriting to do.

Among the "great problems" Freehafer saw confronting the library of the future was "making information accessible," a refrain that will not be unfamiliar to anyone involved with the inner workings of a library. He said:

"The familiar card catalog, which lists the library's holdings by author, title, and subject, is part of that undertaking. There are also the many indexes which make known the contents of journals and periodicals. These are two important – and I sometimes think not properly appreciated – efforts to bring information under control. But as the years go by, each of them adding its contribution to the vast storehouse of information, we have begun to wonder if conventional methods of cataloging and indexing are adequate. In a push-button age, can we not store this knowledge in such a way that information on a given subject becomes available at the twist of a dial? There are those who believe that, with the advent of the computer, this should be possible.

You may have seen a recent newspaper account of a lecture given at MIT* in which a Dartmouth professor, a mathematician, proposed a huge national research library that scholars would consult by a long distance dial system. According to the professor, the basic components of such a system are within reach of present technology and could be put into operation in twenty years at a cost of about a billion dollars. Six hundred and forty-five ordinary book pages would be stored on about one square inch of tape. Library users would not borrow books in the ordinary sense but, after dialing, would receive, by cable, copies of what has been stored on tape. The professor also predicts that this central library would be combined eventually with a computer-based system for searching the literature of a subject so that a doctor, for example, could have, within a matter of minutes, everything that had been written on the side effects of tranquilizers."

My favorite bit was Freehafer's concluding riff about the potential of computers: "We must pursue energetically our efforts to solve the information problem, and the computer gives promise as the most likely answer. It will no doubt be perfectly happy to work twenty-four hours a day, and if properly programmed, may never stop for a coffee break or learn how to ask for a promotion. It will answer our specific questions more rapidly than ever before possible. But I doubt that it will ever be able to browse – or accidentally stumble across something new and exciting."

Freehafer's talk provided a very useful set of bookends for the talk I'd written, in which I discussed several of the projects I've been involved in that were designed to "enhance the bibliosphere" by building meaningful connections between the readers of the past and the readers of the present.

In many ways, I suggested at the conclusion of the discussion, Freehafer's future has come to meet us. But, at the same time, the library world continues to grapple with some of the fundamental questions he posed, and if I had to guess, I'd say that we're likely to do so far into the future.

* The lecture Freehafer mentions was "Library for 2000 AD," a talk at MIT's 100th anniversary celebration earlier in 1961 by Dartmouth mathematician John G. Kemeny, the co-developer of BASIC and later president of Dartmouth. The talk was published in a 1962 book Computers and the World of the Future).


Gregory D. Rothbard said...

It is maddening to keep simple libraries under control. Think of all of the things we add to the internet. How, and what will be the ties that connect to keep all of this bound together. Information has always been there in a plenty, now how does one organize it for usefulness?

Benjamin L Clark said...

My computers don't ask for promotions, but they do constantly ask for upgrades! An interesting article.