The Virtual Library:

An Idea Whose Time Has Passed[1]

by James J. O'Donnell

University of Pennsylvania

The idea of the "virtual library" is as catchy as a slogan and as fresh as last week's newspaper:

"California has stopped construction plans for new university libraries. Instead the state intends to focus its attention and budget on "virtual libraries." I gather that this means that all information will be available primarily via computer and CD ROM."[2]
The "virtual library" is a dream that many share, something many have imagined but none has seen. The main features of this vision are a vast, ideally universal collection of information and instantaneous access to that information wherever it physically resides.

A search for the phrase in the computerized databases that offer a hint of the imminent future of fast resources on line reveals that it is indeed a recent coinage, recent, at least, in anything like the current sense. People have long spoken of something that is "virtually a library" as a "virtual library,"[3] but it is only about a decade ago that computer journalists first bandied the idea around: "Consider, too, virtual libraries where you enter into a rich virtual stack space and 'browse' about."[4] For that visionary, the idea clearly involves special goggles and gloves, a feature that seems to have faded from most recent discussions of the virtual library. The phrase bursts through into the popular press only as recently as 1987,[5] where the helmets are still in place to ''give the student the ability to go inside a chip, visually. We can give him a tour through a virtual library or a virtual museum."

So the phrase suggests a vast collection instantly accessed . . . But phrased in those terms, the idea is easily older. Few recent discussions fail to mention the article that appeared in the Atlanic Monthly in 1945 by Vannevar Bush, imagining a device he called the "Memex,"[6] but they could as easily find the article in the New York Times of September 10, 1950, visualized the "Doken," a high speed reading machine which could search the entire Library of Congress in ten seconds.[7]

Although the fantasy has been around now for two generations, surely it is still a modern one, looking beyond the book itself to a visionary's future. Here is the point to confess that I once believed in the novelty of the vision and that this paper began as something quite different, not a eulogy for the virtual library's past but a hymn of praise for its revolutionary future. I even had the perfect visual resource to use as a foil, the monument to the old library. Twenty years ago, at a college festival of the films of Alain Resnais, I had seen a short documentary he made in 1956 called "Toute le mémoire du monde," a short subject on the ways and working of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. A period piece, I remembered, singing the praises of a grand institution just as it entered unwittingly the autumn of its career. To find the film now took some trouble, for it was apparently never released in this country; when I did,[8] it took me, thick-headedly, some time to realize that what I had was quite different from what I had remembered. To be sure, it was a film that praised every aspect of the BN, but the terms in which it did so were, on third viewing, suddenly revelatory.

Those who know Resnais's early work would recognize the dark and lugubrious tone of the film, but would be amused by its almost comical depiction of life in the library. Everything is mechanized. The row of postmen bringing sacks of books marches to circus-like music, and then a huge apparatus of indexers, cataloguers, fiche-makers, spine-stampers, shelvers begin to mark the process of the book through a librarian's assembly line, until with swift precision the book reaches waiting hands in the great reading room. To anyone who knows the BN, of course, just that swift, unfailing service is what marks this film out as a fantasy, not truly a documentary. But it is the substance of the vision that finally hits home. The huge collection, containing "all" the world's memory,[9] was in its time already the virtual library now thought to lie just ahead.[10]

To see the dream in a different technological setting from our own is not merely to recognize that it existed then, but that the existing and foreseeable technology looked like a fully satisfactory way of achieving it. The dream today is weighed down with silicon chips, keyboards, screens, headsets, and other cumbersome equipment -- but someday a dream of say telepathic access will make today's imaginings suddenly as outmoded as a daisy-wheel printer.

What persists, has persisted, and I think will persist is the combination of ambition and self-deception in the ideas that people have in common about their present state of affairs. What was excellent in the BN of 1956 was that it was the thing that we now think we must wait another decade or three to recapture. What has changed is not the dream, but the sense of technical possibilities.

But the dream is itself much older than 1956, and its history can help make clear why it still has power. The notion of a library itself is an extraordinary one, of course, and thus fragile. It is surely not self-evident that the words of other times and places, frozen forever in unchanging form, should live on indefinitely, in ever-accumulating geometrically-expanding heaps;[11] far less self-evident that human beings preoccupied with the real problems of their present should spend any appreciable amount of time in decoding and interpreting the frozen words of people long dead. That it seems self-evident to do so says something important about the culture that was created using writing and print, but also says indirectly that this culture is contingent, malleable, and far from being the final form of human organization of knowledge.

If the essential feature of the idea of the virtual library is the combination of total inclusiveness and near-instantaneous access, then the fantasy is almost coterminous with the history of the book itself. The earliest example known to me is a famous document of the second century BC, the "Letter of Aristeas to Xenocrates" introducing and justifying the existence of the first major Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, the so-called Septuagint.[12] In it, the author attributes to Demetrius of Phaleron, the "minister of culture" for the Hellenistic Egyptian king Ptolemy a century or so earlier who founded the "library" at Alexandria, the ambition of gathering together, if possible, all the books in the world, in one collection.[13] Even the familiar legend of the pigeonholes into which the papyrus scrolls at Alexandria were to fit plays its part in the "virtual library" legend, for it was precisely this economical and easily- managed form of packaging that would speed the access readers wanted.

The library at Alexandria has long loomed as a chimera of power and mystery on the horizon of our culture, but the real makings of our tradition are less ancient than that and clearly betray the presence of the fantasy of the virtual library.[14]

And that tradition, Latin in its origins, European in its development, and now "western" in its self-presentation to the whole world, is less old than Alexandria. For the ancient traditions of book-making and book-keeping suffered important interruptions. There are many reasons for what happened in the Latin tradition, some of which have to do with the cultural transformation traditionally discussed as the "fall of the Roman Empire,"[15] but the phenomena were complex. One decisive event was the introduction of the codex for formal literary use, something that happened between the second and fifth centuries.[16] This meant that none of the books prepared and used in the old way, on papyrus rolls, would survive under uninterrupted care in the Latin west. Texts on those rolls that survived did so by being prudent enough to be copied over into the codex form (usually on animal skins rather than papyrus).[17]

The discontinuity between ancient and late antique library communities overlaps and closely (but not exclusively) resembles a discontinuity between the traditional literary culture of antiquity and the chiefly monastic Christian textual culture of the middle ages. Further, the discontinuity that emerged between Greek and Latin is important. Classical Latin literature always lived under the shadow of Greek literature, but in late antiquity the Greek shadow passed and Latin began to live on its own.[18] Christian Latin literature in particular had a general sense of obligation to its own Greek past, but little or no linguistic aptitude for confronting or cherishing that past. It is from roughly the fifth century A.D. that the western Mediterranean and its dependencies to the north and west become wholly, independently Latin, save where the Romance and Germanic vernaculars begin to come into use, though their literary pretensions would be relatively slow developing.[19]

It is just in that fifth century that a self-conscious tradition emerged that took written texts seriously and began to organize them into a theoretical constellation that took flesh from place to place in real collections of books. There are a hundred signs of this.[20]

Compare for example two influential books of that period giving advice to the Christian scholar. Augustine wrote "On Christian Doctrine" around the year 397 and in it set out the principles for the interpretation of scripture. Itself a sign of the text-centered nature of the religion he represented,[21] that treatise is strikingly short on bibliography to the secondary literature. Augustine writes as a bishop and therefore (by virtue of his ordination) an authority. A hundred and fifty years later, Cassiodorus, a retired statesman living at the monastery he had founded on his family's estate on the remote southern shore of Italy, wrote "Institutes" for the student of scripture.[22] Now it was the private scholar's turn to provide this guidance, and when he did so, his work was little more than an annotated bibliography, arranged by book of the Bible, of all that had been thought and said in Latin (or translated into Latin from the Greek, and Cassiodorus had a staff of translators working on increasing the size of that literature-in-translation) that could help the Christian exegete. To this was added a further bibliography of specialist literature in related disciplines, including the so- called "liberal arts," for Cassiodorus believed that rhetoric and astronomy were useful things for the Bible student to know.[23]

For in the years that had intervened between Augustine and Cassiodorus, the Latin Christian community had learned to depend on texts for many things. Augustine himself had kept a catalogue of the library of his own writings and even written a treatise late in life outlining and defending all the books he had written. Even as a bishop, he was no longer just a charismatic preacher, but a man who had a written record to defend. In the same period, Jerome's translation (that would come to be called the Vulgate) had begun to standardize the text of scripture in common use. The library of exegesis, both native and translated, that Cassiodorus could draw upon had boomed in size. Augustine's own oeuvre, for example, amounted to over five million words, so much that it was a contemporary and acquaintance of Cassiodorus, Eugippius of Naples, who put together the first volume of "The Essential Augustine," an anthology running to about one thousand printed pages, to help the reader who wanted swift access to the saint's writings. Another acquaintance of Cassiodorus, Dionysius Exiguus, a "Scythian" monk more famous for devising the system of time- reckoning by years BC/AD that is still in use today,[24] found that the Latin churches were often embarrassed by a lack of accurate information about church law[25] and so put together the first collection of what would later be called "canon law".[26]

It is also in this period that the bishops of Rome began to use the exclusive title of papa ("pope") and to use the written word and its organized storage to advance their authority. The standard medieval collection of lives of the popes, called the Liber Pontificalis, was first written down in the early sixth century, and indeed was written down at first in two forms, one version produced by each of two sides in a bitter contest over the papal election of 499. In that contest, which stretched out for fifteen years, not only was the official "pontifical book" used as something like a monument and as something like propaganda by both sides, but the prevailing side resourcefully went into the archives and came out with forged documents that supplied suitable ecclesiastical precedent for their claims. This could only have been done in a world now ready to accept that power depended on defining texts and a world that could expect to have access to such texts. Power of that kind was increasingly centralized and autonomy of the local community weakened. (This is also the period from which survive not only large collections of papal letters, casting their influence over a swath of Europe from Yorkshire to Constantinople, but also form letters, that is, evidence of a chancery so busy that it had verbal templates to use. From a slightly later period there comes something called the "Daily Book" (Liber Diurnus) of the popes containing just such a collection of form letters. Cassiodorus himself seems to have used form letters in public secular office about the same time, which he collected in his "Various Letters" (Variae).)

Similar phenomena appear in this period across a wide spectrum. Take this charming story. One Sunday morning in the fifth century (according to a historian writing about a hundred years later, so perhaps this is best thought of as a story about the world c. 590 AD), bishop Sidonius Apollinaris of Clermont in southern France was going into church to conduct the eucharistic service, when a prankster snatched from his hand the pamphlet (libellus) that had written in it the prayers he would use at that service. The point of the story was that not only did he carry off the service with distinction, but the congregation was surprised and delighted that he did so -- people now expected him to be dependent on a text.

As it happens, Sidonius probably wrote what was in that pamphlet himself, but his is the transitional age in which such things were being written down and propagated. Within a few decades of the telling of that story, it would be the norm in a city's large church on Sunday for there to be no fewer than four large books in use at once to guide the service: a sacramentary for the bishop to follow, a lectionary from which a deacon would do scriptural readings, an ordo in the hands of the master of ceremonies making sure that people didn't bump into each other, and a gradual (music book) in the hands of the choirmaster. No longer was this the spontaneous early Christian community in which the spirit-blessed spoke freely what they knew to be the truth.[27] Now words could be chosen in advance, and not even necessarily by those who would say them. Liturgical participants, even the bishop, were actors in a scripted drama -- a vital change. The process there begun would culminate a thousand years later at the Council of Trent in the publication of a missal book for use in churches that would prescribe to the priest not only every word, but even every gesture, and often even which fingers to use for each every gesture of the service. By that time, a large part of the power and the authority of the liturgy was leaving the church building and going into centralized hands.

The pattern is one familiar in a hundred ways. Such centralization is of course both costly and beneficial. What is lost in autonomy and spontaneity is gained (we like to think) in assurance, control, consistency, and predictability. My point is not to decry the development but to pinpoint an important stage in its advancement. It was in the fourth through sixth centuries in the Latin west that our cultural ancestors created a set of software with which to manage their lives. Taken to its most extreme form, this led to small communities organized around a kind of text that Jesus never imagined, the monastic rule. Something like the familiar Rule of Saint Benedict or the less well-known and more obsessively orderly Rule of the Master can suggest what it was like to live in such a community, but the most important feature of such a text is not what it does but that it does what it does: makes the life of a community depend neither on spontaneous choice nor on the orally assimilated customs and wisdom of the past, but rather on specific rules and regulations written down on a page. The Benedictine rule insists that it be itself read out to every novice several times, and then read out again in pieces to the whole monastic community repeatedly in an endless cycle of renewal of textual authority.

Reliance on texts implies that someone will own texts and they will be accessible: ownership and access remain central concerns in all discussions of the present and future of the library. Late antique collections are not very well documented, and that gap in the evidence is to be regretted. There were libraries at Rome under papal supervision,[28] and the monastic collections of Eugippius and Cassiodorus left interesting traces.[29] There is even a vignette from the same Sidonius we heard of a few paragraphs ago describing his own library, with separate seating for men and women, the women decorously surrounded by the works of the church fathers, the menfolk down at the end of the room where the dangerous "pagans" were shelved.

There are as well still collections of manuscripts that have lived together under constant care since the fifth century A.D. in the Latin world. Verona is one place to find a few, the Vatican Library the best place. But our real knowledge of libraries begins to be usable at a later period, the time of the so-called Carolingian Renaissance of the ninth century. There what emerges is not only that there are many libraries, but that they are direct heirs of the late antique collections.[30] The selection and ordering of texts closely follows the principles of the fifth and sixth centuries. Cassiodorus' Institutes even seem to have functioned as a collection development tool in one monastery, eager to fill out its collection with books he had spoken of,[31] and Augustine's autobiographical listing of his own works was responsible in many places for libraries holding a strikingly high percentage of his works. These collections exhibit a modern, not an ancient, arrangement, placing objective truth at the center of the collection and organizing everything else around it not for beauty but for utility.[32]

The history of books and libraries in the central and later middle ages is abundantly documented and well and widely studied.[33] I will not pursue it here save to mention a familiar tendency. In the centuries before printing, there were already coming to the fore the characteristic fear and fascination that flourish in the presence of abundance of information. If 1445 is really the year in which Gutenberg printed his first Bible, it was six years earlier than that when the famous chancellor of the University of Paris Jean Gerson complained that the boom in book production was dangerous. It was giving rise to theological confusion and shaking the solidity of the church's traditional teaching.[34] Little did he know what lay ahead! But already a hundred years before that, one of the most proficient bookmen of the age, Nicholas of Lyra, compiler of a huge and meticulous commentary on all of scripture, itself drawing resourcefully on the library of all the fathers before him, complained that others were engaging in similar practices too vigorously: "They have chopped up the text into so many small parts, and brought forth so many concordant passages to suit their own purpose that to some degree they confuse both the mind and memory of the reader and distract it from understanding the literal meaning of the text."[35]

The invention of printing changed many things, and that story has also been told often.[36] But some essential things did not change. Despite massive disruptions, the fundamental community of producers and users of texts remained fairly constant -- some ex-monks turned into university professors to be sure (Luther is a prime example), but the continuity of the community of texts was in the main intensified.[37] The codex remained the outward form of the book and the techniques that exploited its power in the late years of an exclusively manuscript culture were enhanced rather than supplanted. Indexes, cross-references, tabulations all multiplied. Many libraries that flourished in the later middle ages still survive today, often at the heart of quite vital institutions. A visit to Duke Humphrey's room in the Bodleian library is a memorable testament to this tenacity. Where there had been disruption in late antiquity and the creation of a new tradition, early modernity had every opportunity and reason to transform its inheritance, but instead turned remarkably conservative in the face of the possibility of chaos. The principal development of that period for our purposes is that the deliberate emphasis on and systematic reacquisition of Greek and Latin classical literature decisively created the illusion of a tradition stretching back well beyond the late antique origins of the library tradition I have been discussing and incorporating Greek and Roman antiquity in a single traditional continuum.[38] In the wake of the choices made then, I, as a professor of classical studies, am a daily caution to all I meet that we place a remarkably high social value on our links to the past.

But it is not just the temporal dimension that is important. What I am suggesting is that historically, cultures dependent on the written word have all shared the fantasy of the virtual library. That is, they have cherished some notion of total inclusiveness. What they achieve is always far short of anything that might be considered a totality of output of the written word for even a brief period -- even the great depository libraries contain only a fraction of the printed reading matter of their own societies), and they have placed a high value on access to that totality. But with this vision, physical institutions have grown up that in one way or another impersonate the virtual library. The public libraries I haunted as a child looked and felt to me every bit as coherently like avatars of the virtual library I already believed in as the academic research libraries I prowl appear to me today. In both cases I was indulging a fantasy far from reality, but a potent fantasy nevertheless.

For it is the fantasy that a library's users share that defines the community to which they belong. It embodies a world view (and I have talked about the ways in which the "non-fiction" world view of the virtual library of the age of the codex differed from the "poetic" world view of antiquity) and so seems to give objective confirmation to what our beliefs.[39] In that way it functions importantly as a transmitter of culture from one generation to the next, as it did to me in those public libraries of my childhood.

One other feature is important. The common fantasy of the virtual library encourages the belief that all libraries embody the one ideal form and that they have comparable profiles. And yet precisely when great research libraries try to coordinate their acquisitions strategies, they discover that the overlap in what they buy is far less than what a naive eye would expect.[40]

What of that will survive in the Net community that is coming? The written word itself will see its grasp weaken, as it dances in tandem with visual and aural treasures in great abundance.[41] Other familiar landmarks will diminish.

The author is already an endangered species,[42] and rightly so. The notion that authoritative discourse comes with a single monologic voice surely depends on the creation of the written artifact. Both oral discourse (before and beyond the written word) and the networked conversations that already surround us suggest that in dialogue a fuller representation of the world may be found, precisely because conflicting voices deserve to be heard. The notion that reality itself can be reduced to a single model universally shared is at best a useful fiction, at worst a hallucination that will turn out to have been dependent on the written word for its ubiquity and power.

Similarly, the notion that discourse must be fixed to be valid will fade. Now, fixity is to our eyes the only satisfactory guarantee of authenticity, but fixity brings with it rapid obsolescence. There is scarcely a page I have published in a decade and a half of scholarly writing that I would not now change if I could, but I cannot. Words that I know to be inadequate and in some cases untrue continue to speak for me, who am no longer the person I was when I wrote them, but I am still somehow their author, for I must be, because I once was.

With the idea of fixity goes the idea of duration I spoke of earlier. Good words are words that last and remain unchanged. But if the world is constantly in flux, then surely the descriptions of that world should find a way to change to reflect that world. Some of our reference works do this already, and on the other hand Jane Austen is perhaps immune to rewriting and should remain so.[43]

The greatest transformation that such a post-virtual library information environment will bring is in the way culture is transmitted. If even the idea of a stable, reassuring set of texts and truths on which to nourish the young fades,[44] then it will not be at all clear what it is we need to do to or with our young people to acculturate them to the ways of their elders. For years I have quoted with amusement the poet John Crowe Ransom in an essay on Princeton, where he concluded that all in all Princeton was a fine place, but if he had a son, he would just as soon lock him in a library until he was 21, then send him to Paris. The value of Paris at age 21 remains, I think, about what it was, but even in jest, even as a comic icon, the notion of locking a youth in a library will, I suspect, so far lose its power that people will not even understand what Ransom was getting at. In short, the idea that the totality of our culture can in some way be incorporated in a library is precisely what will disappear.

What then becomes of professors and publishers and librarians? If we are very sure we know what our roles are and very determined to work hard to maintain them, we have every reason to look forward to extinction. Confident reliance on old models for such functions will not suffice. There will be traditional publishers and librarians and even professors for a good while, just as there are now professional scribes and schools of calligraphy. But just as the power ran out of the monasteries and ecclesiastical institutions of the late middle ages into new channels and forms, so too our educational institutions qua institutions are acutely at risk. Those who cherish them will do best to be self-conscious about what they value in those institutions and to be pragmatic about how to pursue the preservation of that value in a rapidly and dramatically changing environment. Paradoxically, this means not asking what computers can do in and for our old institutions; it means asking what needs doing, and then looking with a clear unprejudiced eye for the best way of doing it. The answer will often be electronic, but the challenge will be to make sure that what the electrons do is indeed valuable to our society. By concentrating on that side of the equation, the people, and even the institutions, who have managed the old information universe have a good chance of finding important roles to play in the new one.

If the virtual library is fifteen hundred years old, why does it seem so current an idea? Will it continue to enthrall? I am fond of quoting McLuhan's notion that the content of a new medium of communication is always imagined to be another older medium.[45] Thus cinema at the outset was thought to be a vehicle for filming "plays", and there are still "made-for-TV movies" and "TV newsmagazine shows". A farmer at the turn of the century saw that the horseless carriage could get him to market and back more quickly, but had no inkling that the same vehicle would send an interstate highway through his pasture and change his way of life forever. It takes a generation or three to get past the point of depending on the old medium for a way to think about the new and to the point of exploiting the new medium artfully in its own right.

The dream of the virtual library comes forward now, I therefore submit, not because it promises an exciting future, but because it promises a future that will be just like the past only better and faster. No one can deny the usefulness of such conceptions, but the limitations of their usefulness must be recognized as well. In another place I hope to write at some length of the critical reactions that the coming of print met in western Europe (for even that innovation was not greeted with an unmixed chorus of praise), but I can share here a main conclusion of that study. That all of the criticisms and cautions expressed in the fifteenth and sixteenth century that I can find, chacteristically launched from within and usually intended to preserve powerful social institutions, turned out to be accurate and valid. It also turned out not to matter, for the new environment that print created was so much larger, so much faster, and so much more powerful than the manuscript medium had been, that all objections were simply overwhelmed. Where society continued to care about values that the new medium threatened, it turned out that the new medium could easily afford to look after them.[46] I am fond of studying those early critics of the print medium, because they remind me of myself and my friends and colleagues, all of us on the threshold of something new, quite unsure which of our institutions will survive.

The difference, I submit, is that the forms of organization of knowledge in electronic media sharply disresemble those of the traditional codex book. The methods of production and distribution disresemble those of the print media even more sharply. Where the traditional function of the library has been to be one of a few such enterprises cooperating (if sometimes at arm's length) with a few publishers (and thus both together functioning as gatekeepers on a limited set of narrow information pathways from authors to readers), a community is now growing in which there will be as many publishers as readers. The possibility even of imagining totality in such a world rapidly disintegrates. What would be the contents of the electronic virtual library? Everything? Every what? Just to ask the question makes it suddenly obvious that one of the most valuable functions of the traditional library has been not its inclusivity but its exclusivity, its discerning judgment that keeps out as many things as it keeps in. In an information waterfall, the virtual library that tells us everything and sweeps us off our feet with a storm of data will not be highly prized. The librarian will have to be a more active participant in staving off infochaos. If the traditional librarian has been conceived as a figure at home in the discreet silences and cautious dealings of a Henry James novel, now perhaps the right models will be found in James Fennimore Cooper or the Star Wars films: something between Natty Bumppo the 'Pathfinder' and the Jedi knight will be the best mascot for a library school.[47] Whether the existing publishing or library communities will supply these pioneers, or whether they will come from some other sector of the information society is the radically open question of our time for all who care about words and how they affect people. A classicist can only take you so far in examining such issues. His tame projections of the future will certainly be the ones that fall far short of what happens. To find the most sober, pragmatic, and realistic depictions of that future, you would do better to turn your attention to the first wild-eyed visionary cyberpunk sci-fi writer that comes along.[48]