Libraries Will Become Morgues


From Babylon to Librespace

Just as we outgrow a pair of trousers, we outgrow acquaintances, libraries, principles, et cetera,
at times before they're worn out and times - and this is the worst of all - before we have new ones.

- Georg C Lichtenberg

by Talat S Halman

The Age of Cyberspace is transforming libraries into "Librespace".  In the 21st century AD, Cybernetics and Internet will give the world a revolutionary dynamic which may be called "libernetics".

It was in the 21st century BC that the first library emerged - a collection of clay tablets in Babylonia.  It gave rise to a tradition that evolved over four millennia, culminating in the monumental libraries of our present century.

Significantly this Conference of the International Federation of Library Associations is taking place in Istanbul, a city of diverse cultures, in Turkey, a vast open museum of civilisations.  Babylon and its Library stood not far from Turkey's southern borders.  Not only Babylonia, but also ancient Egypt, Jerusalem, Ninevah, Alexandria, Greece, Byzantium, which were the proud possessors of the splendid libraries of antiquity, later became part of the territory of the Turkish Ottoman Empire.  Pergamum and Ephesus and so many other ancient sites where libraries stood in grandeur are on the soil of the Turkish Republic today.  But at this epicentre of ancient history, we are now observing the advent of a revolution that will do away with libraries.

It is no longer a surrealistic fancy to see hundreds of millions of students, readers, professionals, researchers sitting in their private rooms or offices where their equipment, linked up to an encompassing and sophisticated system which will feed and project onto a screen any book, any article, any document.  It will take one button pressed, one code impressed. And whatever one wants to look at or read will appear in its full panoply, down to the minutest detail. Every home, every office, every individual will be an automatic extension of the next century's "Library of World Congress" or "Bibliothèque internationale".

The library as a Mecca to go to will become a thing of the past.  No more pilgrimage to the sanctuary of learning.  No more flight out of the desert into the oasis.  In the 21st century and later, books will come into our homes as guests - and as the Eskimo poet says, "our guests expand our homes".

Yet, the monumentality of libraries will now be reduced to the minimality of a screen.  Unable to experience the euphoria of a resplendent palace of volumes, we shall cast glances at a tiny window.  That tiny window will become "the virtual library".

Libraries used to dwarf us.  Now, as the immensity of human knowledge shrinks onto a screen, each one of us will, like Gulliver, feel like a giant in Lilliput.  Reading within the confines of physical space, without a library's symbolism of totality, in the tunnels of narrow specialisation sounds like a centripetal experience.  But it need not be a form of alienation.  It can have mystical dimensions - private, rich in inner resources, opening up to wide horizons.  It could create a titillating narcissism.

But there is cause for sadness, sense of loss, nostalgia.  There may be no place for books in the future.  Eventually they will become ancient artifacts, archæological objects, museum pieces.  The three-dimensional book will be reduced to a single dimension, a flat image.  We shall no longer be able to turn a new leaf.  Pages will have no nexus to a volume.  And, alas, no more the sensuous experience of holding a book, touching it, caressing it, kissing it.  The book as an æsthetic object, a thing of tactile beauty, as a loving and lovable creation stands on the precipice of extinction.  We shall no longer curl up in bed, with a book - which was for so many centuries the most innocent, the noblest of erotic experiences.  Do we now, in the near future, take the entire National Library to bed?  How obscene.

And serendipity may become a thing of the past.  We shall no longer experience that incomparable joy of discovery while browsing.  Elves will not lead us to virgin shelves.  Stacks will offer no miraculous tracks.  Our new computers will give us infallible guidance to bibliographic sources, to the most pertinent information, but chances are, we shall find new ways of getting lost on the "superhighway" - and come to feel that it may, after all, be just a "duperhighway".

But, whatever the pitfalls, the efficiency of the new "no-library system" promises to overwhelm and enchant us.  Unless - perish the thought - someone presses the wrong button and erases the entire contents of a national library on the computer.

Barring any such catastrophes, however, the future looks spectacular.  The Revolution is on - and it will not devour its progenitors or children.  Libraries as we used to know them are on the way out.  We are destined to have libraries without walls and halls, libraries that lack stacks.  The world will unfurl, in the 21st century, a brave new system of information and learning.  But, you brave librarians, need not worry or feel insecure.  After having served as members of the world's second noblest profession you will not become "superfluous" because of the "superhighway".  You will probably turn into "highwaymen" or "highway personalities" - or you will direct traffic on the "superhighway".  And naturally, our heritage of libraries will not vanish.  Small local libraries will probably go, but most of the majors - national or central libraries - will be converted into museums where you will serve as custodians and curators.

As books become antiques, you will develop into antiquarians - and as books are transferred onto disks, bibliothèques will function as "discotheques".  Some of you will now have to tiptoe around saying "Shush!".  If you say "Shush!" no one will hear you.  Try doing that at a discotheque!  No one will hear you, in this instance, because all the "friendly users" will be working in their own vacuum-sealed isolation, glued to a silent screen.

Libraries, alas, may survive only as "morgues" - a term that surely sends chills down our spine because it is so morbid.  Newspapers, in their warped wisdom, must have had a premonition of the shape of things to come, because - long before anybody else felt the chill of the death of libraries - they had started using the term "morgue" for their reference collections.  Now, it is eerily realistic to predict that newspapers and magazines and journals themselves will die out in the early part of the coming millennium.  They will appear, if at all, as periodic images on the e-mail.  "Electronic" is as dangerous as "bubonic".

If it is any comfort to you, bookworms will be replaced by bugs.  A new type of mouse will be eating away at books.  The world of libraries will revel in artificial intelligence and dumb terminals and floppy disks and joy-sticks and head crashes.

"Ex libris" will come to mean "liberated from books".  By some point in the coming centuries, all learning may be in the form of TV dinners and other types of frozen food.  In a sense, learning or acquiring knowledge may appear unnecessary - even senseless.  Why strain our brains?  All we need to do is possess the simple manual, mechanical skill of pressing buttons and using the equipment that will give us the information.  Our minds do not have to be encumbered with facts and figures, with ideas or foreign languages.  Why should an intellect serve as a reservoir when it has instant and constant access to a limitless "data-voire"?  Why should we speak any languages other than computerese, because sophisticated translation machines will instantaneously and simultaneously translate any conversation, any text, any document into any language.

The advantages of this type of super-efficiency are glorious, luxurious, especially for exact sciences.  By lifting a finger, anyone will have access to the entire corpus of human knowledge as embodied by all archives, databanks and libraries.  The last instance of a single person who had been able to read all scientific books in French was nearly a quarter of a millennium ago.  Since then, it has become increasingly difficult to read all the books in a narrow field of scientific specialisation.  In the next century, everything will be available to any of us - and without the need to read or study.  It is a privilege we shall begin to share with God.  We are on our way to turning into little deities of omniscience.  Thanks to the accessibility of total knowledge, we shall be liberated from knowledge itself - to pursue, in the enormous expanses of our new \ leisure - non-cerebral pleasure.

Lest you think that such a statement might be frivolous or worse still cynical, or far worse than that, morally depraved, let me hasten to affirm that there will always be exceptional, creative individuals who will assiduously invent, produce, discover, generate, and thus expand humanity's store of knowledge.  But multitudes of ordinary humans will enjoy the ultimate democratisation of learning.  Except there is an obvious danger in this: because knowledge is there, always available, most of us will take it for granted, feeling no need to acquire or utilise it.  A huge majority in the future is likely to be sophisticated in computer literacy and will choose to remain in the darkest illiteracy in substantive knowledge. If there is such a thing as the joy of intellectual life, much of it will probably be switched over to robotics.

We stand at the threshold of a fantastic information revolution.  Here I am using "fantastic" not as a casual adjective or flippantly, but in its real sense that the phenomenon goes far beyond fancy.  It is of such proportions that the next few centuries will be an "Age of Information" or an "Age of Universal Communication".

We are at a "wake". We are burying an era - and waking up to a new epoch of creativity.

Humanity's past four millennia, spanning the history of libraries, can be examined in four categories which follow a rough chronological sequence and often overlap:

bulletTribal culture (whose oral transmissions took the form of imaginary and mobile libraries)
bulletLogographic culture (whose handwritten documents served religion and royalty for which closed, private libraries were created)
bulletTypographic culture (which distributed printed books, disseminated political ideologies, ushered in nation-states and ideals of democracy, and became notable for open libraries)
bulletAudiovisual culture (which perfected communication via radios, tv, recordings, videotapes and introduced internationalization of secular learning).

The next stage, the fifth category, will be "Universal culture".  We are now entering a new millennium which will have its own revolutionary culture.  The technology will make books and many types of printed matter obsolete, create uniform and conformist masses and an extraordinary elite, make the medium paramount but the content secondary, perhaps turn humanities into a tolerable leisure activity, and probably produce generations which, while enjoying basic freedoms, will remain submissive and morally bland.

In the coming age, ideology is likely to be puny if it exists at all.  We have already witnessed the collapse of totalitarian ideologies - and we are living through the demise of so-called democratic idealogies like socialism, liberalism, and capitalism.  Several years ago, I had devised a "Halman's Law on the Life and Death of Ideologies" - and it still seems to hold true:

Ideology starts as an idea, evolves into an ideal, becomes the common idiom and identity, then stumbles into idolatry and ends up as idiocy.

Perhaps the disappearance of ideologies is nothing to mourn.  But, in the dawn of the new age, we are not likely to do better than "video culture" whose "videology" might end up as "vidiocy".

There is the widespread expectation that the "megapolis" will constitute the socioeconomic core of the Age of Cyberspace - although the very dynamics of cyberspace could conceivably create millions of small communities blanketing the face of the earth.  Advanced technologies may obviate the need for huge human concentration.

In the past few centuries, deprivations in pastoral areas included lack of libraries and unavailability of a large array of cultural activities.

Another "law" of mine - "Halman's Law on Cities" - by sheer coincidence, exhibits the library lacuna:

A Great City has - must possess - features expressed by words containing the word "city" or such cognates as "-sity" and "-xity" like "electricity", "intensity", "complexity", et cetera

A Great City must have

bulletimmensity, density, intensity
bulletboth plasticity and elasticity
bulletmust combine complexity and simplicity
bulletmust afford diversity, tenacity, velocity, multiplicity, ethnicity
bulletmust provide vivacity and laxity
bulletmust show perspicacity and a propensity for sagacity, curiosity, audacity, eccentricity
bulletmust have pomposity and generosity
bulletinevitably it has no paucity of mendacity, duplicity, rapacity, perversity, ferocity
bulletit must have at least one great university
bulletalthough it can never live without adversity, it must achieve and maintain life's utmost capacity for virtuosity, luminosity, and above all felicity.

Sadly this repertoire has no -city words expressing the creative arts and the library.  Everything else fits.  But how can a city be complete without a library?  Perhaps, though, all of this is prophetic: because the Great City of tomorrow will not have, will not need, a library.  Every service a major library can provide will be available in a vastly efficient and convenient manner, from a central bank of information to everyone anywhere in the world.  Perhaps even education itself will be entirely "distance education".

All this sounds marvelously exciting.  Even those of us who cuddle books as security blankets or hold on to palpable volumes and other publications for enlightenment and entertainment tend to acknowledge the glorious prospects offered by "librespace" technology.

Four "Nightmares" haunt me about the negative or nefarious effects that the new Information Age might bring about.

bulletNightmare 1 - foresees the obsolescence of learning, simply because easy availability of capsule information will make the very process of acquiring knowledge superfluous, a burden, a sham.
bulletNightmare 2 - fears that cyberspace globalisation will become, in effect, a lobotomy.  It will create the type of uniformity and conformity that can only cause deformity.
bulletNightmare 3 - is apprehensive about the emergence of a new type of tyranny in some societies where a dictator or an oligarchy might enforce the ultimate censorship and oppression by manipulating the powers of cyberspace.
bulletNightmare 4 - predicts that since the new Age will be dominated by technologically advanced countries, the rest of the world might fall under a new intellectual and scientific and political colonialism.

Yes, my four Nightmares.  Add to these the frightening possibility that the worldwide system of information might become an aggrandised version of today's television programming in most countries.  It is violence, obscenity, cynicism, despair, destruction, terror, murder that virtually the entire TV audience throughout the world is exposed to.  Imagine a comprehensive, centralised system of violent programming dominating the world in the name of entertainment and education.

My worse fear, however, is that Cyberspace will widen the gap, the gulf, between the industrialised and the developing world.  The fear is amply justified.  The situation in Turkey is a telling example - not only in our economic ability and technical expertise being so deficient that we can keep pace with the quantum leaps of technology in the West, but also in terms of our lack of conventional resources.  Take books as an index: our single largest library, the National Library, has a total of 1,500,000 volumes.  Compare that with the United States where the Library of Congress has a holding of 24,000,000 books, Harvard University alone 13,000,000 volumes, New York Public Library 7,000,000, Boston Public Library 6,500,000.  At least 200 more American libraries (public or university) contain more volumes than our National Library.

It is cause for lament that developing countries are so destitute, so lacking in resources.

My lament is also for the fact that we have a reading syndrome in this country.  A nation of more than 60 million with a literacy rate of 80% could be expected to read more.  Total newspaper circulation has remained virtually unchanged in 25 years.  Book sales have barely increased.  The annual number of titles published has gone down.  And yet, this society has had strong guidance to inspire more reading.  Our population is more than 99% Muslim - and the Prophet of Islam had stated: "To be busy even for a moment with knowledge, with a book, with writings is more beneficial than 60 years of worship.

And the revered creator of the Turkish Republic, President Ataturk proclaimed:

Unless a nation develops an encompassing interest in reading, ignorance will expand and the catastrophes born of ignorance shall not subside.

The government opened more than a thousand local public libraries.  Turkey has nearly 60 universities and 600,000 graduate students.  Yet reading is lagging.

Perhaps the Age of Cyberspace will rescue us and many other developing countries; new technology might well be the short-cut.  I have a dream of that prospect.

I have four lovely "Dreams" about the coming Revolution:

bulletDream 1 - foresees that full, functional, fruitful literacy will be achieved worldwide by means of the new information technology.
bulletDream 2 - has the vision of humanity liberated from ignorance, development stimulated, epidemics and premature deaths eliminated, arts and sciences in efflorescence all over the world through the miracles of communication and learning created by Cyberspace.
bulletDream 3 - contains the premonition that universal participation in democracy and human civilisation and decent dignified life will be made possible by the new universal experience of science and humanities.
bulletDream 4 - is that of a global renaissance whereby all societies and individuals, while being served by technological civilisation, will not suffer loss of their own authentic cultures and will learn about other faiths, doctrines, cultural values in a spirit of tolerance and harmony.

The dreams I have hold the promise of reality.  That requires a firm understanding that information technology itself should not be made into an end.  It is merely a means, a tool - just a highway and not the city of light it could lead to.  Not all roads lead to CD-ROM.  We must make use of Cyberspace to lead us out of hell which is ignorance into paradise which is enlightenment.

This is the great challenge before IFLA, UNESCO, the United Nations, all universities, the world of science, culture, education and communication.  Since Babylon, librarians have preserved the world's intellectual heritage.  Now they will oversee the transition to what I call "librespace".  The task is to endow the Age of Information with the ideal of serving all humanity, with the right strategy for global development, and with the stuff that dreams and realities are made on.

That in four simple words is "the prism of librarianism".

Talat S Halman
Professor and Chair
Department of near Eastern Languages and Literatures
New York University

Talat Halman now teaches at Bilkent University in Turkey.  He has an MA in Political Science from Columbia University, 1954 and an Honorary Phd from Bogaziçi University, 1988.  He teaches Turkish language, Near Eastern languages, literature and culture, Middle Eastern studies, Islam and its culture.

Source: 61st International Federation of Library Associations General Conference Proceedings 20-25 August 1995 middle photo is a painting by Karl Spitzweg called The Bookworm

See also:

bulletHallmark of Authoritarianism (in the section on Education) - the Child Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which mandates filters being placed on internet-linked computers at public schools and libraries to protect children from indecent material - just one of a host of recent actions by government agencies, school boards and other institutions to limit what we read, see and hear.  While censorship is nothing new, the growth of the internet, the general rightward shift of the government and the institution of the war on terror have recently taken things up a notch.  The moves are usually under the guise of protecting people from pornographic material or terrorism.  But on many different levels, this censorship has debilitating effects...
bulletWhat No One Is Reading (the following page in this section) - When it is complete next year, this warehouse will be state-of-the-art, containing 262 linear kilometres of high-density, fully automated storage in a low-oxygen environment.  It will house books, journals and magazines that many of us have forgotten about or have never heard of in the first place.

For IT-related articles on snooping, usage, the future, e-diaries, piracy, flickers, cyborgs, browsing, trends, jokes, philosophic agents, artificial consciousness and more, press the "Up" button below to take you to the Table of Contents for this Information and Technology section.

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