What will the library of the future look like? Science fiction writers have had a few ideas.
In his 1984 novel Heretics of Dune, Frank Herbert asks us to imagine the media archives of an organization that is many thousands of years old - the House Records of the Bene Gesserit:
The holoprojector flickered with its continuing production above the table top - more bits and pieces that she had summoned.
Taraza rather distrusted Archivists, which she knew was an ambivalent attitude because she recognized the underlying necessity for data. But Chapter House Records could only be viewed as a jungle of of abbreviations, special notations, coded insertions, and footnotes. Such material often required a Mentat for translation or, what was worse in times of extreme fatigue demanded that she delve into Other Memories. ...You could never consult Archival Records in a straightforward manner. Much of the interpretation that emerged from that source had to be accepted on the word of the ones who brought it or (hateful!) you had to rely on the mechanical search by the holosystem...
Fans of Doctor Who know just how big libraries can get, as seen in Silence in the library/Forest of the Dead - an entire planet dedicated to the storage of physical volumes, as well as a giant hard drive in the planet's core.
"Apparently, the Libreareome Project is someone's idea for photographing and then digitizing the Library. But -" suddenly he was remembering things from his last years at Stanford "- didn't Google already do that?"
"That's true... Past digitizations have not been as global or as unified as this one will be. And Huertas has lawyers and software that will allow him to render microroyalty payments across all the old copyright regimes - without any new permissions."
"...But let me tell you... shredding destroys the books. That is the bottom line. We will be left with a useless jumble."
"Oh, no... The pictures coming from the camera tunnel are analyzed and reformatted. It's a simple matter of software to reorient the images, match the tear marks and reconstruct the original texts in proper order... Potentially, the error rate can be less than a few words per million volumes, far better than even hard copy republishing with manual copyediting.
Fans of the original series version of Star Trek of course recall the 1969 episode All Our Yesterdays, a memorable vision of a remarkable library on a dying planet. The Archivist, a certain Mr. Atoz, demonstrates what appears to be historical data disks (themselves excellent representation of what will one day be DVDs). The disks have an amazing property; they provide a true glimpse of the past, because they open a portal to distant times.
(All Our Yesterdays original trailer)
The Joe and Rika Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago presents an practical future - it really exists. Take a look at the library's retrieval system, which exists to present library patrons with actual physical volumes in the shortest possible time.
(Joe and Rika Mansueto Library video)
Designed by architect Helmut Jahn and covered in 700 panels of glass, the library looks like a half-buried crystal Fabergé egg from the outside. Under the dome sits the library’s 8,000-square-foot main reading room.
All books can be requested online, then pulled up to the surface by an automated retrieval system that keeps track of every volume through barcodes.
Even though many universities and libraries, including the University of Chicago, have offered up their collections for scanning and cataloging through the Google Books Library Project, copyrights prevent many full-text volumes from being posted online, leaving a lot of information trapped on paper.
“Surveys have estimated that about 80 percent of a typical research library’s holdings are not in the public domain, which often means that projects such as Google Books cannot share these volumes in their entirety,” Nadler said.
Until all the world’s knowledge is truly online, a few lucky students and researchers in the Chicago area will be able to access the best of both the digital and physical worlds at the Mansueto Library.
Harry Harrison, who died just last week, wrote about a whimsical robot librarian filer with even greater capabilities in his 1962 short story The Robot Who Wanted To Know:
A Filer is an amazingly intelligent robot and there aren't many being manufactured. You'll find them only in the greatest libraries, dealing with only the largest and most complex collections. To call them simply librarians is to demean all librarians and to call their work simple. Of course very little intelligence is needed to shelve books or stamp cards, but this sort of work has long been handled by robots that are little more than wheeled IBM machines. The cataloging of human information has always been an incredibly complex task. The Filer robots were the ones who finally inherited the job. It rested easier on their metallic shoulders, than it ever had on the rounded ones of human librarians.
Update 17-May-2021: An earlier example of this idea is the automatic delivery library from The Lord of Tranerica (1939) by Stanton A. Coblentz.
Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 8/21/2012)