#citylis Student Perspectives: What About the Future? A #citymash Presentation

Student Perspectives is our series of guest posts written by current #citylis students.

This post is by #citylis Library Science student James Atkinson.

On the 13th June I ran a session at #citymash, an unconference focusing on Libraries and Technology held at City University London titled What about the future?  Looking at past predictions about the future and suggesting some of our own.

My talk focused on past predictions of the future of the book as a means of inspiration to try and get the attendees to then come up with their own ideas about the future.  More about the group work in a few moments, but first of all…


The Talk

The future can seem like a scary place and is something people have been looking to and trying to predict for a long time, indeed probably throughout history.

With books this has been the case since at least Victorian times, in particular in regard to predicting their demise as new technologies have come along.

As Rubery (2012) shows in his article, “The Victorian Walkman”, this was very much the case following Edison’s invention of sound recording technology.

Once the original tin version first played Mary had a Little Lamb, people began to wonder about the impact the phonograph would have with Edison himself suggesting the phonograph book.

By the time the phonograph had progressed to a superior wax version and the voices of the eminent were heard, all manner of applications for sound recording were mooted, including, via the examples given by Rubery from Fun and Moonshine, the delivery of parliamentary speeches, the recording of testimony in court, a device to disturb and scare away burglars and the means to catch rogues and philanderers in the act.

In terms of a full book, Nicholas Nickleby was Edison’s aim and the Scots Observer was quite positive on the idea, pointing out what was needed for it to work: “With some invention for skipping, there seems no reason why pure literature should not be phonographic.”

As well as the convenience of listening to a book anywhere, at any time, the social benefits were put forward too- a phonographic book would open up literature and knowledge to all.  The illiterate and disabled would no longer have to listen to a live storyteller but could listen in the comfort of their own homes.  Some day, perhaps, as the Pittsburgh Bulletin has said, “Novels will not be read at all; they will be spoken, listened to.”

In 1894, Octave Uzanne wrote an article imagining the world in 100 years time.  In it a group of academic type men, having enjoyed a lecture at the Royal Academy, discuss where they feel the future of their discipline is headed – one speaks of how the “young” continents will rise up and gain superiority over the old, a naturalist imagines a future without food but where instead, “Nutriment will then be accurately portioned out in the form of powders, syrups, pellets, and biscuits, everything reduced to the smallest possible bulk” and an artist talks of art eventually becoming so widespread that it kills itself and becomes a rare thing indeed.

Uzanne’s narrator, a librarian, speaks of the end of books, and their replacement with the pocket phono-operagraph!  In other words, “The Victorian Walkman”.  Indeed, printing altogether he predicts will stop to be replaced with sound.

What’s really great about these articles (for there are English and French versions that differ in this respect) are the illustrations produced by Albert Robida that show this new world imagined by Uzanne – one in which authors would patent their voices to avoid plagiarism, special train carriages would be used for book listening, maladies of the ear would become a problem and books could be heard at home, or while promenading in the park, or on a mountain top.


Rodiba’s Imagining of a Man Listening to a Book on a Mountain Top (Rubery 2012 and Uzanne 1895)

In the 1920s and 30s Microfilm became quite the thing- seen as the perfect way to keep many documents in a small space.  Banks in particular became interested, seeing microfilm as a good way to help combat cheque fraud.

Emmanuel Goldberg invented a machine to rapidly search and retrieve microfilm documents.  As Buckland (1992) explains, this was achieved via a system that used light and holes punched in the microfilm to locate a particular document.  This article explains the system much better than me, as well as what happened subsequently.

Essentially, the machine didn’t fully take off and Goldberg, following an expulsion from Germany in 1933 for being Jewish, lived out his days in obscurity.  In the meantime, the machine was improved in the US by one Vannevar Bush (Buckland’s article explores whether Bush should receive as much credit as he does for influencing computer science, suggesting Goldberg and documentalists such as Paul Otlet should be lauded more).

Buckland's Explanation of Goldberg's Document retrieval System (Buckland 1992)

Buckland’s Explanation of Goldberg’s Document retrieval System (Buckland 1992)

Bush took up the idea and ran with it, creating a machine that went much faster.  He additionally went further and came up with the Memex.  The way this was planned to work, though, was quite different to earlier document retrieval systems. Bush imagined his machine working along more associative lines than the more precise retrieval system Goldberg made.  This was because Bush didn’t like indexing, feeling it was artificial – he felt that you should get at things in the same way the mind works, jumping from item to item by association. Hence the the name for his device, the memex, or mem(ory)ex..???  See Allington-Smith (2015a) for further information about the memex, including a nifty video which I stole and used in my talk.

Otlet, creator of the Universal Decimal Classification System and the man who tried to make a universal bibliography organised by it, had various ideas about the books and technology in general.

He dreamed many dreams of the future, including a system of electric telescopes that would that would allow anyone in the world to access to a vast library of books, articles, photographs, audio recordings, and films- even a mechanism for transmitting taste and smell.

One idea of Otlet’s would have transformed the use of book quite dramatically.  As reported in van den Heuvel and Rayward (2011), Otlet suggested using books to create a universal encyclopedia ultimately by ripping them apart.

The idea was that a book would be divided up into parts describing the different subjects covered and stored in drawers together with the other parts of books on the same subject.  Thus, if you wanted information on a particular subject you would be able everything written about it.

Paul Otlet's Drawing for his Universal Encyclopedia

Paul Otlet’s Drawing for his Universal Encyclopedia (van den Heuvel and Rayward 2011)

I finished the talk by looking at more modern views of the future to try and creative juices flowing.  These included film depictions of future libraries, such as in Star Wars (containing all the knowledge in the Galaxy) and Superman (containing all the knowledge from Krypton) as well as the Future Library project in Norway that has recently started to build a collection of books to be published in 100 years time.

I talked about and demonstrated quickly the Pelican eBooks that can be bought and viewed online.  These are more like websites than eInk-type eBooks and, I think, could be the future for eBooks – especially in the way they are able to better display pictures and annotations.

I also wondered about more bleak views of the future – there is one theory that the Game of Thrones television series (and A Song of Ice and Fire books) are set in the far future.  Would this be how people view the future – and what would you do for information in a Zombie Apocalypse.

And on that note, I handed the reins over to the groups, giving each a large piece of paper and pens to sketch or write out their ideas about the future of books and libraries.


The Group Work

As Allington-Smith (2015b) suggested, this was the best part of the session – it was really amazing to see how quickly and excitedly the groups got down to work on this topic.  I had planned to walk the room discussing ideas and trying to prod groups on but it clearly wasn’t necessary.  Instead, I sketched out my own idea to help kick start the show-and-tell that followed.

My idea was based around a time travel What If? scenario.  Imagine you could walk down a time portal and visit any library in history.  How amazing what it would it be to actually go and see the Library of Alexandria at different points in its history.  In pictorial form, this looked like the following (only while writing this did I realise that the Sphinx and pyramids are not in Alexandria – I am a bad Ancient History and Archaeology graduate):

The Library Time Portal (also useful for Time Crimes)

The Library Time Portal (also useful for Time Crimes)

Group 1, Kari Morley, Caitlin McCulloch and Melissa Campey, imagined a future full of the fallout from Amazon having been jailed (and so shut down) for tax evasion.  In this world, Kindle’s become useless and as the format their ebooks were in was incompatible with other devices, the technically minded become very important as they try and find a way around the problem of accessing content.  Elsewhere, the book is shown to be king due to being low tech, low cost and, well, because “People love books!”

Group 1: The Aftereffects of Putting Amazon in Jail

Group 1: The Aftereffects of Putting Amazon in Jail

Hannah Howrie, Sal Ahmed, Thomas Pink and David Phillips (Group 2) imagined various scenarios – they discussed how the use of library space might change in the future (via the reclamation of public spaces and the use of libraries for social gathering, including flirting) and how technology could change that use (laptops with projectors, for example).

Other technology possibilities pondered were the wearing of books, the effects of the cloud (possibly replacing books, causing bookless libraries and books to become vintage ephemera).

Dystopian futures were looked at, too – how would LIS be approached in a Mad Max world?   And how will libraries be affected when oil runs out (see Slone 2008)?

Group 2: Flirting, Wearing Books and Mad Max

Group 2: Flirting, Wearing Books and Mad Max

Group 3, consisting of Matt Finch, Dominic Allington-Smith, David Bower and Priya Bassan, created a list of possible advances including book drones and dystopian futures containing Nazi libraries or an inequality in access to information.  They also looked at the possibility of cybernetic enhancements to the human race that might allow the automatic uploading of information and the need for librarians to become advanced curators.

Group 3: Cybernetics, Drones and Extremism

Group 3: Cybernetics, Drones and Extremism

Finally, Group 4 (Alison Pope, Kathryn Drumm, Daniel Van Strien and a 4th mystery member) envisioned a future in which information could be ingested.  They imagined pills that would inform, information clouds (real ones!) that could rain down information both helpful and propaganda-based in nature – and drones that would deliver information bombs.  They brought up the idea of a knowledge crystal, too, the idea of having knowledge transfusion and donations, and the need for libraries to act as quarantine stations if knowledge becomes a disease.

Group 4: The Ingestion of Information

Group 4: The Ingestion of Information

Overall, some worrying ideas among the flirting and jailing of Amazon.  Currently, audiobooks have not overtaken print as Uzanne imagined, microfilm never became the present and Otlet’s ideas sadly died with him.  Although some of these ideas can be seen in the technology of today, past predictions have broadly been inaccurate.

How will our ideas of the future fare?  In 20 years time I will endeavour to remember to check back!


Allington-Smith, D. (2015a) Anticipating the dissertation: an introduction to my research project, The Library of Tomorrow [Available online at: https://dallingtonsmithdita14.wordpress.com/2015/05/31/anticipating-the-dissertation-an-introduction-to-my-research-project/] –  this blog served as inspiration for my talk, I had the idea, reading this made me think it was possible, so thank you Dom!  Additionally it gives an earlier example of future library predicting that I had forgot about when writing this talk – that of Charles Ammi Cutter’s essay, The Buffalo Public Library in 1983. Accessed 24 June 2015.

Allington-Smith, D. (2015b) “#citymash: a report on a library and technology unconference at City University London”, The Library of Tomorrow [Available online at: https://dallingtonsmithdita14.wordpress.com/2015/06/14/citymash-a-report-on-a-library-and-technology-unconference-at-city-university-london/; also at https://blogs.city.ac.uk/citylis/2015/06/24/citylis-student-dom-allington-smith-citymash/]. Accessed 24 June 2015.

Buckland, M.K. (1992) “Emanuel Goldberg, Electronic Document Retrieval, and Vannevar Bush’s Memex”, Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 43 (4) 284-294.

Rubery, M. (2012) “The Victorian Walkman”, Victorian Review, 38 (2) 9-13.

Slone, D.J. (2008) “After Oil”, Library Journal, 133 (5) 28.

van den Heuvel, C. and Rayward, W.B. (2011) “Facing interfaces: Paul Otlet’s visualizations of data integration”, Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology,  62 (12) 2313-2326.

Uzanne, O. and Robida, A. (1894) “The End of Books”, Scriber’s, 16th August 1894: 221-31 [Available online at: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_End_of_Books]. Accessed 24 June 2015.

Uzanne, O. and Robida, A. (1895) La fin des livres, Contes pour les bibliophiles [Available online at: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2820/2820-h/2820-h.htm]. Accessed 24 June 2015.

You can follow James on Twitter @JamesAtkinson81. Read about his work in Acquisitions and Inter-Library Loans at City University Library and studying Library Science here.

Student Perspectives is our series of guest posts written by current #citylis students. If you are a current #citylis student or alumni and would like to contribute a post, please contact Ernesto Priego at ernesto.priego.1@city.ac.uk

For current and future Library and Information Science news, opportunities and events follow the #citylis blog on Twitter @citylis.

About James

Information Assistant (Academic Services) in the Library at City, University of London.
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