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One Library for the Entire World

In the years preceding the Internet, futurist books hinted at the massive information infrastructure that was to come.

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Medical experts inputting data into the electronic library (1981)

It’s quite easy for people to talk cynically of the various ways in which technology is supposedly undermining culture and society. (And those complaints are obviously nothing new.) In particular, people have — rightly or wrongly — been afraid of “information overload” for ages.

But I’m an Internet apologist. The ability of average people to obtain information instantaneously is just phenomenal. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

When I was a kid, growing up in the late 1980s and early 90s, I had no idea what the Internet was. But the futurism books I’d check out at the library would hint at the massive information infrastructure that was to come. One such book, World of Tomorrow: School, Work and Play by Neil Ardley had a two-page spread about the electronic library of the future. This 1981 book explained everything from what homework might be done in the future to how computer criminals might make off with all your data.

The picture above shows medical experts inputting data into a large centralized electronic library. The idea that an electronic library would be so organized in one physical space might be the most jarring aspect to these types of futures, which were imagined before our modern web. The 1993 AT&T concept video “Connections” talked about electronic education in a similar way, with students linking to an “education center” in Washington, D.C.

Text from the World of Tomorrow book appears below. It may seem so quaint to modern readers, but it’s fantastic to read about how “this service at your fingertips is like having a huge brand-new encyclopedia in your home at all times.”

Imagine you are living in the future, and are doing a project on Halley’s comet. It’s quite some time since it last appeared in 1986, and you want to find out when it will again be seen from Earth. You also want to know the results of a space mission to the comet, and find out what the comet is made of.

In the days when the comet last appeared, you would have to look up Halley’s comet in an encyclopedia or a book on astronomy. If you didn’t possess these books, you would have gone to the library to get the information. And to find out about the space mission, you might have had to get in touch with NASA. Now, finding out anything is much easier — thanks to the computer.

People still collect books as valuable antiques or for a hobby, but you get virtually all the information you need from the viewscreen of your home computer system. The computer is linked to a library — not a library of books but an electronic library where information on every subject is stored in computer memory banks. You might simply ask the computer to display you the range of information on Halley’s comet. It contacts the library, and up comes a list of articles to read and video programs. You select those you want at a level you understand — and sit back.

Having this service at your fingertips is like having a huge brand-new encyclopedia in your homes at all times. The computer can tell you anything you want to know, and the information is always the very latest available. There need be only one central library to which computers in homes, offices, schools and colleges are connected. At the library experts are constantly busy, feeding in the very latest information as they receive it. In theory one huge electronic library could serve the whole world!

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