Last fall, I spent many hours in the QA stacks weeding the mathematics books. I ran across one 1964 title that caught my eye: Random Essays on Mathematics, Education and Computers by John G. Kemeny, the then chairman of the Mathematics Department at Dartmouth College. Flipping it open, I scanned the table of contents and was surprised to see a chapter entitled “A Library for 2000 A.D.” I turned to the chapter and began reading.
“Since I am about to propose a radical reorganization of university libraries, I must first establish that some such reorganization is inevitable. I shall argue that our university libraries will be obsolete by 2000 A.D.”
Kemeny’s reasoning is that at the rate libraries were acquiring books in the early 1960s, “the cost of building, of purchasing volumes, of cataloguing, and of servicing these monstrous libraries will ruin our richest universities.” (I guess he never considered that administrations would cut library funding long before that became a problem.) He then goes through a very logic/mathematic approach to solving the problem of libraries and providing a solution: a National Research Library that houses the entire body of knowledge and where users could call in and request information from the librarians. With shared catalogs like WorldCat, online repositories of journals and books, and Google, it seems that his vision of libraries in 2000 wasn’t far off the mark, if perhaps in a different form than he could have known.
My initial reaction to his statement about the obsolescence of libraries was a very petty, “neener-neener, you’re wrong!” But, upon further reading I realized it’s not that he thinks libraries would become obsolete, it’s that he thinks that libraries as they were in the 1960s would become obsolete. In many ways, they have, and so will the libraries of 2005 if we aren’t willing to change to make the responsible use of technology to meet the needs of our users.