Cindy Orr envisions the future of library books through the power of science fiction in her monthly column:

One effective way to envision the future is to read science fiction novels. Though SF authors would most likely say they are not futurists, but instead just storytellers exploring the world of “what if,” it’s true that many current and past inventions were imagined in science fiction books long before they became a reality; Jules Verne described a nuclear submarine in 1870, for instance. So what have science fiction authors imagined about electronic books and libraries—and were they right? Have they imagined reading beyond eBooks? Can we find any advice or predictions of what might be coming? I decided to explore the vision of electronic books and libraries in science fiction to find out.

An essay by James Gunn, himself a science fiction author, called “Libraries in Science Fiction,” makes a great start. Gunn summarizes several depictions of future libraries as portrayed in science fiction novels. Most of these portrayals involve thinking computers, artificial intelligence, the danger of destroying books, but for the most part, don’t depict the actual reading of a full book in electronic form.

Robert A. Heinlein, in his 1982 novel Friday, anticipates the Internet, though in a different way than it actually turned out. His protagonist, Friday, is actually an android, but when given the task of doing research, she uses a terminal to access “the computer net” and can view print books from all over the world (stored in nitrogen) and watch as pages physically turn for her to read on the screen.

In  Neal Stephenson’s 1992 book Snow Crash, the hero gets help from the “Librarian,” a computer program projected as a “pleasant, fiftyish, silver-haired, bearded man with bright blue eyes, wearing a V-neck sweater over a work shirt, with a coarsely woven, tweedy-looking wool tie. . . .” But interestingly, none of these authors seem to have been able to imagine the role of the librarian of the future.

An exception might be Alexei Panshin, who wrote in his novel Rite of Passage, “If you think of the limits of what we know as a great suite of rooms inhabited by vast numbers of incredibly busy, incredibly messy, nearsighted people, all of whom are eccentric recluses, then an ordinologist is somebody who comes in every so often to clean up. He picks up the books around the room and puts them where they belong. He straightens everything up. He throws away the junk that the recluses have kept and cherished, but for which they have no use. And then he leaves the room in condition for outsiders to visit while he’s busy cleaning up next door…. A synthesist…is a person who comes in and admires the neatened room, and recognizes how nice a copy of a certain piece of furniture would look in the next room over and how useful it would be there, and points the fact out. Without the ordinologists, a synthesist wouldn’t be able to begin work. Of course, without the synthesists, there wouldn’t be much reason for the ordinologists to set to work in the first place, because nobody would have any use for what they do. At no time are there very many people who are successful at either one job or the other. Ordering information and assembling odd scraps of information takes brains, memory, instinct, and luck. Not many people have all that.” This was written in 1969, (and includes a condescending remark about middle aged women at the check out desk) but he acknowledges that the ordinologist might be called a librarian.  I’m thinking that the future librarian needs to be a synthesist…not only moving things from room to room, but creating whole new rooms.

Ben Bova comes closest to imagining the current eBook landscape, and he did it 22 years ago when he wrote the comic novel Cyberbooks in 1989. Bova tells the story of Carl Lewis, a naive engineer who envisions a $200 book-sized machine that accepts wafers with books on them that cost pennies each. He is described later in the book by his son as a lover of literature and trees. Carl believes his invention will change the world for the better, and he doesn’t anticipate the problems his book machine will cause for the publishing industry. Bova’s book is hilariously accurate in its description of the resistance to the new invention. In 2002, the blog TeleRead used the book to propose some lessons to be learned from reading Cyberbooks. Bova himself has commented on his book recently, saying he didn’t realize how prophetic it would be about the publishing industry.

But what’s coming next? In “The Cloud and the Networked Book,” Robert Bee says “texts require diverse reading strategies. Perhaps a blog will merely be tasted, an encyclopedia read in parts, a best seller swallowed whole, or a Shakespearean play chewed and digested, slowly considered, and read repeatedly.” But what does that mean to libraries and librarians? Should we consider separating books by the reading approach required for each, putting books that need to be read all the way through apart from those that can be dipped into, or read in pieces? I think this is an intriguing idea.

Sara Tompson is the Head of Library Instruction & Orientation at the University of Southern California (USC), and is currently on the board of the Special Libraries Association. She says, “Information professionals like to know things and organize things. The downside of these traits can be aversion to change. Exploring science fiction can free us to think outside of our everyday boxes!” We can (and probably should) read science fictional depictions of the library profession, but we may have to imagine the future role of the librarian ourselves. Thinking outside of everyday boxes will be essential. After all, not even science fiction writers seem to be able to help us envision our future. But it’s encouraging to remember that we’ve done pretty well so far in the more than 2,000 year history of libraries. The Library of Alexandria collected scrolls. We moved on to the codex, and myriad other formats up to and including eBooks. If we keep up the tradition passed on in our profession, and remember to think big, we’ll adjust and take the next step in the library of the future.

One Response to “Digital Libraries in Science Fiction”

  1. Chris Donohoo

    I also think of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age, and Julian Barnes’ Staring at the Sun.