The Virtual Library

August 6, 2001 by Ray Kurzweil

The changing library, written for “The Futurecast,” a monthly column in the Library Journal.

Originally published March 1993. Published on August 6, 2001.

A library is: a) a storage facility for stacks of compressed wood pulp; b) a society dedicated to the preservation of an ancient technology; c) a collection of signs and symbols reflecting the memory of a civilization; d) an institution providing the preservation and dissemination of knowledge. The answer obviously is e) all of the above.

As the virtual book becomes a reality, these four reflections of the mission of a library will experience a marked change, with some libraries on the cutting edge and some on the trailing edge (with both edges having a contribution to make).

The virtual book was introduced in the early 1990s and, as noted in the February 15 column, has already demonstrated a superiority to the paper-based technology in certain categories. As we go through the 1990s, virtual books will undergo an evolution that will send 500-year-old printed paper book technology into obsolescence by the end of the decade.

Virtual books will undoubtedly take many forms, but we can envision the basic model as a thin light slab with sizes ranging from pocket-sized to the full surface of one’s desk. Resolution, color, contrast ratio, and lack of flicker will all match high-quality paper documents. These truly personal computers will be able to send and receive virtual books instantly through wireless communication. Paper books will linger for several decades alongside their more ephemeral offspring, but the institution of the library will be immediately affected. With regard to books, leadership libraries will initiate the lending of virtual books alongside their ample paper collections.

As we go through the first decade of the next millennium, the lending of virtual books will develop from a leading edge curiosity to the mainstream of library services. Although the requisite hardware will ultimately become inexpensive and ubiquitous, libraries will also provide loans of computerized readers in keeping with their egalitarian mission. Regarding the more critical software side, virtual books are not “free,” even though they will use no natural resources. Underground copying of information is rampant today, and as the categories of products and services with no material form expands, efforts will be made to implement computerized locks and software keys to prevent unauthorized access to these valuable properties. Libraries as responsible institutions will have the means to negotiate (aided possibly by appropriate legislation) favorable access to virtual books to enable their mission.

Paying by the person-minute

New means of paying for access to information will evolve to reflect the ease of communicating and sharing electronic information. Today, libraries pay for books by the copy, and the sharing of that information is limited by practical considerations regarding the number of people who can reasonably share a single book. With electronic books, it might make more sense to pay for person-minutes rather than the less meaningful concept of “copies.” Thus, the cost for someone who spends 20 hours absorbed in the latest best seller would appropriately be greater than for someone who spends 20 minutes accessing a couple of recipes in a cookbook. The charge per person-minute could be different for different books. Also, there is likely to be a collection of classical books that would allow for unlimited free access.

This approach would eliminate much of the waste inherent in the current system. Today, someone may borrow a book for two months and only look at it for two hours. If all copies of a paper book are on loan, then anyone with an urgent need for that book is unable to borrow it, even if all of the copies on loan are sitting idly. Libraries would no longer need to anticipate demand for each book in advance. Each library’s “purchasing” decisions would be made automatically by its patrons as they make their borrowing requests. While the library will need to pay for access to the books it lends, the inefficiency and overhead of the current system would be greatly reduced.

Libraries will still need to restrict access to their services because their budgets are not unlimited, and that reality will not change as we enter the world of virtual products. Today, budget limitations are reflected in the finite number of books in any library’s lending collection. In the virtual world, the limitation could be reflected in a finite number of lending minutes, which would be equitably distributed to a library’s patrons. There are objections to this approach in that a limitation is being added that does not currently apply, but a reasonable means of restricting access while still fulfilling the democratic goals of the library system will need to be found.

The first step in computerizing card catalogs has already taken place in many libraries. Computerized card catalogs offer searches (by author, title, and subject) and other services and can provide status information, including when books on loan are expected to be returned. When books are fully online, the keyword searches will be expanded to full text. By early in the next decade, software-based knowledge navigators will provide more intelligent access to information, including two-way voice communication. You will be able to request such things as: “Show me the titles of all books advocating very low-fat nutrition to prevent disease,” or “Give me the titles of all monthly columns that deal with the impact of future technology in journals intended for library professionals.” If confused, the knowledge navigator may ask for clarif ying information, such as: “You’re not referring to The Futurecast, are you?”

Beyond the wire

As we get to buildings, the impact of future information technologies becomes more apparent. We will still need library buildings during the period in which paper books are sliding into antiquity. Beyond that, however, we need to examine some trends in a related technology: communications. Vice President Gore has been a primary advocate for the development of a fiberoptic information superhighway to match the Japanese commitment to a similar electronic infrastructure.

Among the many services such a network will provide will be the ability to meet with anyone at any time with high-resolution video conferencing. This capability should not be confused with the low-resolution halting-motion picture phones now being marketed. Phone channels provide only 64,000 bits per second, whereas the bandwidth of a fiberoptic channel provides up to 10 trillion bits per second. The quality and realism of communication using high-bandwidth channels will be very different.

As a side note, before the United States plunges ahead with laying down a massive physical infrastructure of fiberoptic cables, we should examine a new generation of high density wireless communications technology using microwave frequencies that appear to provide similar bandwidths to fiberoptic cables. The advantage of a wireless system is obvious. Since any technology tends to be obsolete by the time it is in full production, installing, not to mention updating, a wireless system will be considerably less disruptive.

There has been a recent controversy over the safety of wireless communication using cellular links. While this issue is too complex to discuss fully in this month’s column, there are ways to address the current concerns, and it is a fair assumption that wireless communication will be well established at the end of this decade.

The buildingless city

Regardless of the technical means of implementing the next generation of electronic communication, the impact on the nature of cities and buildings will be considerable. Cities first developed to facilitate manufacturing and transportation and thus tended to be located near ports and rivers. With highways and railways providing greater flexibility in transporting goods and people, a primary purpose of the city shifted to communication. Congregating people in one place facilitated their ability to meet and conduct business. But if we can “meet” with anyone regardless of where we are and our computers can easily share information through wireless communication, the need for cities and for buildings will diminish. Already our cities are spreading out, and this trend will accelerate as high-density information networks come online.

Ultimately, we will be able to live anywhere and still work, learn, and play with people anywhere else on the globe. The world will become one city, the ultimate realization of Marshall McLuhan’s vision of the global village. My company maintains a research institute in Russia, and we communicate on a daily basis using the available high-speed electronic mail networks. It would be an exaggeration to say that it is as if our Russian co-workers were working down the hall, but the system works surprisingly well. When we multiply the bandwidth of our communications capability by a factor of 100,000 through high-density networks, the need to work together in a single space will diminish dramatically.

The task of the librarian

The one activity that will be difficult to accomplish through a high-definition communications network will be to touch one another physically. Actually, this is not out of the question, but the opportunity for virtual physical relations is a more complex undertaking and will not occur in a meaningful way until later in the next century (but more about that in a future column). So where does this leave the library? With books in virtual form, transmitted readily through the communications ether, the emerging virtual library will not need to be housed in a building. Libraries, however, will not be alone in this transformation of the workplace.

Finally, we come to librarians. Let us consider the tasks of the librarian. The librarian performs an editorial function by selecting the titles in a lending collection, administers the library, and acts as a consultant to help patrons find information. The librarian is also a teacher providing a variety of outreach and educational services to the community. All of these roles have their counterpart in the virtual library. The editorial function will become centralized to a degree. Local libraries will tap into updated national collections, particularly when lending limits are expressed in terms of numbers of online minutes (with different books being weighted differently) rather than numbers of copies. Libraries may still, however, provide local guides that bring recent titles of particular interest and other services to the attention of their patrons.

The human touch

The virtual library is still an institution and clearly will require administration. As with all institutions, computers will continue to facilitate the efficiency of administration, but this human-directed function will not go away. The last two categories of library service – knowledge finding and pedagogy – will become the primary focus of the librarian. Although computers will provide competition in these roles, until such time as computers are capable of matching our intelligence, the role of humans in the process of managing and imparting knowledge will remain central.

Indeed, the codification of knowledge and the process of enhancing human learning will be the cornerstones of the next phase of human history. In the second industrial revolution, the wealth and power of nations will be based on nonmaterial resources, by the ability to create and facilitate knowledge. Seen in this light, the librarian is a natural leader for the age of knowledge that is now unfolding.

Returning to our definition of a library, its function as a storage facility for wood pulp will diminish over time, although some libraries will retain that role by evolving into museums for a quaint technology.

Libraries will remain societies dedicated to the preservation of an ancient technology, but some will choose to celebrate the older technology with the new.

As for the signs and symbols reflecting the memory of a civilization and the preservation and dissemination of knowledge, the virtual book and the virtual library will only enhance these fundamental tasks.

The library will not be the only type of organization in society that will experience a redefinition of means and purpose as machine intelligence emerges. We will examine the institutions of warfare, medicine, education, the arts, and others in the next column.

Reprinted with permission from Library Journal, March, 1993. Copyright © 1993, Reed Elsevier, USA

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