The Universal Library

libraryWith the launch a few days ago of Europeana, the new European digital library which serves as a portal to the rich diversity of European cultural heritage (from archival materials to books, movies, photographs and much more), the ideal of the universal library seems to be gaining ground again (not withstanding the fact that Europeana immediately crashed after its launch because of popular demand).


The ideal of the universal library or of a library which contains all existing information or knowledge of the world (which is seen as an unrealizable ideal, or as a myth), is already visible in the ancient library of Alexandria, founded in the third century, which was supposed to house all the scrolls of the world in one building (although that was of course not the case). The library was unfortunately destructed on a later date, and with that the idea of the possibility to store the world’s knowledge in one place died too.




In the late 19th and 20th century there were some new attempts to establish a universal library in a single location, though with a different set up. Paul Otlet (1868-1944) was a pioneer of information science, and some even say an early inventor of the Internet. In this short fragment one sees an overview of Otlet’s visionary ideas in this respect.



Paul Otlet created the Universal Decimal Classification system and more importantly in this context, he founded the Mundaneum (1910), together with Henri La Fontaine, in which they would gather all the worlds’ information in an archive with more than 12 million index cards, creating in this sense a universal bibliographical repository. The Mundaneum, although relocated, still exists today and can be visited in Mons (Belgium). You can find a very nice Dutch documentary about Paul Otlet and the Mundaneum called ‘Alle kennis van de Wereld (All the knowledge of the world)’ (1998) from the Dutch science program Noorderlicht here (excusez moi for the French).




In the 1930’s Vannevar Bush, an American engineer and science administrator, introduced the concept of what he called the Memex. In his July 1945 article in ‘The Atlantic Monthly’ called As We May Think, he describes the Memex, a device in which books and other media are compressed by means of microfilm. In Bush’s words: “Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of a mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, “memex” will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.”

Bush’s Memex became a hype where some even came to see the ‘filmbook’ as the greatest invention since movable type. In a 1936 issue of Modern Mechanix (via costurandolivro and boingboing) the optigraph and the teledex are introduced, two machines incorporating Bush’s Memex concept and creating in this way a so called ‘canned-library’.



In the Internet age thinking about the universal library took a new flight. In May 2004 Kevin Kelly, Internet visionary and WIRED editor, published his famous essayScan this book’. As he says: ‘Technology accelerates the migration of all we know into the universal form of digital bits’. This offers enormous possibilities. What if, as Kevin Kelly envisiones, there will eventually be an universal online library, which can be cross-searched, interconnected and multilayered, accessible at any time and any place? The Internet and the digitization of book production processes have enabled these developments and with them the ultimate dream of the universal library seems within reaching distance. Kelly mentions initiatives like the Google Book Search project, which is currently scanning the worlds libraries and making their content available through Google Books, but there are also other initiatives like the Open Content Alliance, who, unlike Google Book Search which will scan books still in copyright and provide online previews of these works (a copyright settlement on this issue with authors and publishers was established recently), focuses first on out-of-copyright books and, secondly, on working with rights holders to provide access to their works if they so choose. Other modern and online equivalents of the ideal of the universal library can of course be found in initiatives like Wikipedia, embodying the same structure as Kelly’s ideal of the universal library, where hyperlinks can be used to surf to other articles, or better said to other entries in this user generated online encyclopedia.


Of course there are also critics of the universal library ideal. Recently Andrew Keen, an English digital media entrepreneur, fiercely attacked Kevin Kelly’s ideal of the universal library and his concept of the liquid book in his book The cult of the amateur (2007). Keen states that the universal library ‘foretells the death of culture’, cutting books into pieces through hyperlinks, remixes and adaptations and mixing them with amateur user generated content, since there is no longer a governing moral code establishing quality and separating expert knowledge and content from amateur content.



Keen’s vision and critique of the universal library ideal is not new. In 1939 Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine writer, wrote an essay entitled The total library. I would like to end with an excerpt of the final part of this essay:


Everything would be in its blind volumes. Everything: the detailed history of the future, Aeschylus’ The Egyptians, the exact number of times that the waters of the Ganges have reflected the flight of a falcon, the secret and true nature of Rome, the encyclopedia Novalis would have constructed, my dreams and half-dreams at dawn on August 14, 1934, the proof of Pierre Fermat’s theorem, the unwritten chapters of Edwin Drood, those same chapters translated into the language spoken by the Garamantes, the paradoxes Berkeley invented concerning Time but didn’t publish, Urizen’s books of iron, the premature epiphanies of Stephen Dedalus, which would be meaningless before a cycle of a thousand years, the Gnostic Gospel of Basilides, the song the sirens sang, the complete catalog of the Library, the proof of the inaccuracy of that catalog. Everything: but for every sensible line or accurate fact there would be millions of meaningless cacophonies, verbal farragoes, and babblings. Everything: but all the generations of mankind could pass before the dizzying shelves—shelves that obliterate the day and on which chaos lies—ever reward them with a tolerable page.

             One of the habits of the mind is the invention of horrible imaginings. The mind has invented Hell, it has invented predestination to Hell, it has imagined the Platonic ideas, the chimera, the sphinx, abnormal transfinite numbers (whose parts are no smaller than the whole), masks, mirrors, operas, the teratological Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the unresolvable Ghost, articulated into a single organism… I have tried to rescue from oblivion a subaltern horror: the vast, contradictory Library, whose vertical wilderness of books run the incessant risk of changing into others that affirm, deny, and confuse everything like a delirious god.”


  1. Hey! Great post. I was missing Borges, but you closed nicely with him :-). It is nice to see all ideas in a roll like this.

    Take care,

  2. Thanks for your comment! Yes, I love that final part of Borges’ essay, as it warns us also of the challenges when it comes to organizing huge amounts of data as is the case in today’s online environment. Fear the chaos!

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