The Evolution of Loss – Commentary on O’Donnell

Male Lion at the Zoo

Why the lion?

In “The Virtual Library: An Idea Whose Time Has Passed” James O’Donnell both charts the surprisingly long history of the concept of the virtual library, and the unavoidable demise of the library as we conceive of it today (O’Donnell, 1994). But human history, and even pre-history, has always been characterized by loss. This loss is a necessary part of our progress. Even in the brain, the mysterious seat of the mind, is subject to loss in the course of normal development. The written word on paper, which O’Donnell sees as inevitably being superseded by digital text, will perhaps be lost to a pruning of human knowledge, as has happened continuously since we first walked upright.

The main features of a virtual library, as defined by O’Donnell are “a vast, ideally universal collection of information and instantaneous access to that information” (1994, p. 1). He describes how in the last decades the virtual library was imagined as a virtual reality experience with helmets, goggles and gloves. But according to O’Donnell the idea of a truly comprehensive collection of knowledge, with easy access, has existed for centuries.

He begins his historical review of the idea of a virtual library with Vanevar Bush, who in 1945 wrote about a device called the “Memex” (1994, p. 1), but goes much further. If the defining features of a virtual library are “the combination of total inclusiveness and near-instantaneous access” (1994, p. 2), then, he asserts, the history of the idea goes back to the beginning of the history of the book. The earliest example he uses dates from the 2nd Century BC, but he also mentions the legendary library at Alexandria as proof that even before the codex there was a desire to have an exhaustive collection of knowledge. The fantasy of the virtual library is that it “promises a future that will be just like the past only better and faster” (1994. p. 8). As he says:

“The dream today is weighed down with silicon chips, keyboards, screens, headsets, and other cumbersome equipment — but someday a dream of say telepathic access will make today’s imaginings suddenly as outmoded as a daisy-wheel printer.” (O’Donnell, 1994, p.2)

Although we have seemingly dreamed of the virtual library for centuries, according to O’Donnell it is not self-evident that the words of long-dead humans really should live on forever. He indicates that we may soon lose the concept of the single author, and the “hallucination” that reality can be reduced to a single, universally accepted model (1994, p. 7). O’Donnell is confident that the idea that the sum total of all our human knowledge can be stored in a library will also disappear. Libraries as we currently know them will fade away, as the monasteries of the Middle Ages did when they ceased to be useful, although vestiges will survive. Partly this is because the enormity of human knowledge out-gallops our ability to catalog and itemize it. In the notes to the paper O’Donnell remarks that the volume at which we produce information, and increase its output, “defies the power of the imagination to conceive it” (1994, notes [11]). For librarians, O’Donnell describes the roles they might play in the future as active participants in keeping information out, using discerning judgment to stave off information overload.

Stained neuron

Stained Neuron

Loss of information, by filtering out that which is not of use, has been with us longer than text. Even in the development of the brain there is a pruning of the synaptic connections. At ages 2 or 3 we have between 50% and 100% more connections between neurons than we will in adulthood. The connections are selectively deleted as we approach puberty (Chechik et al., 1998). In terms of our technology, for example, for the most part we have lost the knowledge of how to make sophisticated stone tools. This is now known only to a select few archaeologists. Ong (1982) writes that in oral cultures, matters from the past which have lost their relevance to the present are dropped from the oral record. At the advent of written language the Greeks lost some of the oral poetry that had been central to their culture (Birkerts, 1994). In the article discussed here O’Donnell describes that in the transition from scrolls to codex, most of that which was not copied to the new format was lost. And yet, we as a species have survived and continue to function.

O’Donnell accepts this loss, but feels that predictions about what the future of information will look like are best left to “wild-eyed visionary cyberpunk sci-fi” writers (1994, p.9). I would agree, but would add that this loss of information is essential to our survival.  Marshall McLuhan said “One of the effects of living with electric information is that we live habitually in a state of information overload. There’s always more than you can cope with” (McLuhan, 1967). If our ancestors, as hunters on the plains, had taken in and reviewed all the sensory information their organs perceived, they would have been so assaulted by data that there is a good chance that they would not see an approaching lion until too late. Attention and orientation are modulated by the relevance or salience of an event or cue. This is called selective attention (Bradley, 2009). So perhaps we should not lament the loss of libraries, ancient scrolls, and the knowledge of how to knap a flint arrowhead. We should, as O’Donnell suggests, become Jedi knights of information, sifting through the volume to find that which will keep us safe from the lions on the coming horizon.


Lions in the savannah


Birkerts, S. (1994). The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Winchester, MA: Faber and Faber.

Bradley, M., M. (2009). Natural selective attention: Orienting and emotion. Psychophysiology, 46 (2009), 1–11. Retrieved October 1, 2010 from

Chechick, G., Meilijson, I., & Ruppin, E. (1998). Synaptic Pruning in Development: A Computational Account. Neural Computation, 10(7). 1759-1777. Retrieved October 1, 2010 from

McLuhan, M. (1967) The Best of Ideas, CBC Radio. Retrieved October 2, 2010 from

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