Commentary 1: Information Madness or Madly Informed?

The line between genius and Insanity

As I read “The Virtual Library: An Idea Whose Time Has Passed”, the notion of impermanence in the Buddhist sense kept coming to mind. While librarians and libraries have worked to store and catalogue countless books and publications over the centuries, scant little actually remains from many periods and places. Libraries themselves have transformed tremendously as new forms of publications and media have been invented. O’Donnell (1994) notes that the idea of a virtual library has a long history, and his background as a classicist helps bring its long history to life as he chronicles some of the changes and evolution of the library. On a practical level, a true universal virtual library is impossible for reasons such as obsolescence, and the impracticalities of genuine universalism.

The Rosetta Stone is a critical link to deciphering and decoding meaning between languages and key to the ancient Egyptian language – a language in which nearly all surviving text is carved on stones. O’Donnell (1998) dissects many of the key issues that arise when humans store text digitally. It is not only the plethora of ways that we program computers to store and read this information that is an issue, but also the speed at which applications and data storage are created and then become obsolete. The result is predictable: text and stored data quickly become difficult to access. As Brand (1999) argues, these challenges have intensified over a very brief period of time spanning just a scant few decades, and the issue is preservation, not storage. A thousand years hence, what kind of Rosetta Stone will be needed to access and decode the today’s virtual libraries? The issue is really much deeper than obsolescence, and it has much to do with permanence, and yet O’Donnell (1994) himself muses that it is “far less self-evident that human beings preoccupied with the real problems of their present should spend any appreciable amount of time in decoding and interpreting the frozen words of people long dead.” The materials that we have saved data on, from punch cards and to floppy disks and flash drives, have various limitations in their life spans, but even stones crumble and erode over time. Just as paper tapes and punch cards are impermanent, so too is language.

The virtual library that O’Donnell (1994) speaks of is one that is “a vast, ideally universal collection of information and instantaneous access to that information wherever it physically resides.” Indeed, the Internet now has many of these features, and search engines such as Google scan the web and make access to much of the virtual landscape quick. Yet, access to material on the Internet is not open and free in many places. For example, many corporations filter findings at the request of the countries they operate in. Here in the West these realities are often forgotten; however, O’Donnell (1994) touches on this when discussing traditional libraries. Traditionally, publishing companies and libraries held much power in selecting what would be published or acquired. So while his prediction that there would be as many publishers as readers is closer to being reality, unfettered access is not universal. In his vision of the virtual library O’Donnell does not mention “wherever you are” in his article, and a visit to Saudi Arabia, Thailand or China might put a different perspective on this.

On a practical level, it is impossible to put every book, article, video, and audio recording online. Besides the sheer enormity of the task, the effort required to not only locate, gain access to, and the add these myriad publications to a universal virtual library is folly. To someone in 1994, the speed and breadth of results from search engines would be astounding, but the sometimes millions of responses to a simple inquiry are simply overwhelming and at times near useless. This is complicated by the fact that in spite of the usefulness of search engines such as Google, it is important to remember that these, like other privately held corporations, must put the interests of shareholders first, not those of the public. Furthermore, it is programmers, not librarians that are at the forefront of the process of managing access, and helping us navigate and make sense of the mind-numbing amount of information.

O’Donnell’s (1994) insight into the future of the Internet is remarkable in many ways, and a number of the ideas he discusses have become reality. He astutely argues that visual and audio publications would begin to rival text as the main mediums of messages online. In the world of words, images, and language, one of the few absolutes is the impermanence of things.



Brand, Stewart. (1999). Escaping The Digital Dark Age. Library Journal, 124( 2), p 46. Retrieved September 28, 2010, from

O’Donnell, James J. (1998). The Instability Of The Text. In Avatars of the Word. From Papyrus to Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Up, pp. 44-49. Retrieved September 28, 2010, from

O’Donnell, James J. (1994). The Virtual Library; An Idea Whose Time Has Passed. Retrieved September 28, 2010, from

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4 Responses to Commentary 1: Information Madness or Madly Informed?

  1. Brian Farrell says:


    I read and responded to the same article, as did a lot of others in our course. I think O’Donnell’s article struck a nerve for some of us!

    I’m glad that you mentioned the idea of the dangers behind leaving the preservation of information up to companies like Google. One key principal of libraries is that they are, to a large degree, public institutions, and the idea of a private corporation controlling or managing our collective memory is a scary one. This isn’t really something that O’Donnell touches upon, and I wonder if its an issue that has not been properly recognized by policy and the general public.


  2. Joe Dobson says:

    Hi Brian,

    Thanks – yes, there was a fair amount of interest in O’Donnell’s work.

    There really is something quite troubling about leaving private corporations such as google to control, catalogue (sort of), and store so much. Libraries and common/free access – at least in public ones – are something that are almost sacred in this regard, and putting that much responsibility and publicly traded corporations play be an entirely different set of rules.


  3. lesliedawes says:

    Yes, there is a lot of interest in O’Donnell’s work. I hope that there is significant recognition for the need and work of both kinds of recording spaces. Libraries and digital storage , I believe can coexist.

  4. Hi Joe,
    I don’t know if putting every book, article, video or audio online to a universal library is possible, but I think that could be wonderful to have plenty of information available to our fingers. No wonder the sheer enormity of the task required, but I argue that it will be worthy for this generation and the future ones.

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