James O’Donnell’s 1994 article, “The Virtual Library: An Idea Whose Time Has Passed” was written quite some time before the advent of widely available consumer access to large digital storage devices, and certainly quite a great deal of technological development has occurred since his article was written. Indeed, O’Donnell himself notes that many leaps in technology have taken place since the idea of a ‘virtual library’ was first mentioned, and these types of technological changes will likely continue indefinitely. Still though, many of O’Donnell’s arguments can be seen to transcend this divide in technology, as they focus on the larger idea of the collective memory, and the storage and transference of knowledge across a society.
O’Donnell’s central argument is that we have long sought to centralize and catalogue all of our knowledge and collective memory, and that the idea of a virtual library is one that has existed for many centuries. By tracing the development of libraries and the transfer of knowledge from its early years in written form, O’Donnell relates the idea that virtual libraries and libraries in general can often be seen to be interchangeable terms. Throughout his article, O’Donnell cites examples from both recent and ancient history of the idea of libraries as central power bases.
O’Donnell also warns though that recent pushes to abandon the storage of knowledge in its long accepted book form could have serious repercussions, as it could mean that knowledge may only be selectively transferred. Further, he feels that physical libraries are an attempt to encapsulate an entire culture, and while O’Donnell feels that they have realistically failed at doing so, that even the illusion of this attempt at encapsulating all knowledge is valuable. It’s implied in his article that O’Donnell sees a virtual library as something that attempts to transcend cultures, and therefore this idea of a library as a centre that helps to define a culture’s identity will be lost in a larger amalgam.
The idea of a library as an important centre of power is not new, as O’Donnell makes quite clear in his article, where he notes that the creation of early libraries “…could only have been done in a world now ready to accept the notion that power depended on defining texts and a world that could expect to have access to such texts.” The idea of a virtual library then is simply an extension of this centralized power-base. With knowledge comes power, and the library has long served as an icon in many civilizations as the keeper of all knowledge, even if reality may have proven otherwise.
Where O’Donnell’s discussion looses traction is when the author discusses the idea of a virtual library containing such a huge wealth of information that it becomes inaccessible. What O’Donnell fails to acknowledge is that much like traditional libraries developed highly complex systems for organizing their holdings, so too do virtual spaces develop sophisticated organizational structures. O’Donnell himself states that “…one of the most valuable functions of the traditional library has been not its inclusivity but its exclusivity, its discerning judgement that keeps out as many things as it keeps in.” Why the author believes that this will also not be the case in a virtual environment is unclear, but the reality is that as information has been increasingly digitized, it has also been thoroughly tagged, labeled, and otherwise categorized, and information that is irrelevant, flawed, or simply unpopular falls to the bottom of search rankings or is altered, corrected, or eventually excluded.
Knowledge is fluid though, and hence, it would be virtually impossible to thoroughly catalogue and categorize it all in one central digitally accessible space. This is even assuming that an attempt would be made to record all of this knowledge; it is incredibly easy to erase materials in a digital environment. Further, O’Donnell implies that much of our knowledge and history occurs outside of the written form that libraries have traditionally sought to preserve, and while digital media is now blurring traditional lines between written works and other forms, there are still other formats of communicating knowledge that are not recordable. Libraries, virtual or otherwise, are incredibly valuable resources, but their place in our cultures will always remain in context with a larger human experience.
O’Donnell, James J. (1994) “The Virtual Library; An Idea Whose Time Has
Passed.” Retrieved from http://web.archive.org/web/20070204034556/http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jod/virtual.html