Commentary #1 The Virtual Library, dream or reality?

internet users at Library of Alexandria

                                      Internet users in the modern Library of Alexandria

The “virtual library” is a dream that many share, something many have imagined but none has  seen. The main features of this vision are a vast, ideally universal collection of information and instantaneous access to that information wherever it physically resides.” (O’Donnell, 1994)

The ideal of a virtual library has been with us since antiquity (O’Donnell, 1994).  Cultures that are dependent on writing have always dreamed of preserving their cultural knowledge in one place.  In his article The Virtual Library: An Idea Whose Time Has Passed, O’Donnell (1994) states that we define a library as “a transmitter of culture from one generation to the next” and a place that is inclusive, static and possible.  The relevant question today is how this dream has changed with the net generation’s attempt to digitize our culture.  Will we now deviate off this long held path and go in a different direction?

O’Donnell (1994) compares the history of this dream to the history of the book by tracing their development from the time of the Library in Alexandria.  He traces Greek and Latin writings and the efforts to organize knowledge to support his opinion:  virtual library as ancient fantasy.  Other cultures and viewpoints are missing in this analysis, therefore this “universal” fantasy is only attributed to Western scholarly tradition.  O’Donnell (1994) makes predictions about the “net community that is coming” that, fifteen years later, seem prophetic and he wonders what will survive of the virtual library fantasy.  He suggests that the components of this fantasy will change.  He predicts that the written word will “weaken” in the face of multimedia.  Certainly, online material is highly hyperlinked, tagged, interactive and not static and are new and better versions of the bibliography.  However, the possibility of connections to video and images lessens the reliance on the written word.  Another prediction is the demise of the author as a single authority which we see now in the growth of collaborative sites such as Wikipedia.  Kelly (2006) predicts that digitized books “will become a web of names and a community of ideas” by strengthening relationships. O’Donnell also points out that discourse will not be fixed or last forever.  In the past, an author could not easily go back and change what was written but that is no longer valid in a world of constant updates easily facilitated by the internet.  The key point that O’Donnell makes is that the very ideal of collecting all cultural knowledge in one place will change.  More importantly, he acknowledges that the old models of expert such as professor, publisher and librarian will disappear if people who fill those roles do not adapt.

“The dream of the virtual library comes forward now, I therefore submit, not because it promises an exciting future, but because it promises a future that will be just like the past only better and faster” (O’Donnell, 1994) but he admits the reality of how it will look is unpredictable.  Because the idea of a digital virtual library seems to resemble the familiar old ideal, it has been embraced but O’Donnell points out that this new library is populated by something that does not resemble the scroll and codex of the past.  It is this change that is most significant and he wonders what it will look like.  The content of the electronic virtual library is difficult to determine.  The primary role of librarians in the past was as curator of what was included or excluded so he asks who will make sense of the vast amounts of information.

The answer that we can provide 15 years later is a combination of public and private companies.  The Google book project launched in 2004 has made the dream of a universal virtual library seem possible as they take on the task of scanning books from research libraries that will become accessible to everyone, not just people with the means to travel to the great libraries (Kelly, 2006).  The Million Book Project is being outsourced to India and China with the aim of making digitized texts available to the developing world (Kelly, 2006) which meets the universal accessibility criteria of a definition of a virtual library according to O’Donnell.  The virtual library cannot function without books so the scanning projects fulfill the role of filling the library with books.  The problem (Kelly, 2006, Grafton, 2007) is the issue of copyright and access to digitized books which in a sense means that private companies in conjunction with publishers may be acting as the new curators, in terms of who has access.

The standard codex book is a relatively stable entity.  In the post codex world, text is unstable due to variations in programming language that render them unreadable (O’Donnell, 1998) or incompatible due to the constant change in software and hardware making it possible to lose data (O’Donnell, 1998, Brand, 1999).  Brand (1999) goes so far as to predict a new “Digital Dark Age” where information will be lost because data is not transferred to the new format.  Brand (1999) states that while more and more digital data is accessible on a global level, the access to information over time is diminishing.   Even with the advent of the “cloud”, storage on remote servers is still subject to access to a computer and the internet and the sustainability of companies like Google to ensure continuing access.  But Kelly (2006) reminds us that while printed books are “immune to technological obsolescence” and people do not want to give them up, they sit alone on the shelf.

Grafton (2007) describes the move to digitize everything as another attempt in a long series starting in Alexandria to create “infotopia” to meet the fantasy of a virtual library. In 1994, O’Donnell predicted that the virtual library of the digital age will not resemble the dream that survived from antiquity and that a new vision will arise because text is no longer static and based on a standard codex book.  Still, books in printed form will continue to occupy the physical space in libraries.  Grafton (2007) suggests that digital forms “will illuminate, rather than eliminate, books” and therefore there will be two paths to information: both digital and physical.



Brand, S. (1999).  Escaping the digital dark age. Library Journal. (2)

Prpick, S. (Producer)  (2009). The great library 2.0. Ideas, CBC Radio. Retrieved from       

Grafton, A. (2007). Future reading:  Digitization and its discontents. The New Yorker, Nov 6.

Kelly, K. (2006). Scan this book! The New York Times Magazine. May 14, 43.

O’Donnell, J.J. (1994). The virtual library: An idea whose time has passed. University of Pennsylvania.

O’Donnell, J.J. (1998) Avatars of the word: From papyrus to cyberspace.  44 -49. Cambridge, MA: Harvard             University Press.

Zerubavel, E. (1996). Social memories: Steps to a sociology of the past. Qualitative Sociology. 19 (3).        Retrieved from

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