The Virtual Library is Here

The concept of a “virtual library” sounds out of date in 2013 which is exactly what James O’Donnell is telling us would happen but I’m not sure if it is because the “virtual library” is now a reality or because we have finally agreed that it is unattainable. I have my hunches but I may be biased. What is the “virtual library”? Can we imagine something that contains within it a “vast, ideally universal collection of information and instantaneous access to that information wherever it physically resides”? (O’Donnell, 1994) Although the World Wide Web was present in 1994 when O’Donnell wrote this article, it was in its infancy. At the end of 1993 there were exactly 623 websites and at the end of 1994 there were 10 022. (Gray, 1996) Regardless of the exponential rate at which the World Wide Web expanded just in the course of the year O’Donnell wrote this article, he preemptively dismissed it.

O’Donnell cannot imagine a place that can hold all of world’s knowledge because that place has never existed before. The earliest example that O’Donnell can find is from the second century BC where the ambition is to gather together all of the books of the world, into one collection. (O’Donnell, 1994) The task was impossible. There are numerous examples which O’Donnell draws upon throughout history that prove the same thing, all the world’s knowledge cannot be contained. Any culture that has tried to contain all of the world’s knowledge in one place are “always far short of anything that might be considered a totality of output of the written word for even a brief period.” (O’Donnell, 1994)

So, in the midst of the information age, have we done it? A post on Reddit reads, “If someone from the 1950s suddenly appeared today, what would be the most difficult thing to explain to them about life today?” The response that received the most upvotes was, “I possess a device, in my pocket, that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man. I use it to look at pictures of cats and get in arguments with strangers.” (Baraniuk, 2013) Although the response is laden with hyperbole there is now a sense that we can access anything and everything on the internet. It is, in fact, a “vast … universal collection of information and instantaneous access to that information wherever it physically resides.” (O’Donnell, 1994) We cannot say that the internet holds the entirety of the world’s knowledge but it is vast, universal and instantaneous.

The problem is not that the virtual library is unattainable, it is that the internet is a virtual library of the written word and so much more. O’Donnell predicted that the internet would have “as many publishers as readers” which has come true especially if communicating via social networking is a form of publishing. (O’Donnell, 1994) He writes, “[t]he possibility even of imagining totality in such a world rapidly disintegrates” and he is right and wrong. (O’Donnell, 1994) There were 51 million new websites created in 2012. (Pingdom, 2013) ( Many will disappear eventually but few will disappear entirely due to projects like the that save old copies of current and defunct websites. However is totality desirable? In 2008, Google had more than a trillion web pages in its index and even simple searches show millions of webpages that fit a query. (Alpert & Hajaj, 2008) Totality is absurd not because it seems impossible but because it seems possible.

O’Donnell writes, “one of the most valuable functions of the traditional library has been not its inclusivity but its exclusivity, its discerning judgment that keeps out as many things as it keeps in.” (O’Donnell, 1994) He worries that if data is limitless then we will be overwhelmed and again, he is right and wrong. It turns out that we are learning how to assess all the information we have at our fingertips and tools like Google are getting smarter at helping us wade through it all. The information available is not a free-for-all, it is searchable and we are coping quite well. There is evidence, however, that our brains are changing because of it. In 2010, on the topic of how the internet is changing the way you think, O’Donnell wrote, “But just for myself, just for now, it’s my fingers I notice. Ask me a good question today and I find that I begin fiddling.” (O’Donnell, 2010) He goes on to write that it is second nature to search the internet before answering a question. He acknowledges that this world of instant information that many, “ignore what they do not wish to think about, select what they wish to quote, and produce a public discourse demonstrably poorer that what we might have known in the past.” (O’Donnell, 2010) Our overabundance of information brings with it good and bad.

To quote O’Donnell once again, “all the criticisms and cautions expressed [about the printing press]  … intended to preserve powerful social institutions, turned out to be accurate and valid.” (O’Donnell, 1994) We finally have our virtual library, it isn’t perfect and it has come with some negative consequences but we are getting used to having the world at our fingertips. O’Donnell has made many criticisms of the future of technology and many of them have turned out to be true and yet the values that the electronic medium seemed to threaten back in 1994, “it turned out that the new medium could easily afford to look after them.” (O’Donnell, 1994)


Baraniuk, C. (2013). The Machine Starts: How Information Technology is Changing Humanity Bit by Bit. The Promise of Technology. Retrieved from

Gray, M. K. (1996). Web Growth Summary. Retrieved from

Pingdom (2013) Internet 2012 in numbers. Retrieved from

Alpert, J., & Hajaj, N. (2008). GoogleBlog. We knew the web was big… . Retrieved from

O’Donnell, J. J. (1994) The Virtual Library: An Idea Whose Time Has Passed. Retrieved from

O’Donnell, J. J. (2010) Edge. 2010: How is the Internet Changing the Way You Think? Retrieved from

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