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Imagining a Library 100 Years in the Future (1883)

In 1883 Charles Ammi Cutter, Librarian of the Boston Atheneum, and author of Cutter Expansive Classification, published a short story entitled The Buffalo Public Library in 1983. In it he predicted how a library would operate one hundred years into the future. Here is a selection:

“ 'But what,' he continued, 'will be a novelty to you, is the listening-room, where works, of which we have fonografic editions prepared by the best readers, are read by machines, often to crowded audiences. The rooms are distributed all over the city, fifty or more, and we are intending to increase the number. People go to them with their whole families, except to those where smoking is allowed, which are frequented for the most part by men alone. There they listen to the reading of a story or an entertaining history or biografy, or book of travels, or a work of popular science. Sometimes one work occupies the whole evening, sometimes selections are read. The program for the whole city is advertised in the papers each day. The reading-machines have reached such a pitch of perfection that it is as if one were listening to an agreeable elocutionist. I prefer to do my own reading, but there are many whose eyes are weak, or who do not read with ease, or have not comfortable homes, or do not own the book that is to be read, or prefer to listen in company. We are very particular about the ventilation. We do not want any one to go to sleep.” I asked him whether he thought these readings gave any real instruction, or only amusement. He admitted that an exciting novel would draw better than anything else, but said that they did not allow the selection to run too much to fiction. 'In the circulation of books we have to follow the public taste, but in these listening-rooms we have the matter more in our control. Of course we must select bright books which the people will come to hear. Dull books must be rigidly excluded; but that is not difficult, because no dull book is published in reading-machine editions. Yes, I think a great deal of information is spread that way, and at any rate they are a valuable rival to the dram-shops, and keep many a young man out of bad places. The readings are usually in the evening. Where a school-room is used for the purpose it must be so; but, for our own branches, we have a rule that if ten people ask for a reading in the day-time it shall be granted, with any book they choose. When trade is dull there are readings going on all day.'

"I omit many details in which their ways did not differ much from ours, — the book-trucks, the fall-power lifts just large enough for one person, the means of communication between all parts of the building by telefone or pneumatic tubes, or in any other way that the situation required. Their intention was to make the work easy and quick, and to reduce time and space as nearly as possible to zero. I cannot stop to describe the arrangements for allowing the public access to the shelves. But I may mention that the library was open every day in the year, without any exception; that one study-room was kept open as late at night as anybody wanted it, and on several occasions, when there was a special need, it had been kept open all night.

“ 'One other practical point: The fonograf,' I was told, 'plays a great part in our library work. If Boston or Philadelphia has a rare book from which we wish extracts, instead of having it sent on with the risk of loss, we have a fonografic foil made of the desired passages, which are read off to us, or, if we pay a little more, are sent on. In the latter case, a duplicate, made by a new process, is kept at the library, so that librarians gradually accumulate fonografic reproductions of all their rarest books, and when they are called for have only to put the foil in the machine and have it read off through the wires to the end of the Union. All the libraries in the country, you see, are practically one library.' ”