The Library of the Future: A Vision of 1983 from 1883

Many visions of the future lie buried in the past. One such future was outlined by the American librarian Charles Ammi Cutter in his essay “The Buffalo Public Library in 1983”, written a century before in 1883.

Cutter’s fantasy, at times dry and descriptive, is also wonderfully precise:

The [library], when complete, was to consist of two parts, the first a central store, 150 feet square, a compact mass of shelves and passageways, lighted from the ends, but neither from sides nor top; the second an outer rim of rooms 20 feet wide, lighted from the four streets. In front and rear the rim was to contain special libraries, reading-rooms, and work-rooms; on the sides, the art-galleries. The central portion was a gridiron of stacks, running from front to rear, each stack 2 feet wide, and separated from its neighbor by a passage of 3 feet. Horizontally, the stack was divided by floors into 8 stories, each 8 feet high, giving a little over 7 feet of shelf-room, the highest shelf being so low that no book was beyond the reach of the hand. Each reading-room, 16 feet high, corresponded to two stories of the stack, from which it was separated in winter by glass doors.

The imagined structure allows for a vast accumulation of books:

We have now room for over 500,000 volumes in connection with each of the four reading-rooms, or 4,000,000 for the whole building when completed.

If his vision for Buffalo Public Library might be considered fairly modest from a technological point of view, when casting his net a little wider to consider a future National Library, one which “can afford any luxury”, things get a little more inventive.

[T]hey have an arrangement that brings your book from the shelf to your desk. You have only to touch the keys that correspond to the letters of the book-mark, adding the number of your desk, and the book is taken off the shelf by a pair of nippers and laid in a little car, which immediately finds its way to you. The whole thing is automatic and very ingenious…

But for Buffalo book delivery is a cheaper, simpler, and perhaps less noisy, affair.

… for my part I much prefer our pages with their smart uniforms and noiseless steps. They wear slippers, the passages are all covered with a noiseless and dustless covering, they go the length of the hall in a passage-way screened off from the desk-room so that they are seen only when they leave the stack to cross the hall towards any desk. As that is only 20 feet wide, the interruption to study is nothing.

Cutter’s fantasy might appear fairly mundane, born out of the fairly (stereo)typical neuroses of a librarian: in the prevention of all noise (through the wearing of slippers), the halting of the spread of illness (through good ventilation), and the disorder of the collection (through technological innovations).

In other utopian visions of the city, the library is often paramount. As Kavin Hayes has noted, in The Golden Bottle (1892) Ignatius Donnelly “imagined a reading room in every town hall, located at the center of each Utopian community, the remainder of the town being laid out in concentric circles. The utopian socialist Charles Fourier calculated that the library at the centre of his Phalanstère would amass 800,000 books with a natural encyclopaedia at its centre. In all of these accounts the library is a place where “civilisation” is preserved, displayed, and accessed. Other accounts highlight technological innovation as the heart of the utopian library. Edgar Chambless, for example, in Roadtown (1910), described “three underground railway lines situated one atop another with a single row of houses as long as the length of another railway located above ground. […] Roadtown residents submitted their library requests by telephone, and a mechanical carrier rapidly delivered the requested books”. The city imitates the library and vice versa.

Far from a wild utopian dream, today Cutter’s library of the future appears basic: there will be books and there will be clean air and there will be good lighting. One wonders what Cutter might make of the library today, in which the most basic dream remains perhaps the most radical: for them to remain in our lives, free and open, clean and bright.