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Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Libraries: Past, Present, Future. An address by Marshall McLuhan, 1970

Libraries: Past, Present, Future. An Address delivered by Marshall McLuhan at the Geneseo State College Library School, New York State, on July 3, 1970 for the 13th annual Mary C. Richardson lectures series. Typescript, 32 leaves.

 From the mid-1960s into the 1970s, Marshall McLuhan was sought out as a speaker across North America. The media theorist had coined the famous expression “the medium is the message,” categorized media as “hot” or “cool,” and spoke of an interconnected world as a “global village.” His ideas were controversial and often expressed in a somewhat ambiguous or aphoristic style. One of his messages about the dominance in contemporary society of electronic media, especially television, to the detriment of printed books and newspapers, gave many librarians cause for concern about the future of libraries and traditional print media. Canada’s National Librarian, W.K. Lamb, refused to believe that the book was becoming obsolete. In an interview, he held that the books could be reproduced using computerized telecommunications and that libraries would use computing to automate catalogues to make books available for loan (Ottawa Citizen, 17 June 1967). Daniel Gore, in a November 1970 issue of American Libraries, said, “McLuhan is merely a recent example of the learned man who despises books; the phenomenon itself is ancient.”  Robert B. Downs, in his Books That Changed America, published by Macmillan in 1970, completely rejected McLuhan assertions on the declining fortune of print: “Denigrators of books, such as Marshall McLuhan, would have us believe that books are obsolescent, being rapidly superseded by the newer media. Thus they would hold that books have had their day—possibly significant and influential in earlier eras, but now on the way to becoming museum pieces” by citing the societal impact of popular authors Rachel Carson and Ralph Nader.

Mary Richardson, c.1933
    Yet, McLuhan’s use of the hot-button word “obsolete” pointed more to the trend that printed media were less ascendant and subject to changing technology rather than non-usage and extinction. He made this point in his address at the School of Library Science at the State University College of New York College in Geneseo in July 1970. Geneseo was a liberal arts college which had conferred American Library Association fully-accredited library degrees since the Second World War. The special occasion was the thirteen annual Mary C. Richardson Lecture, named in honour of a former departmental director who had a special interest in school libraries. Dr. Richardson was Librarian and Head of the Geneseo Library Education Department from 1917–1941. McLuhan clarified his remarks about obsolescence briefly:

I have been saying that the book and printing are obsolete for some years. Many people interpret this to mean that printing and the book are about to disappear. Obsolescence, in fact, means the exact opposite. It means that a service has become so pervasive that it permeates every area of a culture like the vernacular itself. Obsolescence, in short, ensures total acceptance and every wider use. (28)

    McLuhan’s use of obsolescence on a broader scale referred to traditional media adapting to technological change by changing their form or usage. Henry Campbell, the chief librarian at Toronto Public Library, picked up on this point when McLuhan’s fame was accelerating. Writing in the May 1965 issue of the Wilson Library Bulletin, he posed the question: “Some of us in Canada are asking: Are libraries hot or cool? Is there a place for libraries in an electronic culture, one of simultaneity, or are they by their very nature trapped in a linear and nonsensory mold that spells their doom?” Campbell did not answer, but he suggested librarians must raise questions about knowledge in all its aspects to know more about librarianship as a profession.

    The Geneseo talk to students and faculty concentrated on the history and current state of libraries in a wide-ranging McLuhanesque fashion. He linked the history of libraries to different eras of media formats—ancient clay tablets and scrolls, medieval codices and manuscripts, the Gutenberg print revolution that enabled rapid knowledge sharing, and the 20th-century electronic environment. As McLuhan saw it, “One of the revolutionary effects of Gutenberg for libraries was that the printed book was both portable and expendable. Uniform and repetitive or mass produced commodities had their beginning with the printed book. The Gutenberg technology of union, moveable types became the pattern and exemplar for all subsequent forms of mass production.” (22) Libraries of all types in the modern sense, he believed, began to flourish with the mass-produced book with an emphasis on the problems of storage and systems of book classification (23). Now, “the paperless, or software library, brings the Gutenberg assembly line of movable types into an altogether new circle of magical effects.” (26) These effects, the new speed of electronic transmission applied to the traditional book, would result in its “strange alternation of use and function. (28) Further,

With the multitude of new forms of photography and reprography, the diversities of utterance and self-outering [sic] have come into being. On the one hand, pictures supplant a great deal of verbal expression and, on the other hand, the verbal acquires an extraordinary new range of resonance and implications. (31)

    McLuhan was less prescriptive about the future of the libraries. To be sure, libraries would continue to exist, but the effects of the all-pervasive electronic world would lead to the release of unknown intents or controls, like the trends and processes unknowingly released by Gutenberg more than five centuries before. McLuhan was forecasting the influence of powerful global media that would erode geographic boundaries and cultural insularity. At Geneseo, he hinted that libraries would continue to connect authors with readers just as they had in the small departmental English library he had used as an undergraduate at Cambridge many years before.

Further Reading:

Parts of the McLuhan 1970 address are incorporated in R.K. Logan and M. McLuhan, The Future of the Library: From Electric Media to Digital Media (New York: Peter Lang, 2016). This book reproduces and supplements an unpublished manuscript dating to 1979 that McLuhan and Logan co-authored.

An earlier talk by Marshall McLuhan to Ontario librarians is the subject of one of my earlier blogs.