Daniel Bell, who passed away Tuesday (obituaries here and here), first became widely known for his book The End of Ideology. An “ardent appraiser” of our lives in information, he also wrote (in 1980) about the “End of the Alexandrian Library”: “Clearly, if the explosion in information continues, it cannot be handled by present means. If by 1985 the volume of information is four (low estimate) or seven times (high estimate) that of 1970, then some other way must be found to organize this onslaught of babel. In one of these pleasant exercises that statisticians like to undertake, it is estimated that under present projections, the Yale University Library would need a permanent staff of 6000 persons in the year 2040 to cope with the books and research reports that would be coming annually into the library….. Obviously, the information explosion can only be handled through the expansion of computerized and subsequently automated information systems…. the range of the Alexandrian Library – the single building like the Bibliotheque Nationale, the British Museum or The Library of Congress – where all the world’s recorded knowledge is housed in one building may become a sad monument of the printed past. Data-based stores of information, especially in the scientific and technical field, will come from specialized information centres, transmitted through computer printouts, facsimile, or video display to the user, who will have consulted an index through online searching to locate items of interest and then order them on demand.
All this proposes two things. One, the creation of large-scale networks in which a national system is built through the linkage of specialized centres. And two, the automation of data banks, so that basic scientific and technical data… can be retrieved directly from computers and transmitted to the user. But both suppositions raise two very different problems. One is the intellectual question of the distinction between programming a data-base, and constructing a program for use as a knowledge base. Retrieving some census items from a data-base is a simple matter; but finding kindred and analogous conceptual terms – the handling of ideas – raises all the problems that were first encountered, and never successfully solved, in the effort to achieve sophisticated machine translation of languages. … A more mundane yet sociologically important problem is the lack of a national information policy on science and technical information, let alone on library resources generally…. if science information is the end product of the $35 billion annual investment that the nation makes in research and development, and information, broadly defined, accounts for almost fifty percent of the gross national product, then some coherent national policy is in order.”
— Daniel Bell, “The Social Framework of the Information Society,” in Tom Forrester (ed.), The Microelectronic Revolution, 1980.