The old British Museum reading room provided an architectural interface to the vast book stacks that lay beyond. From outside, the classical, columnar facade functioned as an icon-signifier of an access point. From within the circular, domed reading room (which looks in plan like a sectored hard disk), books could be summoned up by the action of specifying a call number. Library attendants would then retrieve volumes from the stacks for use at a reading table. (In later years, tourists would come to look for the very table at which Karl Marx sat absorbing vast amounts of printed information and transforming it into a blueprint for revolution.) The cycle would be completed by performing the task of reshelving the books until they were needed again. Functionally, the whole thing was a very large, very slow version of what computer technicians now know as a database server: you send requests, and you get back items of stored information.
This highly refined functional diagram was the outcome of a long evolutionary process. 8 In early libraries, with small numbers of volumes, books had lined the walls of the reading room. Later, as the ratio of book storage to reading space changed, the book stacks were separated from the reading rooms and increasingly became the dominant spatial element; the new type was clearly emerging in Leopoldo della Santa's 1816 theoretical project for a library. 9 By the time that Karl Friedrich Schinkel produced his Berlin Staatsbibliothek project in 1835-36, it seemed logical to propose a huge, rectangular block of gridded stack space with a grand public stair in the center and access stairs at the four corners. And in 1854-56, when Sydney Smirke designed his rotunda for insertion into the older fabric of the British Museum, the book stacks became a huge, separate iron structure.
Popular graphical user interfaces of personal computers function in much the same way as Smirke's careful architectural arrangements. Icons are arrayed on the screen, like doorways along a street, to make visible the available access points. Clicking on an icon (like knocking on a door) puts the user in a space-in this case a rectangular "window" on the screen-from which files of information can be requested. In response to user requests, software routines retrieve files from the disk, display them on the screen for inspection and manipulation, and perhaps eventually rewrite them back to the disk.
Now extrapolate from this small-scale example and imagine a 10-million-volume, digital, online, humanities research library. 10 (For comparison, the Library of Congress had nearly 15 million volumes on 550 miles of shelves in the early 1990s, the British Library had about 12 million on a couple of hundred miles, and Harvard's Widener had about 3.5 million.) 11 The catalogue would be available on the network. Volumes or chapters might be downloaded to a scholar's personal workstation in a minute or two, then displayed or laser-printed as required. (It matters little where the digital volumes physically reside-just that they can be accessed efficiently-and they occupy little physical space anyway. The collection's existence would not be celebrated architecturally, as the grandiose mass of Widener celebrates the accumulative power of Harvard.) This library would never close. Those addicted to the look and feel of tree flakes encased in dead cow (and prepared to pay for it) would not have to kick the habit; elegant physical volumes could automatically be generated on demand. Nothing would ever be checked out, in somebody else's carrel, lost, or in the limbo of the reshelving cart. Old volumes could live out their days in safe and dignified retirement in climate-controlled book museums. And the librarians could run backups (look what happened to the Library of Alexandria, where they didn't have a way to do it!).
The task facing the designers of this soft library is a transformation (with some invariants, but many radical changes) of what faced the Smirke brothers and the librarian Panizzi as they evolved the design for the British Museum and Library. 12 The facade is not to be constructed of stone and located on a street in Bloomsbury, but of pixels on thousands of screens scattered throughout the world. Organizing book stacks and providing access to them turns into a task of structuring a database and providing search and retrieval routines. Reading tables become display windows on screens. Resources are made available to the public by allowing anyone to log in and by providing computer workstations in public places, rather than by opening reading room doors. The huge stacks shrink to almost negligible size, the seats and carrels disperse, and there is nothing left to put a grand facade on.
It will not be possible to tell tourists where some Marx of the next millennium sat. All that is solid melts in air.