The Future of the Library: Where it’s at

Future of the Library book cover
The Future of the Library: From Electric Media to Digital Media
Robert K. Logan and Marshall McLuhan

Chapter 9 : The Compact Library and Human Scale

As an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge, I (McLuhan) encountered a library in the English Department that had immense advantages. I never have seen one like it since. It consisted of no more than 1,500 or 2,000 books. These books, however, were chosen from many fields of history and aesthetics, philosophy, anthropology, mathematics, and the sciences in general. The one criterion, which determined the presence of any book in this collection, was the immediate and top relevance for twentieth-century awareness.  The shelf-browser could tell at a glance exactly which poets, novelists, critics, painters, and which of their individual writings were indispensable for knowing “where it’s at.”

Where It’s At (It = The Environment)

This remarkable phrase “where it’s at” may be the only one in any language to express the idea of both corporate consensus and sensory focus — a kind of “consensuality” of persons, places, and things in a single instant of awareness.  This phrase, invented by young rock musicians to indicate areas of relevance and aliveness in the present time, is, of course, an acoustic, resonant expression, quite alien to anything like “clock time.” Nothing could be further away from “where’s it at” than “time of day” or “time of year.” The English language has gone without even a corporate word for the French on. Now we have this phrase, which is enormously more sophisticated in its aesthetic range and sensibility.

The library of which I spoke existed in a corner of the English Faculty Library at Cambridge, but it enabled hundreds of students to share all the relevant poets, painters, critics, musicians, and scientists of that time as a basis for an ongoing dialog. Would it not be possible to have similar libraries created by other departments in the university? Could not the History Department indicate those areas of anthropology and sociology that were indispensable to the most advanced historical studies of the hour? Could not the Department of Philosophy pool its awareness of many fields in order to create a composite image of all the relevant of many fields in order to create a composite image of all the relevant speculation and discovery of our time? Only now have I begun to realize that this unique library represented the meeting of both a written and oral tradition at an ancient university. It is this figure-ground pattern of the written and the oral that completes the meaning of the book and the library.