The Memex and the Academic Mind | Academic Librarian 2012-09-19


In a July 1945 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Vannevar Bush, then Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development for the United States government, published As We May Think, in which he laid out the plans for a machine he dubbed the Memex... a computer-like apparatus, a large desk with both a viewing screen and a screen for writing with a stylus. The insides would hold thousands of reels of microfilm, and researchers using the Memex could read the microfilm on the viewing screen and both annotate and make connections between microfilm pages (similar to hyperlinking). The Memex has been hailed as thought precursor to the personal computer, and in Libraries and the Enlightenment... I discuss it as an example of a universal library scheme, that is, a way to make all the world’s information accessible to humans. However... one interesting thing about Bush’s conception of the Memex for librarians is the insight it gives into the academic mind and its relationship to information.  In ‘As We May Think,’ Bush worries about the ‘growing mountain of research... ‘The investigator,’ he writes, ‘is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers—conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear...’  Bush noted that ‘our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose...’ The Memex was intended to help solve that problem.  In a later 1959 essay, ‘Memex II,’ he goes on about the ease of actually acquiring material for research: ‘Professional societies will no longer print papers. Instead they will send him lists of titles with brief abstracts. And he can then order individual papers... Still later, in ‘Memex Revisited’ (1965), he exhibited the practical thinking of the scientist in terms of materials, but not other costs.  He noted that the ‘material for a microfilm private library might cost a nickel, and it could be mailed anywhere for a few cents.…’ As with the current debate about ebook pricing, Bush implies that the cost of information lay primarily in its medium, ignoring the costs of the information production itself... However, the expectation that Bush has is typically academic, even today. Information just appears, either as soon as we want it or a few days later. Barriers to information are either nonexistent or irrelevant. The question is whether this is a naive expectation or not...  Some librarians would certainly consider it naive... But what about whether barriers to information are irrelevant? I think this is less naive, and in fact I think this expectation drives the entire academic research enterprise, including that of academic libraries. Librarians have spent decades building research collections and resource-sharing networks to make it seem like information just appears for researchers. Recent polls suggest that this is the primary function of the library for researchers: we buy stuff... the technological barriers to information have almost completely been eliminated. For Bush, getting the information organized and hyperlinked was the real problem, but that problem has been solved.  The only thing beginning to change... is that some researchers are becoming more aware of the economic and legal barriers to information. The Elsevier boycott has spread the word some... Lawsuits against universities to stop professors sharing articles with their students... have gained some negative publicity. And the rise of gold-open access journals is starting to clue some researchers in to the cost of publication...  Nevertheless, there’s still the expectation that information should just be provided, even for the non-academically affiliated. It’s an expectation many of us have because it underlies the entire ethos of scholarship... I believe the academic information expectation will somehow overcome the commercial information exploitation... That’s not the same thing as saying information, even scholarly information, will be free, which is impossible. Only that the costs of that information will not be significantly more than is necessary to sustain it and the profits won’t be squeezed from researchers providing the information and editing for free while restricting access for researchers whose libraries can’t afford exorbitant costs...”


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Open Access Tracking Project (OATP) »

Tags: oa.business_models oa.publishers oa.comment oa.universities oa.advocacy oa.signatures oa.petitions oa.boycotts oa.elsevier oa.libraries oa.costs oa.books oa.litigation oa.librarians oa.prices oa.profits oa.budgets oa.colleges oa.economics_of oa.memex oa.hei oa.journals

Date tagged:

09/19/2012, 20:20

Date published:

09/19/2012, 16:20