Voices From The Past Reflecting On The Future (Number 1): Charles Beldon & The Unification of Knowledge

February 17, 2014, 2:28 pm

Are we preoccupied with the future? There appears to be a steady stream of articles, books, blog posts, webinars, conference presentations, and other media centered on this theme. It seems we are all fairly focused on what’s next.

I’m guilty myself; the future can be intoxicating. This week I want to offer perspective from a different set of voices. A recent project took me deep into the archives of library lit and along the way I discovered some interesting speculation about the future from librarians in the past. Each day this week I’ll highlight a different visionary who helped shape the profession.

Charles Beldon
First up is Charles Beldon who was a library leader in 1920’s and 30’s. He gave a president’s speech at the 1926 annual meeting celebrating the 50th anniversary of the American Library Association.

During this era libraries were considered a movement. Public libraries as we know them were still taking shape. Beldon reflects that since ALA formed there had been three major advancements: open stacks, the ability to take books home, and social programming such as story hour. All of these things are taken for granted today but these were the battles that our predecessors fought over for many decades.

After acknowledging this progress, Beldon imagines the future:

Libraries will “no longer to be measured by the books on the shelves of any one library, but which through organization, coordination of resources, and whole-hearted cooperation will extend from town to city, to state, to country, and will finally bring within reach the knowledge of the whole civilized world.”

“It is no idle dream to believe that fifty years hence libraries everywhere will be so closely linked together that, throughout the length and breadth of the country, even the smallest local library will be prepared to provide the best of expert service to adolescent and adult.”

“Before the end of another fifty years we shall see the compilation of a world catalog of all existing books, with their locations. At no distant date this catalog and the rotograph or photostat will be the most important links in that unification of the sources of knowledge by which the libraries will be placed in a position to bring every book to every man.”

The point isn’t to focus on the tech cited but instead on the implied goal.

This was radical stuff. Remember: 1926! Electrification was still relativity new. There were no computers. Television was still being tweaked. Movies were still silent. And automobiles were ramping up for mass production. The world was going through a dramatic technological and social transformation. This was the decade of optimism – anything was possible.

The Roaring 20’s are commonly associated with jazz music, flapper fashions, and prohibition, but also witnessed many sci-tech advancements such as frozen food, robots, and insulin. And within that excitement we have librarians talking about connecting all of the world’s information and making it available to everyone anywhere. WorldCat. Interlibrary Loan. Google Books. HathiTrust. Project Gutenberg. We’ve spent the last century building an infrastructure that was imagined nearly a century ago.

What I am particularly drawn to is his notion of access to works, not just identification. This vision goes being cataloging the world’s information, but aims to put it in people’s hands.

At some point I want to circle back and learn more about Beldon and his contemporaries. I’m curious to explore the beginning of our professional desire to unify knowledge and bring everything to everyone. How did we take that evolutionary leap from a building of books to the aspiration of providing access to every book in the world?

BPL: can we get Beldon’s papers scanned?

Update: thanks to @kboughida for the Paul Otlet reference: video

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