The Memex and the Academic Mind

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. The Memex was what we would now think of as 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 (a perfect holiday gift for the librarian in your life!) 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 (and I also mention this in the book), 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” and the danger that researchers were “being bogged down today as specialization extends.”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. Yet specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial.” 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” and that “that publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record.” The Memex was intended to help solve that problem.

In a later 1959 essay, “Memex II,”[1] 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 of sets to come on tape, complete, of course, with photographs and diagrams” (172).  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.… The entire material of a private library in reduced film form would go on ten eight-and-one-half-by-eleven-inch sheets. Once that was available, with the reproduction methods now available, duplicates in large quantities could probably be turned out for a few cents apiece beyond the cost of materials” (208). 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. Microfilm is cheaper than print, so information will be cheaper, as people resist paying as much for ebooks today as they do for print books. If the cost of information were correlated with the cost of the medium of distribution, then digital books and articles would be nearly free, which of course they are not. [2]

Many professional societies indeed no longer print papers, but the bulk of publishing, at least in the sciences, is done by commercial publishers who certainly wouldn’t just send researchers scholarly articles for a few cents each. 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. We know better than anyone the cost of knowledge. Information doesn’t just appear. We make it appear, if we can. So the expectation that barriers to information are nonexistent is a bit 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. And with information technology far more advanced than what Bush could conceive of with his Memex, 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, and possibly for the better, is that some researchers are becoming more aware of the economic and legal barriers to information. The Elsevier boycott has spread the word some. Elsevier trying to block U.S. efforts to make publicly funded research available to the public were a public relations disaster. Lawsuits against universities to stop professors sharing articles with their students as they see fit 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. Even modest out-of-pocket expenses for OA journals can cause controversy, as evidenced by the long discussion here when the OA journal Philosopher’s Imprint decided to implement a $20 charge to submit articles (since revised to a request for a donation). Ignoring the question of whether charging a submission fee is morally permissible, you can get a sense from the discussion that a lot of people who benefit from OA journals (i.e., everyone not affiliated with a university) were the ones most opposed to even a small submission charge. 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. All scholars should have access to relevant scholarship, even if they don’t work for a rich university.

I’m not one to make predictions (well, except that Twitter and Facebook have already called the 2012 Presidential elections), but if I had to make one I would predict that eventually even the economic and legal barriers to scholarly information will be reduced enough to make access broader and more sustainable. For information seekers outside academia, I’m less sanguine, although I would love to see an extremely robust Digital Public Library of America succeed, more OA scholarly journals, and current copyright laws restricted to at least pre-1992 levels. But even some of this might be achievable for scholarly information. In other words, I believe the academic information expectation will somehow overcome the commercial information exploitation. Something has to give, and I don’t see it being the centuries-old expectations of publishing researchers who expect access to all other published research. Or perhaps I’m wrong, and we’ll enter even more of a black market culture where scholars at better funded institutions send copies of articles to less well off scholars.

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. Commercial publishers expect to make a profit; researchers expect universal access to scholarship. Somewhere there’s a middle ground. At least I hope there is.


[1] I couldn’t find either “Memex 2” or “Memex Revisited” online or even in microfilm to feed into my Memex. However, both are collected in the following volume: Bush, Vannevar, and James M. Nyce. From Memex to Hypertext : Vannevar Bush and the Mind’s Machine. Boston: Academic Press, 1991. The page numbers refer to this volume.

[2] Portions of the last two paragraphs are taken from: Bivens-Tatum, Wayne. Libraries and the Enlightenment. Los Angeles, CA: Library Juice Press, 2012.