The Future of the Library

From Electric Media to Digital Media

by Robert K. Logan (Author) Marshall McLuhan (Author)
©2016 Textbook XVI, 238 Pages
Series: Understanding Media Ecology, Volume 3


Originally written in the late 1970s, this book was untouched for more than 35 years. McLuhan passed away before it went to press, but Logan always intended to finish it. Even though much has changed in the three decades since work on the project was halted, many of the points that McLuhan and Logan made in the era of ‘electric media’ are highly cogent in the era of ‘digital media.’
Looking at the future of the library from the perspective of McLuhan’s original vision, Logan has carefully updated the text to address the impact of the Internet and other digital technologies on the library. McLuhan prophetically foreshadowed the transformative effect that computing would have on «mass library organization,» saying it would become obsolescent. It is perhaps no coincidence that a key theme of the book is that libraries must strive to create context given today’s hyper information overload. The authors believe this task can be achieved by putting together a compact library of books providing an overview of human culture and scholarship.
This book is based on the original text that McLuhan and Logan wrote. Logan’s updates are integrated in the main text and clearly identified by markers. This preserves the flow of the original text and at the same time provides updates in the context of the original study. Other significant updates include two new chapters: Chapter 6 provides a LOM (Laws of the Media) treatment of the new post-McLuhan digital media, and Chapter 7 discusses the impact of these media on today’s library. A second part to the concluding Chapter has been added to update some of the conclusions reached in 1979, and there is also a new preface.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • A Note to Readers
  • Original 1979 Preface
  • 2015 Preface
  • Chapter 1. The Library: The Physical Extension of Man’s Memory (Mother of the Muses)—A Study of Media
  • Chapter 2. Alphabet, Mother of Invention
  • Chapter 3. The Library: A Figure in Many Different Grounds
  • Part II: Understanding the New Ground of the Library
  • Chapter 4. Laws of the Media (Lom) and the Library
  • Chapter 5. The Impact of Electricity and Modern Technology on the Library
  • Chapter 6. Laws of the Media for Post-McLuhan Digital Media
  • Chapter 7. The Impact of Digital Technology on the Library
  • Chapter 8. Book Glut, Information Overload, and Pattern Recognition
  • Chapter 9. The Compact Library and Human Scale
  • Chapter 10. The Public Library: Past, Present, and Future Trends
  • Chapter 11. The Library and Education
  • Chapter 12. Future of the Book
  • Chapter 13. Library Futures: Summing Up
  • References
  • Author Index
  • Subject Index

← vi | vii →


All the chapters of this book were co-authored by Marshall McLuhan and Robert K. Logan with the exception of 2015 preface, chapters 6 and 7, and part 2 of chapter 13, which were authored by Robert K. Logan in 2015. The original material co-authored by McLuhan and Logan circa 1979 is presented unedited exactly as it was written then. However, Robert K. Logan has inserted parenthetical remarks to this material to bring it up to date where necessary or to comment on the 1979 material from a 2015 perspective. These parenthetical remarks are encased in {curly brackets}, with the bracketed text in italic. This book was rescued from the National Archive of Canada and is missing the page numbers of many of the quotes, for which I apologize. McLuhan and I were not very careful about those details in our first draft of the book. I am afraid that information was lost in the 36 years it took to make this book public. ← vii | viii →

← viii | ix →


This is the original preface McLuhan and Logan wrote sometime in 1979, to which has been added the mention of the two new chapters 6 and 7.

In part I (chapters 1–3), we develop the tools of media study, drawing upon McLuhan’s earlier work. This section also contains historical sketches of the development of the alphabet, literature, and the library, using the tools of media study.

Part II (chapters 4–7) examines the effects of modern technology and information overload on the contemporary library. The impact on the library of the media of electronic telecommunications and the new information environment they create is also studied {including in chapters 6 and 7 the new digital media that McLuhan never had a chance to witness}. In view of the changed environment in which the library now functions, it is necessary to rethink and redefine the notion of the library. The future of the library, while constrained to a certain extent by its technology and social context, will be determined by what librarians wish it to become.

In part III (chapters 8–12), we outline the directions for the future development of the library that we would like to see occur. Our proposals include the incorporation of the oral tradition in the libraries’ activities, the return to human scale, and the creation of and widespread dissemination of the ← ix | x → compact library, a collection of approximately 2,000 volumes that survey and review all the learning of mankind. Our suggestions are presented as probes for further debate, deliberation, and consideration, and not as a detailed blueprint for revamping the library.

In part IV (chapter 13), we summarize our findings.

← x | xi →


Robert K. Logan

A history of how this book came into being is important for readers to understand before they tackle the reading of this book co-authored by Marshall McLuhan and me in two stages. The book is a hybrid of the book that Marshall McLuhan and I wrote in the years between 1976 and 1979 and the supplemental text that I wrote in 2015. The original book lay untouched during the thirty-six years between 1979 and 2015. Let me share how this current edition of the book came into being, beginning with how I came to collaborate with McLuhan in the first place.

The story begins in 1974 when I first met Marshall McLuhan as a physics professor whose research up to that point had been almost entirely in elementary particle physics but with interests in interdisciplinary studies. I was organizing at that time a seminar on future studies at New College in the University of Toronto, having just spent three months working with Ivan Illich in Cuernavaca, Mexico. I called the seminar the Club of Gnu after the college mascot, the gnu, and the hot futures studies nongovernmental organization (NGO) at the time, the Club of Rome, which had just commissioned the study titled Limits to Growth. I first recruited Arthur Porter, a systems thinker, the Chair of Industrial Engineering, and, as I later learned, the Associate Director of McLuhan’s Centre for Culture and Technology. Porter was happy to join ← xi | xii → the seminar and help in its organization. He immediately suggested including McLuhan. Porter telephoned McLuhan and told him that I was organizing a futures seminar, which McLuhan eventually joined. McLuhan immediately asked Porter if I was the Bob Logan who taught the course The Poetry of Physics and the Physics of Poetry. Once this was confirmed McLuhan told Porter, “Send Logan over for lunch; I want to talk to him.”

As we two sat at lunch McLuhan asked me what I had learned teaching my course, The Poetry of Physics. I responded by saying I was trying to understand why abstract science began in Europe despite the fact that the Chinese invented so much of technology as I had learned by reading Joseph Needham’s book The Grand Titration, where Needham documents the many contributions the Chinese made to the development of the Scientific Revolution. I told McLuhan I was working on the idea that perhaps abstract science arose in Europe because it was in Europe that there was a tradition of monotheism and codified law, which in turn gave rise to the notion of universal law, a key ingredient for abstract science. The Chinese are spiritual but not monotheistic and they have laws but they are not codified. McLuhan nodded approvingly and then asked, “What else do we have in the West that is not present in China?” I was so intimidated by this great scholar that I suffered a brain freeze and told McLuhan I did not know. When he blurted out, “The alphabet, of course,” I let out a great groan because I immediately remembered how he had connected alphabetic writing to abstract science and deductive logic. During the remainder of that lunch we sketched out our first paper together, Alphabet, Mother of Invention (McLuhan & Logan, 1977), which is described in the next chapter. We basically suggested that codified law, the alphabet, monotheism, abstract science, and deductive logic created an environment for their mutual development. That was the beginning of our collaboration that lasted to the end of his life.

Neil Postman, the editor of the journal ETC: A Review of General Semantics, published by the International Society for General Semantics, quickly accepted the article, “Alphabet, Mother of Invention,” for publication. Marshall and I planned to write a book based on this article. Then one day he announced that he had found a publisher interested in our planned book and that I was to come to the Coach House the following Monday to meet the publisher. At that meeting an acquisition editor from Bowker Publishing, a publisher of books about libraries as well as books for librarians, asked us to describe our project. McLuhan described our alphabet project to which the acquisition editor retorted, “I think we have two books here, the one you ← xii | xiii → want to write and the one I came to commission you to do on the future of the library.” In desperation I asked, “Well how could one organize a library without an alphabet?” McLuhan seized on this remark and spent the next fifteen minutes connecting the operations of the library to the alphabet. When he was finished the editor said, “Well I think we have three books now, the third being a book on the future of the library and its relation to the alphabet.” He commissioned us to do that book right on the spot.

Marshall and I began to work on this project, which resulted in the first incarnation of this book. Sadly, he fell to a stroke in the fall of 1979 that left him aphasic, and he passed away on December 31, 1980. I stopped work on the library project and instead turned to our original plan to write about the alphabet and as a consequence wrote The Alphabet Effect, which was first published in 1984 and again in 2004. I never returned to the library project because the alphabet study led to a series of studies and books including The Fifth Language (1995); The Sixth Language (2004b); The Extended Mind (2007); Understanding New Media (2010a); McLuhan Misunderstood (2012); and What Is Information? (2014).

Our original manuscript lay fallow. The National Archive of Canada collected it, where it sat unnoticed until last year when I had two requests to share it by scholars who had discovered it, I assume, through using a search engine. In 2014 Matthew Lamb, the editor of the Australian journal Island, based in Hobart, Tasmania, commissioned me to write an article about the library manuscript McLuhan and I wrote. That article appeared in 2015 in volume 140 of the Island. With the newfound expression of interest in The Future of the Library, I decided to return to our library project, something I had always intended to do. Naturally much has happened in the world of libraries in the thirty-six years since work on the project was halted.

The most significant changes to the library, as well as the ground or environment in which it operates, has been the emergence of digital media, by which I mean the personal computer, the Internet, the World Wide Web, the highly portable notebook computer, the smartphone, the tablet, and the many Internet and Web applications such as email, Web sites, search engines, blogs, YouTube, Flickr, Instagram, Facebook, and Wikipedia to mention a few of the more popular ones. It is the emergence of these new media that require the many additions to the manuscript that I have added given the radical impact these digital media have had on libraries. In 1979 McLuhan prophetically foreshadowed the transformative effect that computing would have on “mass library organization” when he wrote the following lines: ← xiii | xiv →

A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve individual encyclopedic function and flip into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind. (1995, pp. 295–296)


XVI, 238
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (February)
Digital Technology Library Public Library Education History of the media
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. XVI, 238 pp., num. b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Robert K. Logan (Author) Marshall McLuhan (Author)

Robert K. Logan (PhD., MIT, 1965) is Professor Emeritus of Physics and St. Michael’s College Fellow at the University of Toronto. He is the Chief Scientist of sLab at OCAD University. He is the author of many books and articles including Understanding New Media: Extending Marshall McLuhan (Peter Lang, 2010). The book follows on from their joint authorship of Alphabet, mother of invention (1977). Marshall McLuhan (PhD Cambridge, 1943) was a Professor of English at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto from 1946 to his passing in 1980. He was the founder of the field of media ecology and author of many revolutionary books and articles including The Gutenberg Galaxy, Understanding Media and The Medium is the Massage. He is the originator of such iconic phrases as «the global village» and «the medium is the message.»


Title: The Future of the Library