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How close are we to realizing Vannevar Bush's dream of the Memex?

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Thomas R. Kochtanek, University of Missouri Columbia, USA

In this column we reflect on past information technology (IT) accomplishments within the profession, and ask ourselves questions about the current state development of IT applications within libraries, and those services we are able to provide to the end user.

"As we may think"

In 1945 Vannevar Bush published the oft cited article "As we may think" in The Atlantic Monthly. It was a piece that discussed the direction of technology in the aftermath of the Second World War. Bush was scientific adviser to President Roosevelt and to Harry Truman at the time he published the article, holding the title Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development. In his position Bush had privileged knowledge of an array of technologic developments, including the atomic bomb. His personal and professional interest was focused on harnessing technology in support of human services, and in capturing knowledge in a recorded and distributable format. Regardless of the fact that Bush was fixated on analogue technologies such as micro reprography (the digital computer had only recently been invented when he penned his text), his dream included the concept of a memex, or memory extender, likely stimulated by Orwell's notion of the Giant Brain from the science fiction realm.

The notion of selection

While not going into great detail about such an undertaking, Bush did outline those areas he felt needed solutions that were associated with the development of such a device. One of those cornerstones was the notion of selection from among the vast array of available resources. In his own words:

"The prime action of use is selection, and here we are halting indeed. There may be millions of fine thoughts, and the account of the experience on which they are based, all encased within stone walls of acceptable architectural form; but if the scholar can get at only one a week by diligent search, his syntheses are not likely to keep up with the current scene" (Bush, 1945).

In a following section Bush addresses the notion of representation of that selected content:

"The real heart of the matter of selection, however, goes deeper than a lag in the adoption of mechanisms by libraries, or a lack of development of devices for their use. Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing" (Bush, 1945).

By "indexing", Bush is referring to those efforts by professional librarians to represent the primary source content for subsequent retrieval by end users. He posits that we process information in a more heuristic fashion, not the procedural fashion used by most technologies of the current day. He goes on to discuss what one can arguably call "hyperlinking" and even uses the words "web of trails" that we are now so familiar with in our web-based environments.

An extension for the human memory

The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain (Bush 1945). This in turn leads to the notion of an extension for the human memory:

"Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, 'memex' will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory" (Bush, 1945).

In this paper written nearly six decades ago, Bush aptly identifies tasks that are still challenging designers of current information technologies that serve to deliver content to end users. Bush even had somewhat general views of what content might be included in his fictitious system:

"Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified" (Bush, 1945).

And Bush was not without opinion on the bigger picture of information retrieval and the ability to supplement the human mind with details:

"Presumably man's spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyse more completely and objectively his present problems. He has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records more fully if he is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion and not merely become bogged down part way there by overtaxing his limited memory. His excursions may be more enjoyable if he can reacquire the privilege of forgetting the manifold things he does not need to have immediately at hand, with some assurance that he can find them again if they prove important."

How much have we accomplished in the past 60 years?

Perhaps we need to re-read Bush's original article (one version can be found at http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/194507/bush) and ask ourselves just how much we might have accomplished in these past 60 years regarding these notions. How is it that we design systems today that meet some of these requirements in identifying, selecting, organizing, searching and disseminating knowledge records to end users in response to queries? What can be done to improve existing systems so that end users might better augment their existing knowledge bases?

What Bush did not contemplate was the evolution of digital resources and the diversity of formats used in recording that knowledge. Nor did he grasp the notion of ownership of information, as covered by various national copyright laws. By identifying the challenges of Bush in a contemporary mode, we become better prepared for our future in terms of providing information services to end users in an increasingly distributed environment.

Reference and further reading

Bush, V. (1945), "As we may think", The Atlantic Monthly, July.

Davis, T. (1998), "As we may teach", Education + Training, Vol. 40 No. 8, pp. 347-352.

Scammell, A. (2000), "Visions of the information future", Aslib Proceedings, Vol. 52 No. 7, pp. 264-269.

Vickery, B. (1999), "A century of scientific and technical information", Journal of Documentation, Vol. 55 No. 5, pp. 476-527.