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Ideas. Writing. Culture.

12 Mar '15

Marshall McLuhan manuscript from 1976 uncovered, Island Magazine to publish excerpt

Posted by Kate Harrison
A previously unpublished manuscript by Marshall McLuhan – the founding father of modern media communications theory – has been uncovered.    

Written in 1976, with Robert K. Logan, the manuscript titled “The Future of the Library: An old figure in a new ground”, was to be the culmination of McLuhan’s work on media ecology.
A 6000 word edited excerpt, abstracted from the 60,000 word manuscript, will be published in Australian literary quarterly, Island magazine (issue 140, due out on March 30), with kind permission from the Marshall McLuhan Estate.
McLuhan’s work on media ecology began in the 1950s, with the publication of The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man. Although it was not until the publications of the early 1960s – with The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man andUnderstanding Media: The Extensions of Man, which launched such ideas as ‘the medium is the message’ and ‘global village’ – that McLuhan became internationally famous.
McLuhan, who predicted the internet 30 years before it came into existence, wrote “The Future of the Library” with Robert Logan during the mid-1970s, before the onset of home computers, and yet he was able to accurately foresee the changes rapid that libraries would undertake over the next 35 years, in light of the development of information technology.
Significantly, McLuhan offers a suggestion for what a library of the future could still look like.
‘What is most interesting about this manuscript,’ said Island editor, Matthew Lamb, ‘is not just that McLuhan had the foresight to see what has happened over the past 35 years, but that his suggestions for how we should address these changes is still relevant. In fact, what McLuhan had to say about our present moment from his vantage point of the past is far more interesting, prescient, and useful, than what most of our contemporary media commentators have to say today.’
This announcement comes on the back of recent announcements that Island is forming a literary partnership with David Walsh and the Museum of Old and New Arts (MONA), and with this coming issue, Island will be available only in a print edition, with no digital edition or online content.
‘The decision to go print-only is very much a result of a close reading of the work of Marshall McLuhan,’ said Lamb. ‘So it seemed appropriate to launch the first print-only, MONA-edition with a feature essay by McLuhan himself.’
As McLuhan writes, in this essay: ‘In industry there is an old saying: “If it works, it is obsolete.” We have been saying for some years that the book and printing are obsolete. Many people interpret this to mean that printing and the book are about to disappear. Obsolescence, in fact, means the opposite. It means that a service has become so pervasive that it permeates every area of a culture like the vernacular itself. Obsolescence, in short, ensures total acceptance and ever wider use.’
Some McLuhanisms from “The Future of the Library” 

‘For those readers who are library-oriented let us reassure you that we have no intention of writing an obituary for the library. This venerable institution will survive in one form or another. That is not to say, however, it will survive automatically without adjusting to the enormous amount of change that surrounds it.’
‘The story of the elderly woman who took a sexy novel out of the branch library, instead of her usual history book, illustrates the figure–ground relation. When the elderly woman was told, “I thought you only read history,” she replied to the librarian, “At my age, honey, this is history.”’
‘To the management science crowd who ask us to define our goals for the library so they can help us make better decisions, one could reply: “My goal for the library is that it provide the kind of inspiration and creativity that no management scientist could measure or evaluate.” Any library that focuses its attentions on goals that can be measured has lost sight of its most important mission: the preservation of our human heritage.’
‘We must learn from this experience and ask ourselves: is it possible that mass communication can destroy communication itself? This is not a trivial concern in an era in which 90 per cent of the messages received by a young person are being simultaneously directed to others. If one of the prime aspects of communication is interaction, what will be the result of the overwhelming passivity of today’s mass audiences?’
‘The challenge facing libraries is how to fully exploit the new technologies while at the same time preserving the best of the past traditions of the library. The implications of this technology for the library are particularly important, since it is possible to link every home in a community with its library and to link all the libraries to each other.’
‘Information overload is a myth...Overload is due to a specialist’s belief he has to know everything.’
‘The specialist lives in a world of small talk and gossip. It is only when he crosses the boundaries of his own field into another field that dialogue begins.’
‘The tendency for the library – whether it be a university research library or an urban public library system – has been to grow. Size can sometimes have negative survival values, as the experience of the dinosaur taught us.’
‘As we move from the age of production to the age of information, those who control the means of production will no longer control society as Karl Marx had suggested in the 19th century. Instead, those that control the flow of information as well as its storage will be in a position of power.’