A reader visiting the Sorbonne faculty of the University of Paris in the 14th century would’ve been amazed, wherever in Europe they would’ve come from, at the richness of its collections. By the late 1320s, the library owned just under 1,800 volumes, the largest in Western Europe. A rich collection that was also easy to consult, the manuscript books having been meticulously catalogued and carefully arranged. At the height of the Middle Ages, all information was available off the shelf. More books, more readers, more writing, which led to more books. Growth was exponential.
The Internet may have buried the library, but the truth is that we are merely stretching our legs. We still live in library mode. Most of our online repositories of information are built like libraries. The cataloguing standards since Dewey are the basis of how we organise information online. we tag, categorise, and index, even if the database and the webpage have taken over the book and the shelf.
The scroll was a radical innovation. So was the codex, the bound books. The digital revolution has been perhaps even more radical, culturally, but it is still completely indebted to the book, whose history hasn’t come to an end. Quite on the contrary, its evolution is on. Enriched by the various media it encounters, the book seeks new ways of becoming. If something has been conservative, that is reading, which hasn’t really changed that much since the human eye first met the written word.