Canned Libraries: the 1936 version of "universal access to all human knowledge"

In this 1936 Modern Mechanix article, a fantasy about shrinking the Library of Congress to fit "in a few small filing cabinets" on microfiche/film. Once this is done, copies of the great library will be distributed to worthy institutions all over the world.

This is one of the Ur-dreams of librarianship, what Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive calls "universal access to all human knowledge." Today's Internet was shaped by people who share the dream. It's a beautiful one.

Each volume so reduced in size is housed in a sealed cartridge not much larger than a 12-gauge shotgun shell. When desired for reading, it is inserted in a small cabinet, the light turned on, and the copy is projected upon a screen, enlarged to comfortable reading size and unaccompanied by glare...

One of the greatest advantages of film books is that small schools and libraries with limited space and money can afford to have all the material which is now available only in the large cities. Files of perishable newspapers can be photographed and thus preserved indefinitely. The cost of making film books will be much below that of printing regular books and their small size also eliminates the storage problem.

Canned Libraries Open New Vistas To Readers (Aug, 1936)


  1. if we digitalize and transmit into space all our knowledge, we’ll be able to get ahead of the signal one day (sure we will) to re-record it. What better filing cabinet than the universe?

  2. We could have this today in digital form, but the publishers seem to have stopped it from happening due to lack of a monetization model. Even scientific journals are unavailable to everyman due to the need of SpringerLink etc. to make money.

  3. As long as information is tied to matter, it is rarefied. Only when it is transformed into bits does it become ubiquitous.

  4. Interesting that they talked about using microfiche rather than “perishable newspapers”. I recently went to city hall to get my house blueprints, but found that the 20-year-old microfiche were barely legible.

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