Professor Lancaster’s audacious prediction of a paperless society by the end of the twentieth century is examined from multiple perspectives. Rationales for the prognostication, textual and contextual; reception by the profession; and impact on the literature of library and information science are reviewed. Bibliometric data is introduced in support of the extensive citation links to Lancaster’s core writings. The accuracy of Lancaster’s prediction and the leavening insights of the collateral literature are considered.


Sometimes we call upon fiction to explain and to make us wiser. The transition from print dominance to paperless ascendancy was one of many important historical shifts. The change from scroll to codex and the introduction of moveable type were also hugely significant innovations. Linking them all together, Thomas Wharton tells us that:

Within every book there lies concealed a book of nothing. Don’t you sense it when you read a page brimming with words? The vast gulf of emptiness beneath the frail net of letters. The ghostliness of the letters themselves. Giving a semblance of life to things and people who are really nothing. Nothing at all. No, it was the reading that mattered, I eventually understood, not whether the pages were blank or printed. The Mohammedans say that an hour of reading is one stolen from paradise. (Wharton, 2002, pp. 75-76)


Professor F. W. Lancaster’s protean legacy, still unfolding, encompasses four decades of excellent teaching, superb scholarship, and professional leadership. This essay will focus on his justly famous predictions about the paperless society and the future direction of libraries and the librarians who manage them. Although this aspect of his scholarship represents only one facet of his many contributions, it is perhaps the most often cited, invoked, and debated. It has been exactly three decades since Professor Lancaster launched his own library Sputnik, namely his transformative volume entitled Toward Paperless Information Systems (Lancaster, 1978a).

Generously acknowledging such information pioneers as Vannevar Bush, J. C. R. Licklider, and John G. Kemeny, Lancaster then lays the foundation for his own vision of an information-driven, paperless society. And it was a blueprint nurtured by his prior employment with the Saul Herner Company, the National Library of Medicine, Westat Research, and the Central Intelligence Agency. Propelling Lancaster’s futuristic information model was a pervasive concern with the proliferation of the scholarly literature, the cost of producing journals, and the increasing expenses for libraries to acquire and process journals. Lancaster’s scenario for an electronic information system for the year 2000 revolved around what he referred to as the “library in a desk” (Lancaster, 1978a, p. 3).

Scholars and students would have access to major digital files composed of bibliographic information and full-text documents. Scholarly journals, for example, would be composed, edited, distributed, and accessed through his proposed online system. Further, this unified online system would (1) facilitate rapid and effective person-to-person and group-to-group communication; (2) maintain indexes to ongoing research to make these highly accessible; (3) make the archival literature of sciences as accessible as possible; (4) provide facilities to aid the scientist in building and exploiting his own information files; and (5) provide rapid and convenient access to the facilities of one or more information analysis centers.

Lancaster was especially concerned with the proactive distribution of information through a selective dissemination of information (SDI) mechanism. And what of the libraries and librarians that will preside over the coming digital juggernaut? In Toward Paperless Information Systems, Lancaster assumes a possible withering of libraries, but redefined roles for librarians in “libraries without walls” suggested so presciently by Robert S. Taylor in 1975. Lancaster closes Toward Paperless Information Systems with a vigorous reaffirmation of the coming paperless society and an almost solemn warning that if we do not plan for its arrival we may be overwhelmed by the ensuing chaos:

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