The Universal Library as Modern Utopia: the Information Society of H. G. Wells

Muddiman, Dave
Library History

H. G. Wells (1866–1946) was throughout his life fascinated by the civilising potential of library and information networks, in particular their potential for the universal dissemination of knowledge. In the 1920s and 1930s Wells developed various plans for a new type of universal library which he referred to successively as ‘Bibleof civilisation’, ‘World encyclopaedia’, ‘World brain’, and ‘World mind’. Some recent commentators have been tempted to see these as blueprints for contemporary information society and the information superhighway. This paper takes a less speculative approach and argues that Wells's writings about information and knowledge are much more historically specific. It traces his interest in information from his early support for the public library movement through to his encyclopaedism and later technological and bureaucratic utopianism. It concludes that Wells envisioned a information society very different to that promised by the Internet. The ‘World brain’ is, it is claimed, a ‘modern’ utopia in a more precise and historically specific sense: it tells us little about the future but much more about perceptions and ideologies of information and knowledge in early twentieth century Britain.