books · libraries

The Library at the End of the World

Svalbard Tundra.jpg
Svalbard, Bellsund, Tundra by Jerzy Strzelecki, Wikimedia Commons, 2003.

People like to prepare for end of the world, and sometimes they use libraries to do it.

There is, of course, the Survivor Library, a digital collection of over 7,000 freely available PDFs intended to help humanity rebuild after a cataclysm. It contains information about “[h]ow to make water safe to drink. How to build a weather proof shelter from available materials. How to build a fire….[And how] to build a new infrastructure which can eventually replace what was lost.”

It all sounds a bit melodramatic, but the Library Index with its sections on accounting, livestock, and welding is interesting to peruse if nothing else.

However, I am more of a romantic about the end of the world. (Or perhaps just more of a historian.) I worry about preserving books that I love. Luckily folks in Norway share similar concerns.

Far to the north in an archipelago called Svalbard near the North Pole sit several vaults, each haunted by ice and the Northern Lights. The first of these is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which contains emergency samples of Earth’s plant seeds to protect them in the event of an emergency. As of February 2017, the Vault contained over 930,000 sample sets, each containing around 500 seeds. But humanity is built on books as much as it is on agriculture.

To that end, several groups coordinated to create a second vault in Svalbard. This one, the World Arctic Archive, is intended to house digital versions of books and documents from all around the world. Rather than use hard drives to store the data, the process relies on a type of film, which is a more reliable storage medium and is not vulnerable to cyber attacks. The company Piql, which developed the new technology, believes that their film will be able to safely store data for 1,000 years.

At the moment, only Norway, Brazil, and Mexico are taking advantage of the World Arctic Archive, but the project is still young. Other countries will likely join the project, and books such as To Kill a Mockingbird and The Illiad will no doubt make their way into the digital archive. (Or who knows? Perhaps the curators of the Archive have a sense of humor and will focus on preserving books like 1984Fahrenheit 451, and Brave New World first.)

Though I hope that there is never any need for the World Arctic Archive, I appreciate that it exists. Even if I’m not entirely sure how after the end of the world people will manage to make their way to the frozen islands of what was once Norway.

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47 thoughts on “The Library at the End of the World

  1. I never knew about all of this. It means a few things – you’re right about people having to travel to cold Norway to get at all this stuff to rebuild society – but theres a goal for authors to get their books into the vault lol.

    I also didn’t know about the survivor library… interesting stuff! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. There would be something extraordinary about being able to say that your writing was preserved in the archive, wouldn’t there? I think a lot of us like to imagine that we’ll leave some remnant behind after we’re gone.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. This is true – I know I would like to but to have it in a vault like that would be extra special as it might help start the human race again in case of disaster – or if things go really wrong then the next ‘being’ to see it might be from another civilization altogether.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m not quite sure why – but I found this article a real comfort. Though I’m fervently hoping the whole project continues to be a conversation piece rather than a frozen outpost of civilisation…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve been to Svalbard and knew about the seed bank, but not about this archive. Hope they preserve the stuff that shows the good side of the human race, while giving an account of how we brought destruction on ourselves. 🙂 And Svalbard might be at temperate latitudes when the world changes next – just as Africa and South America were once one continent.
    Doesn’t this just give you zillions of ideas for stories 🙂 Great post, thank you, Kristen.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. That is cool. Did you see where they are having to take measures at the seed vault to protect things due to melting? Getting to the frozen north may not be an issue by the time this is needed. (Sorry I can’t give a reference–I caught a bit about it on NPR a few weeks ago).

    Thanks for sharing an interesting tidbit!

    Liked by 1 person

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