The Library of Utility

Posted on Monday, April 25th, 02011 by Kevin Kelly
link Categories: Digital Dark Age, Long Term Science, Long Term Thinking   chat 0 Comments


I imagine a library atop a remote mountain that collects the essential information needed to re-learn practical knowledge essential to civilization. This depot, open to anyone who journeys there, is the cultural equivalent of the Svalbard seed bank, a vault on the Arctic Circle that holds frozen seeds of crop plants from around the world. The utilitarian documents in this vault would be the seeds of culture, able to sprout again if needed. It would be the Library of Utility, and it would serve as civilization’s backup.


Most great libraries of today have a broad mandate to be very inclusive. They contain “everything.” This everything is being duplicated in digital form by Google and others as the long-desired Universal Library. But the library at the top of the mountain would be different. It would be a very selective library. It would not contain the world’s great literature, or varied accounts of history, or deep knowledge of ethnic wonders, or speculations about the future. It has no records of past news, no children’s books, no tomes on philosophy. It contains only seeds. Seeds of utilitarian know-how. How to recreate the infrastructure and technology of civilization so far. The library would gather the knowledge needed to recreate itself — all the mechanical structures of brick, mortar, glass — the library itself. One could think of it as a manual for making a physical library with books and paper. Or a manual for reconstruction the infrastructure of civilization. A civilization reboot manual, which has also been discussed at the Long Now Foundation and in various science fiction stories. From the seeds of know-how archived here you could regrow the arts of printing, or metalworking, or plastics, or plywood, or laser discs.

This information is not usually found in libraries, or in books, or even on the web in text. These days much instructional and utilitarian information is conveyed in YouTube clips. Partly because video is a good way to show how something is done, but also because it is much easier to record a video that put things into words and diagrams. But often that ease lowers the quality of instruction. If you had to rely on a university library to find instructions on how to make sheet metal from ore, or even to find and extract the ore, or to make plastic from oil, or to grow silicon to make make a chip, it would be very difficult. Usually such utilitarian knowledge is missing from books, but even when it is present in the library, it is dilute and spread throughout many books or journals. A lot of this utilitarian knowledge is implicit knowledge and passed along outside of written documentation. And when written down, these documents are often not the type to find their way into libraries.

It need not be a giant library. It may be possible to fit all the essential information needed to bootstrap the infrastructure of civilization into 10,000 books or so. And unlike the Universal Library of Google, it would be on paper. In a century or so, paper-based books will be rare. But paper books will outlast any digital platform and paper requires the least amount of technology to access. Paper will be universally readable at any period. You can’t say that about floppy disks, CD-Roms, and PDFs.

But rather than containing merely shelves of books, this Library of Utility would contain sequences of books. Depending on where you wanted to start, you would visit different documents. If you already knew how to make glue, you could immediately start the instructions on making plywood. But if you did not know how to make water-proof glue, you would begin at a different point. Or if you knew glue and wood spinning, but did not know about hydraulic presses, you’d get a different set of instructions. That multi-forking seems pretty hypertext; would not digital be better for this? Yes, it would be better, but would be done in paper as a back up.

Perhaps the Library of Utility is usually sealed airtight, say through the winter, and it is opened a few times, or a few months, a year for adding books and research. This is a 10,000-year Library, encased in an impermeable shell that could last for hundreds of years without human attention if it came to that. So the Library of Utility would be built to house the most essential 10,000 books for 10,000 years, a library of practical knowledge that could be bootstrapped to restart civilization at any point it might be needed.

There is no need to wait for the Library to be built at the top of the mountain. It could be started now, in any garage. What books would you bring to it if you could?

(The image on top is of small monastery in the Himalayas, near Paro, Bhutan. There were only a few books in it. The second image is of the Svalbard seed bank. No books, only seeds.)

This article was cross posted from The Technium.

  • You mention “infrastructure and technology,” and dismiss literature, which is fine, but I'd want such a library to contain instructions for cultural technology, too: how to make a musical instrument, how to structure an effective story or lecture, and how to make various kinds of paint. This technology can be just as important for people's long-term well-being as how to make a fancy house or an internet.

  • “Looking back from the great civilisations of twelth-century France or seventeenth-century Rome, it is hard to believe that for quite a long time – almost a hundred years – western Christianity survived by clinging on to places like Skellig Michael…” Kenneth Clarke, Civilisation

  • Aodhagan

    Rather than printing on paper, printing should be done on Mylar to reduce susceptibility to moisture. Even better would be to laser etch the information into plates of stainless steel. We are talking an archive for 10,000 years.

  • I think this project can go a long way to investigate and catalog which technologies are dependent on prior technologies to get off the ground and which technologies are largely independent. This mesh of interdependencies should provide valuable information to us and the cultures that are booting up right now.

    The 10,000 books could be open sourced and stored in all manner of media. Library of Utility editions for iPads, Kindles, etc. to share the information and raise money to build the library; a Library of Utility section in Wikipedia. Serialized in 1000 newspapers and 100 languages not only backing up the information but created a Rosetta stone for these future people.

    We should probably include a map to Svalbard.

    What language to document the Library of Utility books?
    What non-language forms would it take? Artifacts, picture books…
    How can we imagine the context needed to communicate with a future reboot society?
    Will these future humans have needs similar enough to us for this information to be useful?
    Do we leave out dangerous information?
    On what basis should we decide what is dangerous?
    How to design the library to anticipate the need of the visitors?

  • David

    I would love to get involved in a project like this and collaborate with colleagues to teach parts of a”Civilization Reboot” course sequence at my university. It would be a fun thing to teach, and probably very eye-opening to students. Can you imagine the labs? This would be great! So yeah, all the books in this library would ideally have the form of textbooks – and they would be very valuable as actual textbooks for the young people of a society that's still running. Our knowledge needs a bit of de-abstraction.

  • Wasn't this the basic plot of Asimov's Foundation series? Still it's a fantastic idea.

  • Mark Barrows

    “What books would you bring to it if you could?”

    Here are a few I happen to have at hand that might be of value:

    “The Wood & Canvas Canoe: A Complete Guide to it's History, Construction, Restoration, and Maintenance” 1987 Jerry Stelmok & Rollin Thurlow.

    “Building a Greenland Kayak” Mark Starr

    “Building Skin-on-Frame Boats” Robert Morris

    “Keeping the Cutting Edge: Setting and Sharpening Hand and Power Saws” 1983 Harold H. Payson

    “The Perfect Edge: The Ultimate Guide to Sharpening for Woodworkers” 2009 Ron Hock

    “The Making of Tools” 1973 Alexander G. Weygers
    “The Modern Blacksmith” 1974 Alexander G. Weygers

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  • Daniel Hallington

    Interesting that you raise issues of morality and language, Paul. Should we provide instructions on building instruments of war? And regarding language, if society needs a complete reboot, unless we only include picture books & purely diagrammatic instructions, the first few books in the library need to teach a language… but like you say, which language?

  • Sidgardner

    If we needed it, would we deserve it?

  • The problem with this idea is that civilization is continually evolving in new directions, especially with regard to science and technology, and especially over the last century or so.  This means that new materials are constantly being fabricated using brand-new processes that didn't exist a day, week, or year ago. 

    So the how-to manuals you put in there would basically be out of date as soon as they were added to the library UNLESS the library was date referenced, meaning that you could choose what basic stage of human civilization you wanted to reboot to along various classifications (technological stages would be things like stone age, bronze age, iron age, industrial age, microchip age, etc). 

    Even still, the problem remains that there is more than one way to skin a cat, as the saying goes – Japanese people make tea and cloth and boats and other stuff differently than English people do.  Thus, the civilizational stages would have to be further categorized to be culture or geography specific.  For instance the medieval period in Japan had much different technology and culture than the medieval period in Europe.  Definitely worth more thought though…

  • Daniel Hallington

    Yes, it would have to be meticulously catalogued and referenced – not a small job, but perhaps still worth!

  • Common CItizen

    A good idea.  The printing must be done on material that is mold and insect proof.  Not paper.  Suggest long term material such as monel or nonferric/nonrusting metal.  (Even stainless will rust in the long term.)  Tempered glass will work.  I remember walking the vast ruins of Angkor Thom and the Mayan cities, once filled with libraries that have been eaten by termites.

  • Common Citizen

    Technology needs to be tiered for a “reboot” and rebuilding.  Tier 1 is from a zero base:  How to find metal ores, how to refine them, how to make alloys, how to make simple tools, how to farm, transport, and provide water and sanitation.  Tier 2 is using Tier 1 items to make simple machines.  How to make a simple electric generator and motor.  How to make a steam engine, etc.  Tier 3 would be more complex machines:  Hydrocarbon technology, more advanced alloys, hydrocarbon vehicles,  airplanes, multistory buildings.  Tier 4 would be even more complex:  electronics, radios, broadcast devices.  Tier 5 would be the top tier:  computers, nuclear power, jets, rockets, the most complex and advanced technologies.

    Tied to the Technology Tiers would be science and mathematics tiers to support them, and governmental and judicial tiers to teach representative democracy and the importance of just courts and laws in preserving society.

    I believe that literature and religious writings must also be included.  Use of science and technology without ethical leadership, which derives from the Divine authority above, leads to abuse.  As Thomas Jefferson said, and as is written in the Jefferson Memorial, “a just governance derives from God, and I know of only one source of this authority.”

  • Common Citizen

    On languages, we should learn from history.  The printing of the same message in 3 languages has worked well in tablets and inscriptions in the past.  I suggest the following 3 languages:  English, Chinese, and Latin.  One of these three is likely to survive, each for various reasons.

  • BeautementP

    An inportant idea and it must be built and be continuously evolving.
    But in Olaf Stapledon’s ‘Last and First Men’ (highly recommended) there was one for 100,000 years hence. And in H G Wells’ ‘Time Machine’ there was a Library and a ‘museum of useful things’, but the people of that time did not value them, did not know what they signified, nor had any apparent need.
    How do we ensure that the contents of the Library are relevant, appropriate and accessible to the people inhabiting a future we cannot know? Now that’s another challenge …

  • Pingback: Et si la mémoire numérique nous faisait défaut via InternetActu | Le magazine en ligne de la Fondation littéraire Fleur de Lys()

  • seahen

    Practical knowledge is more likely to be understood correctly if one understands the theory behind it — especially once the languages it’s in have become archaic. So a basic selection of pure science textbooks should probably be included as well.

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