The Manual for Civilization Begins

Posted on Thursday, February 6th, 02014 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
link Categories: Long Now salon (Interval), Manual for Civilization, The Interval   chat 0 Comments


As we near completion of The Interval at Long Now, our new venue in San Francisco, we are also building a collection of books that will reside here.  We have named this collection the Manual for Civilization, and it will include the roughly 3500 books most essential to sustain or rebuild civilization. Using this as an curatorial principle is helping us assemble a very interesting collection of books.

So… If you were stranded on an island (or small hostile planetoid), what books would YOU want to have with you?  We began asking this question to the Long Now Board and staff, as well as our Interval donors and the Long Now membership.

We have also asked a number of others with great book collections and specific expertise.

Author Neal Stephenson selecting books for the Manual For Civilization

This process has just begun, and we will detail these submissions and trips to amazing libraries more in the future, but some of the guest contributors now include:

Kevin Kelly selecting books for the Manual For Civilization

What are these books?  In order to make sure we don’t just get a bunch of books on how to make fire, we spread the collection across four basic categories to help guide the collection process:

  • Cultural Canon (Great Books, Shakespeare, Plato, etc.)
  • Mechanics of Civilization (Technical knowledge, how to build and understand things)
  • Rigorous Science Fiction (Science fiction that tells a useful story about a potential future)
  • Long-term Thinking, Futurism, and relevant history (Books on how to think about the future that may include surveys of the past)

We will be publishing the list in the coming months once we have the suggestions narrowed down by our members and supporters.  We have reached about 1400 nominations but will need four to five thousand to have enough to winnow it down to the very best 3000 books.  We are not limiting the nominations to western civilization, or even the English language, as one piece of the collection will be the Rosetta Disk itself.

But now that we have a good start on the collection, we need to begin editing the list down.  We are using an open source voting system suggested by Heath Rezabek called “All Our Ideas” which has turned out to be a great way to sort lists like this.  The system allows our supporters to choose between just two books in a given category, or suggest a new book.  This way you don’t have to rank a huge list of books, rather just make decisions between book A or book B and these decisions are aggregated.  We are just now sending this system out to our staff and supporters and it is yielding great results.  You can see an example of what a voting page looks like below.

Once The Interval is open we hope to have events where people can argue a new book in OR out of the collection.  It will be a living collection.  The Internet Archive has generously agreed to serve as the digital backup repository of the collection so that anyone with internet access can “check out” the books, or use the list to help create their version of the archive.

So how can you contribute and share your opinion?  The first contributors are Long Now members and Interval supporters. If you have a particular expertise or suggested resource, we welcome you to make book recommendations in the comments of this post.  There will be a lengthy process of collecting the actual books for our shelves. We had a fair number of titles in the Long Now library to begin with, but we have fewer than 15% of the books suggested to date.  We are working with in partnership with  Borderlands Books and Friends of the San Francisco Public Library to help fill in the collection. But donations of books and funds will also be essential as some titles on the list are quite rare.  Please do leave a comment on this post if you are interested in helping to supply books.

This project was originally conceived in a meeting hosted at the Internet Archive by Brewster Kahle with Kevin Kelly, Rick and Megan Prelinger and Alexander Rose.  Past references and writing on this can be found in this Manual for Civilization blog article by Alexander Rose as well in the Library of Utility article by Kevin Kelly.  Data wrangling is being ably handled by Kurt Bollacker and Catherine Borgeson with web help by Ben Keating, and the process has also been helped along by Intern Heath Rezabek.

In addition had several volunteers helping with the project that include:

Alison Hunter
Ashley Hennefer
Bryan Campen
Casey Cripe
Danielle Engelman
David Kelley
Elizabeth DeRieux
Nick Gottuso
James Alexander
Jennifer Woodfield
John Kausch
Kurt Bollacker
Ned McFarland
Michael McElligott
Michael Pujals
Alastair Mcpherson
Tim Reynolds
Whitney Deatherage
Mike Johnson


  • Lee Scuppers

    Looks like you’ve got the makings of a fantastic collection of photographs of old men in front of bookcases. If I were clawing my way out of barbarism, I’d fall on that stuff like manna from heaven. And the Violet Blue, that’ll be critical. Just think how much time they’ll save not having to figure out for themselves how to reproduce! And thank FSM for futurology: Since future people will (duh!) be in the future, they’ll sure be glad to have some real experts about the future to rely on, instead of having to find stuff out about it all by themselves.

    My only concern is you may not have enough Lena Dunham and Richard Florida in the collection. And what about Malcolm Gladwell? Da Vinci is well and good, but in the long run, it’s the real big names who count. You just can’t have a serious collection of airport-rack beach reading without Malcolm Gladwell.

    John Keegan’s a little nerdy, but somebody with a lot of time on his hands convalescing from a sword wound will be glad to be able to find out what we think ancient warfare may have been like.

  • Lee Scuppers

    Our collective dignity… must underlie any claim this project might make to be a worthy source of knowledge maintenance and preservation

    The only claim this poject can have to be a worthy source of knowledge is the practical utility of the knowledge itself. They’ll use it for what they see fit to use it for; you can’t micromanage them from the distant past. Your maintainance of your own self-esteem may seem like the most important thing in the world to you right now, but legitimate perspectives on that point may differ.

    If stuff from the third world is likely to free the future of wars and orphanages and whatnot, why didn’t it ever have that effect in the past? Not enough rich white first-world self-admiration talk slathered on top of it?

  • Lee Scuppers

    Hi Kathy,

    All that privilege talk is the momentary fashionable diversion of the richest, most privileged, least productive, and most comfortable submicroscopic fraction of the human race who ever lived. It will be long after civilization is rebuilt before anybody has enough leisure and surplus wealth to use the word “mindful” twice in the same paragraph without laughing, or to worry about whether knowledge of metallurgy is too “male” to be let out on its own unaccompanied by writing by women about the problems of women writing about women writing about the problems of women — or whatever it is that women outside of “male” fields like to write about, when they’re not preoccupied with men.

    Millions of serious people have sweated blood and died to make it possible for you to live as a human decoration, a talking Shih Tzu. Enjoy it while it lasts, but please don’t interrupt the adults while they’re talking big people talk.

    The future will not be all about you. Sorry.

  • CitizenOf1Earth

    While I must say there are some exceptionally good recommended reads here (oddly written mostly by Western US/European white guys), curiously I have yet to find anything like “Black Elk Speaks”, “I Buried My Heart At Wounded Knee”, the Foxfire books, or anything by the likes of Derrick Jensen, Frederick Douglass, Bob Mollison, Toby Hemenway, Jerry Mander, James Baldwin, Chellis Glendinning, Manfred Max-Neff, Sepp Holzer, Lucy Thompson, James Howard Kunstler, John Michael Greer, Thomas Paine, Doris Pilkington Garimara, Richard Wright, Morris Berman, Masanobu Fukuoka, or John Zerzan.

    Granted I can’t seem to find your complete bibliography, but from those titles listed here it seems like you may want Civilization 2.0 to be just as white, industrial, capitalistic, northern hemisphere biased, resource war torn, and doomed as version 1.0.

    If anyone will be kind enough to spot me the $10,000 donation required to make book recommendations for this project, I will quickly alleviate this oversight. I’d really love to join their Bay Area club so I can hang out in their posh bar and talk about how we’re going to rebuild Whitey civilization and the Apple Store over some sushi and Maker’s Mark.

  • Samuel Bono

    Why limit ourselves to books? The library could contain all sorts of information. Contemporary art, working sample models of engineering staples, model architectural concepts, long term storage digital media and accompanying platforms, etc.

    If we had the money, we could turn a library into a culture supervault.

  • mrego

    To rebuild civilization, first, start with a cookbook…

  • Héctor Muñoz Huerta

    I hope there are materials with clear instructions on how to forge iron and that sort of stuff.

  • AlfaGolfFoxtrot

    I’m struck by the 21% futurism in the current category breakdown.

    Predicting future tastes or usefulness is notoriously difficult. But ask yourself – which books of futurism from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are we currently reading? I would suggest none that is read in a serious way. There is an occasional comedy email that circulates, laughing at what people a hundred years ago thought the future would be like. And I would conclude from this, that our descendants are likely to feel the same about our predictions of the future, and thus that the whole category is unlikely to generate much value.

  • derleider

    But there certianly might be an eliment of bluind chanec that might lead to a situation where the things that lead to say the rise of American civiliziation (which is going to be most of the voters) isnt going to work, and having a multiplicity of voices might be helpful.

    Obviously something like say physics isnt going to really matter who’s writing or voting . But cultural, economic, social, and historic lessons certainly could. For example, most people would I assume put some of the US’s founding texts on the list (Common Sense, the Federalist Papers, etc) but thats a limited way to look at things if you dont also think about the founding texts of other modern civilizations.

  • derleider

    Thats a very good point – do you include religious/mythological texts as an example of cultures past, or not include them because they would lead to mythological thinking.

    Although frankly, people will likely invent myths anyway – Scientology of course is a completely modern religion.

  • dwasifar karalahishipoor

    Actually, I found the omission of the Bible from any of these lists refreshing. Since this is intended as a manual for rebuilding civilization after a presumed fall and dark age, omitting religious texts might also omit the seeds of the next such fall.

  • jack33w

    Please post one, complete list of all titles (or makes its link MORE obvious if you already have it). It’s impossible to add books without knowing what’s there or what’s missing.

  • Ezra

    No, of course not. The future belongs to the trolls.

    Good luck with rebuilding civilization and populating it with minds like yourself. I’m sure it will be a breathtaking affair and, once the looting stops, a nice place to visit.

    Just please, don’t try and contribute material to the ‘sociology’, ‘public policy’ or ‘self-awareness’ sections of this project. K, thnx.

  • dailyllama

    excellent notion. Must include Djuna Barnes – Nightwood and Joyce, Milton and Marvel, Hopkins and the archives of the Utne Reader and The New Yorker etc etc

  • Martin S.

    Beautiful Trouble and The Anarchist Cookbook

  • Gianthra Lato

    They would need to know that mythology and religion are both natural human tendencies.

  • Gianthra Lato

    We need to let them know that religion and mythology are things humans do… Maybe a text describing how they work and the main drawbacks of them. It might be that a civilization needs religion to maintain order, or it might need to stop new ones forming. I don’t think ignorance is an option in this case.

  • Garfam

    The whole project seems like a leftwing transhumanist circlejerk.

    Take the people who are asked to contribute. There are no real academics or specialists, just entertainers mostly,

    For example S. Brand choose as one of his selections Guns, Germs and Steel, a work of pseudoscience that has been long discredited as false.

    Next to that, all the books are not divided in any categories that makes sense. For example, I do understand adding scientific novels to make it easier for people to pick up science, but to make about half the canon about science fiction is insane.

    The first step would really have been getting atleast two to five academics for about 50 specific beta categories like cosmology, geophysics, petrochemistry, seismology and graph theory.. ect. all the smaller scientific disciplines.

    Then do the same thing for the alpha en gamma sciences, making sure you get the different historical, judicial, economic and sociological disciplines together.

    Finally, the focus can be placed on literature as a whole, to make sure literacy will be high and people can picture a working society.

  • Ryan Arndorfer

    I like that idea, to that end I suggest Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. All about religion and the end of the world.

  • Mynka Mirnoff

    I found Maria Popova’s list laughable. Pardon me if I don’t think that books like Cheryl Strayed’s “Tiny Beautiful Things” and Gemma Elwyn Harris’ “Does My Goldfish Know Who I Am?” are necessary to sustain or rebuild our civilization.

  • JanaLee Cherneski

    Hi there — I found out about this project after I read Maria Popova’s post on Brain Pickings, and I’d like to nominate a suggestion from my own current reading: The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food by Dan Barber. This book is my new bible. It speaks to all of your stated categories (with the exception of science fiction), and is filled with easy and artful writing, masterful storytelling and compelling analyses about the history, production and marketing of food, and includes incisive analyses about the future of food, and what it really takes to protect the land and eat sustainably going forward… information is important, but packing it with the right stories is essential. This book attends to both beautifully. I’ll be curious to see what comes of the project! JanaLee, Lecturer in Political Theory, University of Oxford

  • Avy Varghese

    The book I suggest – because we have to get beyond the violence of religious hatreds of different communities towards other like/other communities and its tangible consequences – would be Rene Girard’s Violence and the Sacred.

  • Adam N

    Agreed. Maybe 20 books in the Futurism category is sufficient. Jules Vernes books are literature so they wouldn’t go in that category anyway. If this really were the only repository of civilization in the future, the focus should be on history books. They are irreplaceable and absolutely critical – I would bump that category to a full 50%.

  • Adam N

    Maker’s Mark is for country folk. These guys will be swilling solely single malts. I like your list so even if the library doesn’t get those authors, I’m going to pick up a few of them.

  • Hanna

    Please send a list of all suggestions and one of what you already have to my e-mail address, I’ll be happy to contribute donating whatever I might find here or there or elswhere. But in order to do this, I need to know what’s missing… Thank you.

  • Given the clock is being built in a decidedly white, english speaking, rich populace (correct spelling), it stands to reason that it is likely that any future civilizations in the area will be shaped by this cultural heritage. Beyond the fact that it is a primarily white, english speaking culture that has had the cultural success to reach the point of building a Clock of the Long Now indicates that this culture displays particular characteristics of fitness that are both worthy and capable of surviving, likely to survive, shows that, like the clock itself, is worth emulating, despite its many obvious flaws.
    If other cultures share a similar vision of long term thinking, and similar degrees of worthy fitness, then they should create their own Clocks in their own regions to preserve their culture along with similar sentiments toward long term thinking.
    That said, one characteristic of our successful culture is a tendency to borrow useful things from other cultures.

  • I would say that learning to be good ancestors also requires that you study your own ancestors to see how your own good ancestors did it well vs not so well. Thus, history needs a significant share. We obviously want to teach our decendants what things to not do, by using the examples of the past, which, without documentation of that history, are lost as lessons to the future.

  • The weakness of a single archive is that it is a single fault point. The library of alexandria burned several times, including the near 100% loss of the final burning. Thus a lesson of long term thinking from the past should be to not keep one’s books in one basket. The idea of a single archive for all time is IMHO centralized thinking that is inherent to the sort of monolithic group think common to governments that promise to protect the future while failing to do so most of the time, and which ultimately fail when those governments fail and fall, leading to destruction and loss of hard won knowledge. Instead, we need to decentralize these archives, duplicate them, and spread them around in caches, while allowing local caches to modify the contents subject to local cultural, geographic, climatological and ecological needs.
    Another lesson of our ancestors is to not put the most valuable objects in obvious, easy to find and destroy/loot, places. Form local archive cache groups, particularly centered around librarians, who keep the final location of their cache secret, from the world, and from the local society. Leave it to their descendants and successors to disseminate knowledge back into society after it is lost, and needed again. Thus, a sort of secret society like the freemasons, who focus on preserving, protecting, and when needed, disseminating and replicating the knowledge, as a priestly sort of calling.

  • Lee Scuppers

    Yeah, in real life, a compulsion to regurgitate rigidly orthodox ideological gibberish isn’t exactly consistent with self-awareness, much less competence at public policy. Or anything else.

    And if you don’t like looting, you’ll be a lot happier among people like me who believe in pulling our own weight and respecting other people’s property. The to-each-according-to-his-need crowd is the one to watch out for. You’d loot and brag about it.

    You’re upset because you think girls aren’t very bright or emotionally sturdy and therefore they need to be protected from disagreement in adult debates. You’re half right.

  • J L

    Omitting religious texts? That’s basically censoring parts of the past (HUGELY influential parts, regardless of whether you agree with them or not) that you don’t like. Furthermore, having these texts will be key to understanding other writers of historically important expository works — you’ll need to have the Bible to understand the cultural contexts of Isaac Newton, or Martin Luther King Jr., or William James, or the whole remnant of America’s founders’ writings.

    Also, even if the notion that religion causes “falls” of civilization were true, wouldn’t it be a good idea to have past evidence on hand? You know, so we could learn from history? And surely it’s better to keep primary texts rather than distorted third-hand interpretations of them.

  • CM RS

    Many public libraries are moving beyond the limitations of the written word: you should consider this also. My local library has videos, music, and old recordings available. At a nearby library one can check out fishing poles. There’s a library where one can borrow musical instruments, or “borrow” seeds, and return fresh seeds at the end of the season.
    Regarding pure survival with harmony to our environment, ‘Journey to Forever’ and ‘Plants for a Future’ are great resources.
    Another question: how do crafts, art and music fit into your schema?

  • Dee Leggett

    Animal husbandry and botany should be in there if it isn’t already.

  • captainkephart

    Who in the future will take notice of a Manual for Civilisation? How do we ensure that the contents of the Long Now Library / Manual are relevant, appropriate and accessible to the people inhabiting a future we cannot know? Now that’s another challenge …
    For example, in Olaf Stapledon’s ‘Last and First Men’ (highly recommended) there was a manual 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 – and could not, neither culturally nor intellectually (and not because they were stupid), access them.

  • Jon Crosby

    I would suggest 10 books on each major branch of science and 10 books on each major branch of Mathematics and 10 books on each major branch of Engineering. Science, Math, and Engineering represent out complete technology. So with 10 books on Physics, 10 books on Chemistry, 10 books on Biology, 10 books on Basic Math, 10 books on Algebra, 10 books on Calculus, 10 books on Differential Equations, 10 Books on Mechanical Engineering, 10 Books on Electrical Engineering, 10 books on Civil Engineering, etc, etc. Within 500 books (10 books for each “subject”) you should be able to have all the technology information that would be a good “Starting Point For A Civilization”. But you would have to break these down into topics. Your survey idea of people choosing between two books at a time is good to get a vibe of what people find important but in selecting your 3000 books you would want to select a “broad range” of topics within those 3000 books. With 500 books for Technology, you would then want 50 books on law, governments, and government Constitutions, 50 books on Business and Accounting, 50 books on Art and Music, and 50 books on various languages (English, French, Spanich, Chinese). Those books would allow a society to build “societal systems”. Then just throw in a few hundred good literature books. Truth be told, you could just walk into any University Book store and purchase one copy of every book. It is probably less than 3000 books and you could rebuild society with those books.

  • Brandon Moreau

    And yet it was in the vaults of the church that Roman knowledge survived to eventually re-emerge. It was the church that built the universities that then revived the lost knowledge. Without the church the dark ages would have gone on far longer.

  • John Schaeffer

    The 14th Edition Real Goods Solar Living Sourcebook

  • Harriss Bisby

    This is going to sound off topic, but your mention of Zerzan got me curious: would you consider yourself a “Primativist”, and would you say that you for the most part agree with Zerzans ideas?

  • Douglas M. Smith

    I was thinking each book should have 1 physical copy, 1 digital (pdf?) copy, and one audio copy.

  • anonymous

    Robert’s Rules of Order, by Henry Martyn Robert

  • newbedford

    Robert’s Rules of Order, written by Henry Martyn Robert

  • newbedford

    The Republic, written by Plato

  • newbedford

    Silent Spring, written by Rachel Carson

  • newbedford

    Cider With Rosie, written by Laurie Lee

  • Suzanne

    When I visited the library at the Interval, I saw books from Joseph Campbell’s series The Masks of God, which I think is a good choice, but only 3 of 4 in the series were on the shelf. Primitive mythology, occidental mythology and modern mythology were there, but oriental mythology was missing. Was it just off the shelf because someone borrowed it (seems unlikely, since the shelf was high and unreachable), or was oriental mythology considered superfluous for the library?

  • Stefan Landherr

    I realise that I am a bit late in contributing to this comments thread, and i don’t have a specific book suggestion, but rather a theme.

    A core subset of the Manual for Civilisation should be all the information that would be needed to conceive, design and build _another_ Clock of the Long Now, _starting from a stone age culture_.

    Thus mining, metallurgy, engineering, time-keeping, etc etc.

  • Ttk Ciar

    What of the hard sciences? Veterinary, medical, material, mechanical, chemical, atomic sciences are all woefully under-represented in The Long Now’s collection.

  • Titania

    Mechanics of civilization is by far the most important. I would think it should take up much more than 33.9% of the library.

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