Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Genji and the Printing Press

The relation of technology to time is a theme that’s come up more than once in these essays, and for good reason. On the one hand, many of the challenges we face as industrial civilization lurches down the long curve of its decline and fall come from the mismatch between the short timeframe that governs so many of our collective decisions and the long reach the consequences of those decisions so often have.

On the other, a crucial aspect of our predicament just now – though it’s not often recognized as such – is the fact that most of our modern technologies are very poorly adapted to the long term. Most of the technologies used by today’s industrial societies depend directly or indirectly on nonrenewable resources that, in the broad scheme of things, simply won’t be around all that much longer. Those technologies that can’t be reworked to use entirely renewable inputs, or that stop being economical once the costs of renewables has to be factored in, will go away in the decades and centuries to come, with profound impacts on human life.

In that light, it’s comforting to realize that our species has managed to come up with a certain number of extremely durable technologies. Agriculture, despite the assertions of its modern neoprimitivist critics, is at least capable of being one of those. The rice paddies of eastern Asia, the wheat fields of Syria and the olive orchards and vineyards of Greece and Italy, to name only a few examples, have proven sustainable over many millennia, and will likely still be viable long after today’s idiotically unsustainable petrochemical agriculture has become a footnote in history books written in languages that haven’t evolved yet.

There are other examples. One in particular, though, plays an important role in my own hopes for the future, not least because I work with it every day: the technology of the book.

One volume on my bookshelf right now makes as good an example as any. It’s an English translation of The Tale of Genji, one of the world’s first and greatest novels. It was written by a Japanese noblewoman, Murasaki Shikibu, at the beginning of the eleventh century for a circle of friends, and wove together her wry reflections on court life with a sense of the impermanence of all earthly things. Like so many novels of an earlier age, it demands more patience than most of today’s readers like to give to fiction; its storyline unfolds at a leisurely pace, following the path of its decidedly unheroic hero, Prince Genji, through the social milieu of his time. Think of it as War and Peace without the war; the political struggles that frame Genji’s career, sending him from the capital into exile and then returning him to the upper reaches of power, all take place without a hint of violence.

This is all the more striking because the society in which Murasaki lived was well on its way to a violent decline and fall. Her lifetime marked the zenith of the age Japanese historians call the Heian period. Over the next century and a half, the Japanese economy came apart, public order disintegrated in a rising spiral of violence, and the government lost control of the provinces where the new samurai class was taking shape. The civil wars that began in 1156 shredded what was left of Heian society and plunged Japan into a dark age four and a half centuries long.

Countless cultural treasures vanished during those years, but The Tale of Genji was not among them. One of the advantage of books is that, properly made, they are extremely durable; another is that they have very little value as plunder, and so tend to get left behind when looters come through. Both these advantages worked in favor of Murasaki’s novel, and so did the patient efforts of generations of Buddhist monks and nuns who did for their culture what their equivalents in Dark Age Europe did a few centuries earlier.

It’s not the only volume on my bookshelves that came through the fall of a civilization intact. A good shelf and a half of Greek philosophy and mathematics hid out in Irish monasteries while Rome crashed to ruin and nomads fought over the rubble, and so did an assortment of literary works from Greece and Rome, including a couple – Homer comes to mind – that came out of the dark ages before Greece and Rome, and so get extra credit. The Chinese classics on another shelf went through more than that; Chinese civilization has immense staying power but its political systems tend to be fragile, and such seasoned survivors as Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching have shrugged off half a dozen cycles of decline and fall.

Still, the granddaddy of them all is next to the Greek classics. The epic of Gilgamesh was first composed well over five thousand years ago by some forgotten poet of Sumer, the oldest literate society anybody has yet been able to find. It’s not something most people read in school, which is ironic, because the epic of Gilgamesh is the kind of story we most need to read these days: a story about limits. When he first strides into the story, Gilgamesh is about as far from Prince Genji as a fictional character can get; superhumanly strong, with an ego to match, he makes Conan the Barbarian look like Caspar Milquetoast; but his ego sends him on a long journey through love, loss, and a shattering confrontation with the human condition that leaves little of his arrogance intact. It’s a story well worth reading even, or especially, today.

The astonishing thing, at least to me, is that I can take that book from its place on the shelf today and read a story that had audiences on the edge of their seats five thousand years ago. Precious little else from Sumer survives at all; five thousand years is a long time, especially in a corner of the world where more civilizations have risen and fallen than just about anywhere else. That’s what I mean about the durability of books as a technology of information storage and transfer. Even though individual books break down over time, it costs little to manufacture them and little except time to copy them, and they weather copying mistakes remarkably well; unlike today’s data storage methods, where a very small number of mistakes can render data hopelessly corrupt, a book can still pass on its meaning even when the copy is riddled with scribal errors.

All this bears directly on the predicament of industrial society. Our age will certainly leave its share of legacies to the far future, but most of those are the opposite of helpful. (I am thinking especially of the nuclear waste we are heaping up in “temporary” storage facilities, which will likely be lethally radioactive dead zones surrounded by cow skulls on sticks 25,000 years from now.) Of our positive achievements, on the other hand, the ones most likely to reach our descendants 5000 years from now are the ones written in books.

Thus I’d like to suggest that books, and the technologies that produce and preserve them, might well deserve a place well up on the list of useful things that need to be preserved through the long decline ahead of us. I wish it made sense to count on public libraries, but those venerable institutions have gotten the short end of the stick now for decades, and the dire fiscal straits faced by most state and local governments in the US now do not bode well for their survival. (The county next to the one where I live, for example, has already shuttered its entire library system, and handwaving has replaced any meaningful plan to reopen it.) Like so many other things of value, book technology may have to be saved by individuals and local voluntary groups, using their own time and limited resources.

It might come down to copying books with pen and ink onto handmade paper, but there may well be another viable option. Letterpress technology is simple enough to make and maintain – the presses that sparked a communications revolution in Europe in the fourteenth century were built entirely with hand tools – and brings with it the power to produce a thousand copies of a book in the time a good scribe would need to produce one. With printing presses, something like the book culture of colonial America – with local bookstores, libraries open to anyone willing to pay a modest subscription, and private book collections – comes within reach, at least in regions that maintain some level of stability and public order. This may not seem like much in an age of internet downloads, but it beats the stuffing out of Dark Age Europe, when most people could count on living out their lives without turning the pages of a book.

Now of course there are plenty of people who argue that the age of internet downloads is worth preserving, or that some other more advanced technology would be a better place to start. It seems to me, though, that at least two factors argue against this. The first is that all of the more complex data storage technologies presuppose an extensive technological base, supported by plenty of energy and an economy diverse enough that resources can be diverted from survival to less critical needs. The crises looming in our future make the secure maintenance of these conditions something of a gamble against long odds.

These complex technologies, furthermore, are not something that individuals and local communities can tackle on their own. That makes it a good deal less likely that anybody will get around to tackling them at all. As the collective response to the latest round of economic crises has demonstrated all too well, short-term crisis management and pedaling in place have elbowed aside any more thoughtful or proactive response to future needs. A society in which executives are shaking down their bankrupt corporations for one more round of million-dollar bonuses, while governments pour money they don’t have and credibility they’re rapidly losing down a growing list of ratholes, is not a society in which the funds and resources to retool much of anything for a sustainable future will be forthcoming from above. That likely means that whatever gets done will have to be done by individuals – and the sort of local, decentralized, individual approach to the survival of book technology I’ve suggested in this post might make a workable template for the kind of strategy that could work for many other things as well.


Brian Bost said...

John Michael,
There is some synchronicity afoot, I believe. I just attended the Smallpressapaloosa at Powell's City of Books, learned about the Independent Publisher's Resource Center here in Portland, and their letterpress workshops, and felt a personal urge to learn the art of paper making. I also just finished reading The Long Descent, and I think it was in there that you talked about Carl Sagan or another scientist advocating the amassing of all current scientific knowledge into one encyclopedia, and however well intentioned an idea that might be, it wouldn't turn out to be at all beneficial for future generations.
It seems that the more people who learn to make their own paper, choose which books THEY want to help live into the far future, the better chance we all have of preserving so much of what matters through the coming crises.
I've enjoyed reading about new versus old technology in the last few posts. Most of the time I neglect to notice anything about the underlying technologies that make our modern life possible.
Thanks again for your insights- I look forward to reading them again next week.
By the way, do you have any speaking engagements near Portland anytime in the future?
-Brian Bost

Danby said...

One other limitation of technological data storage is the limited shelf life of digital media. People think that somehow a CD or hard drive put on a shelf will still be full there when they want to retrieve it.

As a system administrator I have to battle on a daily basis with the unreliability of digital storage. Typical writable CDs and DVDs are good for 2 years. cheap ones for as long as 5.

Magnetic media fare a little better. While the vast majority of floppy disks and archive tapes have already started losing data, Hard drives, left on a shelf have been known to retain good copies for as long as 25 years. How today's ultra-high bit density drives will fare over the long term is not entirely clear. The areas of magnetic flux on the surface of the disk are almost nanoscale, and quite closely packed. Natural magnetic drift will eventually do them in, but no-one knows how long it will take.

But even worse than the media reliability problem is the format problem. A typical hard drive from the '80s used MFM or RLL encoding. If you don't have an MFM or RLL disk controller, how will you read them. And there have been none of those controllers made since about 1990. The old ones might work fine, but the 8MHZ ISA bus they plug into is a relic of the electronic stone age. Presuming all the XT and AT compatible computers are gone (which is not far from the actual case, here 30 years into the computer revolution) how can one read these disks? To rebuild a machine that could read them would require hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, even though the design work has already been done.

Now suppose that that design work was lost, as it might very well be in the event of significant societal disruption. How would an engineer even start to reverse engineer the device to begin extracting data?

And, once the data is extracted, what will you read it with? I've been in the hot seat trying to extract archived data from three different older systems. Usually we can get the files extracted. The comes the problem of figuring out what the bits in the file mean. On one project, the company decided to simply forgo twenty years worth of accounting data, since no surviving company or living person could be located who knew what the file format was, and the lowest bid we could get for the reverse engineering work came to $2 million.

The great vulnerability of digital data is that it requires maintenance. Interrupt that for even a few years and you will start seeing losses. Interrupt for a couple of decades and most, if not all, will be completely unusable. How many societies have gone without interruption over the long term?

And all the while books still work.

Dode said...

Thanks again for another thoughtful essay.
It reminded me of many of my wife's stories from her work life. As an archivist she has seen fads related to digitization of documents come wave after wave. Some add value making data available to users without travel but none of them offer the basic security of print and paper.
In the end the documents outlive the CDs the specialist indexing applications or database engines and servers that run the websites.

Jacques de Beaufort said...

The biggest problem is that most books made since the 50's will soon deteriorate (if they haven't already) due to high ph and the fact that they are printed on poor quality wood-pulp paper with toxic glue. Real paper that has any chance of lasting needs to be made from a fiber like cotton or linen. I's actually surprisingly easy to produce aside from the massive pulp-making machine that is required to shred the fibers enough for them to be useable. The shredding process is a pretty energy intense effort, although I suppose you could get a horse or windmill to help out. The alternative is sheepgut or other vellum.

Strangely enough as I write this I am listening to you on C2C AM talking about UFO's. I've seen a couple and I'm pretty sure they weren't dark ops or any other government tech. As the ever expanding edifice of western scientism begins to crumble and dissolve beneath the weight of it's own hubris, the cognitive dissonance noted by Jacques Valle and others will likely disappear, and I'm sure we will be witness to a panoply of colorful entities in addition to the Grays....jinns, sprites, boulder-grinders, incubi, chupacbre....etc. Maybe metal men from the Modern Age..ghosts from the tin-machine. Dunno.

Recently I came into contact with an entity I believe to be a manifestation of Shamash, Aton, and Ra....but that's a whole other story...


John Michael Greer said...

Brian, good for you! Freedom of the press is a lot easier when you have one. I'll be in touch offlist about Portland events.

Danby, all too true. I think of all those reel-to-reel tapes from the Apollo missions that are unreadable now because the software that could decode them got scrapped in the 70s...

Dode, absolutely. Digitization has advantages for access, but not for preservation -- and that's even before the effects of peak oil are factored in.

das monde said...

I am wondering, what is the chance of some kind of systematic information eradication (say, book burning) by some fanatics or even governments, with the purpose of consolidating power through tight control of available public information? Wouldn't it be absolutely convenient to some ruling circles to have a unique "theory" what or who was responsible for the collapse, and how a society should be governed, while eradicating any alternative knowledge? How much would it take in a collapsing world to "take care" of most libraries and book stores in the world, or "wrong" political, history or science books, or stubborn dissenters and "dangerous" collectors?

Wouldn't it be possible that some elites would secretly enjoy a variety of today's technology and knowledge, occasionally baffling their folks with "miracles" while skillfully manipulating them with both age-tested and today's methods of psychology and social sciences?

Is it unthinkable that some past collapses of local civilizations resulted in a prolonged manipulating rule of elites that actually knew better what happened (or what was available) just before the last collapse?

Can we speculate that quite advanced technology and knowledge were developed even before the known civilizations (say, in between the ice ages), but basically all of it were suddenly lost?

I saw one book with a particular theory, that the Hellenistic Greeks were making a quantitative leap in technology and scientific understanding (with Archimedes, Herophilos, Hipparchus, Appolonius, Euclides, Eratosthenes, Hero of Alexandria...), but most of it was lost under transition to the "practically oriented" Roman Empire and the Dark Ages.

If bursts of science/technology revolutions can occur and fade so fast, can we guess better how the famous isolated ancient "wonders" actually came about? Wouldn't anyone be tempted to control that cycle of (as I can imagine) long suppression of advanced knowledge followed by an exited acceleration?

anagnosto said...

Two weeks ago I remained ruminating about how obsolete technologies often reach their best performance when they are already doomed and in the way to be substituted, because of inertia or advancements in other fields. For example mail armour was best in XVIth century shortly after it became less popular than plate armour, or kerosene lamps like the Aladdin came out in the 1920s when already being retired by electricity.

So I am trying to imagine what advances came to the old printing press after the computer age, that will be worthy to develop further...

I also wonder if that old medieval devil, Titivillus, is responsible for the new digital mistakes and loses...

Jean-Vivien said...

you seem to read my mind, jmg, as i wanted to ask just that a few days ago - are books a worthless expense of money right now or a useful ressource to have, even in the future ?
well your post gives us some directions to start with. I like books, they have a very sensual aspect. And the whole idea makes sense - use your brain more, your machines less. Do you think that people will still have the time/energy/motivation to read books as the unravelling of the industrial age unfolds ?

Peter said...

from a "dyed in the pulp" book lover, a post to warm my heart! Thanks...and it made me think of another candidate for a future leading institution that we look askance at today-Societies for Creative Anachronism. At first I took the thought to be whimsical, but the more I sit with it, I'm beginning to wonder.....from sword-play to word-play, let the games begin.

Arthur Vibert said...

Thank you for another excellent blog post. When I was in art school in the '70s I learned letterpress as part of the curriculum. We pulled type from California cases and assembled it by hand. Letter spacing was accomplished with small metal shims or, in cases where only tiny adjustments were necessary, with tiny strips of paper. And we did it backwards, of course.

It is a craft in a way that working from the computer is not. And while I find the computer to be a wonderful tool for design, the fact that one can work so quickly means that the time one would, in a simpler age, have taken for reflection and contemplation about what one is creating is lost.

I think this is true in other arts in which the computer has become ascendant. In music, synthesizers, samplers, and various other devices have replaced traditional instruments. Acoustic instruments can be plucked, or struck, or blown through and one can see the parts that make the sound. If you open the computer and look inside you will be hard pressed to figure out where the music is coming from, apart from the speaker.

Music can be written down so that others can play it centuries from when it was originally composed. The computer means that musicians don't need to read music and don't need to master their instruments. But without computers, what happens to all the music created on them?

Film is another example. In traditional (!) chemical-based film it was possible, after the film was developed, to hold up a strip of it and see actual pictures. There are no more pictures on celluloid. It's all being replaced by digital acquisition of images, digital assembly and digital projection. Even traditional film is an ephemeral medium - much has already been lost in the brief existence of film on this planet. It will only become worse in the brave new digital world.

When art becomes commoditized - as everything in our civilization must be, it seems - no one cares if it will survive for ten years because we are looking for the next film, or book, or pop tune before we've finished the one we're on. I was commenting to a friend that before the advent of recorded music one would be lucky to hear any given symphony performed more than once in one's life. People usually heard these things by playing piano transcriptions. You can imagine that, for example, Beethoven's 9th would probably lose something in translation. You can also imagine what a transcendental experience hearing the symphony played by a full orchestra would have been. When you've heard it 100 times by the time you're 20 it loses something.

I could (obviously) go on forever about this. My point is that while the computer has given us astonishing efficiencies, it has taken something in return. Just as it is now easier and faster to create on the computer, that which we create is fated to live a dramatically shorter life. It's a Faustian bargain for our Faustian civilization. Sic transit gloria mundi.

guamanian said...

Thank you for another great post! I think that the bitsphere may be lost to us faster than many of us believe, leaving a great deal of information that would be useful in the early days of the descent marooned beyond reach.

I was speaking with a friend in our peak oil group who runs an electronics manufacturing business, who asked "Do you have anything with a chip in it that is over 15 years old and still works?." I had to say not. Neither did he.

Not enough energy and capital to maintain the infrastructure, decay of storage media, and decay of the devices that allow access. Combined I'd guess these factors could give digital data a half-life as short as 5 years. At that decay rate, many of us will be using primarily analog tech within 15 years.

The digital age will leave some lingering impacts though... I've set type by hand on an old Excelsior, and can attest it takes a long time. I would not be surprised to see texting conventions, symbols, and acronyms survive the demise of digital and continue into the second letterpress era:

Hamlet: 2B R !2B = Q

kabir said...

The fragility of the digital age is truly an amazing thought to contemplate. All that is in front of our screens, all the information at the tips of our fingers is so fluid!

It seems most organizations and have gone to completely digital storage and we really haven't even contemplated long term storage strategies. The only options are to continually transfer over as the storage device approaches its end of life cycle, and when these options aren't there? I guess its yet another compelling argument point towards industrial collapse.

If we wanted to preserve large amounts of data for a couple hundred years in a monastary knowledge repository could we? What if we stocked up on solid state memory, microprocesors and other computer compents and kept a a couple computers with the desired info running, and swapped out the memory cards and compents as things aged.

Does anyone know if there currently exists a project with the explicit intent of long term knowledge preservation?

RDatta said...

For me, your post on books was a timely corrective, having a few days before watched Charlie Rose's interview of Jeff Bezos:

Kind of disappointing to think that the Kindle (and Smart Phone) might not replace the book.

One way out might be the Singularity, but your previous post casts that in a rather dim light.

Thanks for keeping your readers on an even keel.


nutty professor said...

Another pivotal post, Archdruid, thank you - so many important issues that connect to your greater theme. The idea of the book as a lasting technology also leads to an issue that you raised briefly in a post or writing that I read some time ago: that of the useful and necessary skills that might be developed during the period of descent which would be socially beneficial in the future. Writing as a technology is of course, key; there is a role for those who will be entrusted with preservation of our narratives and myths and epics, the writers and the historians and the artists in our society, who would provide access to what might be the lost information of the future. Here is where I found your suggestions, yet undeveloped, on the craft of memory to be most intriguing; the value that might be placed upon cultivating scholars of the arts of memory, so those who will preserve the narrative (in books, or in oral traditions, or in "art" forms) have alternative resources to which to turn. Mnemonics as a means of encoding and storing knowledge - and as an enduring human technique. So very different from the "human computer" or "the human calculator." And I am not speaking only about savants, but of a kind of training or schooling that has been lost or is so specialized as to be hidden in the modern world. But completely useful. Or is this idea entirely unfeasible as an educational priority?

Auer said...

With the advent of mass production, modern technologies, especially electronics, have become disposable. Many manufacturers no longer repair their faulty products; it is cheaper to replace them with new ones.

Part of the reason for this is the technological turnover of electronics nowadays is so frequent that usually "the next best thing" is on the market before the older thing has even experienced a single life cycle. Consumers are coerced via intense advertising into buying-in early.

This makes modern products' longevity exponentially decay, as manufacturers respond by making products cheaper to mass produce, thereby making them less reliable.

Think about it: how long do you think your laptop would last on a tropical island, given only a charging solar array but no spare parts or service? Modern electronics are so complex that they stand a slim chance against the pressures of entropy. Computers have a high mortality rate as is.

In a declining civilization, the systems that collapse first are the ones that are most complex, as they are the most vulnerable to entropy. By this logic, the internet and computers should be the first to be flushed down the drain of bygone technologies.

And that is why I print your blog, amongst others, to paper and keep binders of interesting & usefull material for future reference.

Long live print.

OneCrazyMama said...

Another one sent flying right out of the ballpark, Mr. Greer.

I don't think the average person understands the value of books, or libraries for that matter.

My fear is the overall lack of care about books and knowledge in general. As a parent, I've seen the way the public schools handle passing knowledge from one generation to the next. I consider it a precursor of a New Dark Age. The people in my neighborhood charged with shaping the minds of the next generation, well, frankly, they scare me to no end.

My fear is that Fate's strong sense of irony would come into play and Oprah's book club titles would stand to last the ages while the finest minds of the 20th century would turn to dust on forgotten library shelves, with only bookworms (of the invertebrate variety) to enjoy them in between.

John said...

This is timely, as well, I'm in library school (MLIS) and my classes the past couple weeks have been on preservation and the book arts. According to the prof and echoing other posters, the peak of book binding seems to have been around the 18th Century before the mass production of books for entertainment purposes.

Very interesting stuff about the technology of a book and efforts to begin preserving digital items.

Here's one initiative to preserve digital items:

And here's is the library of congress page on the issue:

Here's an important report on the topic:

But, more fun, and perhaps timely, for the other readers of this blog is the medieval help desk:


As for those that put stock on silicon, remember, we have books from 500 years ago that still work. Anyone use 5 1/2 inch floppies any more?


As for the world we live in know I'll leave with a quote by Kierkegaard:

"The more a man can forget, the greater the number of metamorphoses which his life can undergo; the more he can remember, the more divine his life becomes."

John Michael Greer said...

Jacques, paper is certainly a real issue; with any luck more people will make it their issue, since it's something that can be learned and practiced with fairly simple tools.

As for the UFO thing -- well, it's arguably off topic, but people have been seeing funny things in the sky since the beginning of history, and defining them in terms of the current culturally appropriate narratives. I certainly don't mean to suggest that everything labeled as a UFO is a cover story for the current generation of black budget aerospace projects, though I think it's pretty much an open secret these days that the UFO mythology has been used by a number of governments to distract attention from quite a few aerial activities that needed to stay off the front pages of the newspapers.

Das Monde, one thing that happens almost always in a collapse is that the elite of the collapsing society get their throats cut -- as often as not by their own bodyguards. I wouldn't worry too much about the scenario you've suggested.

Anagnosto, that strikes me as an extremely useful direction to follow up. As for Titivullus, I think his name is "undocumented software feature" these days!

Jean-Vivien, books have another advantage -- they're cheap entertainment. My guess is that as more expensive entertainment media price themselves out of the mass market, equivalents of the penny dreadfuls and pulp fiction of yesteryear will take up the slack. So, yes, I suspect books have a big future ahead of them.

Peter, I've come to suspect that all the reenactment societies may be significant resources. Just to mention one detail, most of the people I know who know how to turn fiber into thread with a hand spindle -- a highly useful skill in a deindustrializing world -- are SCA members.

Arthur, since the ascendancy of the computer will most likely be self-terminating, my guess is that the problem you've outlined will correct itself.

Guamanian, shorthand and stenography are very ancient -- I could see text message habits being absorbed into some future system along those lines.

Kabir, I don't know of any project along those lines. As for your idea of a monastery with big data banks, well, that only works if you're thinking in the relatively short term -- much less than a century, say -- because components degrade so rapidly. Longer than that, and a library is a much better bet.

RDatta, the Singularity is the Rapture in technological drag. Don't hold your breath.

Professor, mnemonics are indeed a live option -- and there's a very mature technology available for the purpose. I'll likely do a post on the subject down the road a bit. In the meantime, you might check your local library system for Frances Yates' The Art of Memory.

Auer, well put.

Crazy Mama, well, that's why those of us who aren't members of Oprah's club need to get to work.

John, keep detailed notes on those book arts classes, and look for opportunities to build practical skills. You may be looking at your future career.

FARfetched said...

Good point — I point at basic medicine and hygiene as basics, but how do we preserve those without literacy and its feedstock (i.e. books)? Typewriters would be a good related technology to preserve as well: they can be built with late 19th century technology, consuming only (inked) ribbons, paper, and muscle power. Making paper seems to be a straightforward process, according to several sites I found with "the google." You need fibrous material to comprise the pulp, water, and a frame to dry it on. One can hope the process becomes widespread enough that next century's equivalent of monks don't erase books to make room for their own manuscripts.

Retrieving data more than a few years old can certainly be an issue — I remember when Microsoft Word would not read more than one major revision backwards. (For example, 4.0 wouldn't read files written in Word 2.0.) Even without that issue, tools themselves get replaced fairly regularly… Word*Star, anyone? The whole thrust of SGML, and XML after it, is to improve the shelf life of data — especially the written word. As long as computers can read plain text files, the thought goes, it should be possible to extract meaningful data from markup.

Now if computers themselves go away — and I have a couple of dinosaurs that still work, one of which is over 20 years old — then only what's on paper is going to be preserved, and a slow decline would allow this to happen. Unless the fast-crash scenario comes true, anything considered important (at the time, and by the "right" people, of course) should end up on paper and thus have a chance of making it through the bottleneck.

I don't see computing technology going away soon, but long-term text preservation should be a priority.

Flanagan said...

Speaking of the Book Arts, check this out:

...and this:

Look to the past for the future of the book!


Isis said...


You said:

"I wish it made sense to count on public libraries, but those venerable institutions have gotten the short end of the stick now for decades, and the dire fiscal straits faced by most state and local governments in the US now do not bode well for their survival."

What about university libraries then? Do you think those might fare better? In general, I wonder what your thoughts are on the future of the university as an institution. It goes without saying that in the coming decades, we'll see a decline in college enrollments, and certainly, many colleges will close down. But do you think some might survive through the 'dark ages'? And if so, in what ways do you think their roles might change from what they are now? Do you think they might become monasteries of sorts?

John said...

Passion and not-for-profit seems to be what makes things last. Either it will be God or our gods that save us or all is lost.

There are too many variables in the preservation field of library and information science.

Having the perfect environmental conditions seems unlikely no matter where you are and what you are trying to preserve.

If I had the funds and the time I would make sure that sustainable copies and bindings of important works are created for our time but of course I will have to find a job at the end of my graduate career and my notes and so on will not mean much once a certain plateau is reached. My life and values will end and I will only be remembered as the weird uncle that taught his nephews how to hunt, how to secure territory and how to take care of certain things.

steve said...


Interesting article - yet worried that the (kindly proffered) links to people attempting to save digital material - do not seem to have "got" it. They are archiving in digital form...

I have spent an evening or two last year looking at this problem. It seems to me that what is needed is to use known, proven technologies to store data. Egyptian hieroglyphs? Carving in stone? Certainly, something that archaeologists can grasp.

My thoughts are unfinished - yet the best I could do was:

a Pyrex platter similar to a stereo LP, with two channels and a nominal recording speed akin to 8KHz. Channel L is a clock plus a parity bit, R is 32 steps (5 bits) of data in analogue form.

The system would be durable (Pyrex bounces), easy to investigate with (say) 1950's tech base science and would hold c 15M bytes of data in total. This is doable.

I was aiming for simplicity of format with a base-line durability of c. 100 years, though if stored in a mechanical protector and sealed away in a cool dry place (e.g. the inside of a tomb) I would expect a far longer life; ceramics exist that are c. 4000 years old.

But the data density is too low. I'd hoped for at least 100M ideally more... can anyone improve on this?

Remember the people playing it back may be at a lower tech level then us...

sv koho said...

Thanks again for another outside the mainstream envelope post. JMG, you have talked about the impermanence of our current book and paper technology because of the acid pulp technology. My question is, where can we obtain paper that will last and start using it now? Are there certain inks that we should be using as well?

Dougald Hine said...

This sent me looking for a passage from a lecture given by William Golding ('Lord of the Flies', 'The Inheritors') in the 1970s:

"Our world is voracious and still becoming more so. Sooner or later, unless we exercise a care and forethought which is seldom evident in the mass of human beings, we shall be left with little more than village or small town economy. It is worth noting, therefore, that the making of books can be a cottage industry. If the need is there, anyone could learn that careful swirl of the tray and flick of the wrist that distributes the pulp evenly over the mesh and gives us handmade paper...

"I say all this because I sometimes hear people say that the age of the book is past; and I suppose these statements to come from people who have a couple of thousand television sets on their shelves. But it will be a very advanced village industry that can manufacture a television set. Tapes, cassettes, records, radios, television sets are with us, certainly; but he would be a wise man who could predict how long we shall be able to afford them."

(William Golding, 'A Moving Target', Address to Les Anglicistes, Rouen, 16 May 1976)

I also recall Ian Sinclair observing that the history of the written word has seen a movement to shorter and shorter-lived media. It's not just that today's digital data is fragile and easily becomes obsolete, the paper on which 20th century paperbacks are printed decays faster than the books of previous centuries, and (he claims) the pattern holds true all the way back to stone tablets.

BurntToast said...

I recently read about about a new technology that might be of interest to you given the subject of week's essay:

Introducing the new "Bio-Optic Organized Knowledge" device, trade-named -- BOOK.

BOOK is a revolutionary breakthrough in technology: no wires, no electric circuits, no batteries, nothing to be connected or switched on. It's so easy to use, even a child can operate it.

Compact and portable, it can be used anywhere -- even sitting in an armchair by the fire -- yet it is powerful enough to hold as much information as a CD-ROM disc.

Here's how it works:

BOOK is constructed of sequentially numbered sheets of paper (recyclable), each capable of holding thousands of bits of information. The pages are locked together with a custom-fit device called a binder which keeps the sheets in their correct sequence.

Opaque Paper Technology (OPT) allows manufacturers to use both sides of the sheet, doubling the information density and cutting costs. Experts are divided on the prospects for further increases in information density; for now, BOOKS with more information simply use more pages. Each sheet is scanned optically, registering information directly into your brain. A flick of the finger takes you to the next sheet.

BOOK may be taken up at any time and used merely by opening it.

BOOK never crashes or requires rebooting, though, like other devices, it can become damaged if coffee is spilled on it and it becomes unusable if dropped too many times on a hard surface. The "browse" feature allows you to move instantly to any sheet, and move forward or backward as you wish. Many come with an "index" feature, which pin- points the exact location of any selected
information for instant retrieval.

An optional "BOOKmark" accessory allows you to open BOOK to the exact place you left it in a previous session -- even if the BOOK has been closed. BOOKmarks fit universal design standards; thus, a single BOOKmark can be used in BOOKs by various manufacturers. Conversely, numerous BOOK markers can be used in a single BOOK if the user wants to store numerous views at once. The number is limited only by the number of pages in the BOOK. You can also make personal notes next to BOOK text entries with optional programming tools, "Portable Erasable Nib Cryptic Intercommunication Language Styli" (PENCILS). Portable, durable, and affordable, BOOK is being hailed as a precursor of a new entertainment wave. BOOK's appeal seems so certain that thousands of content creators have committed to the platform and investors are reportedly flocking to invest. Look for a flood of new titles soon.

(Thanks for another thoughtful essay - I now find myself anticipating the next installment each week!)

Fed up completely said...

Nothing of value is ever lost. Books are simply mechanisms for congealing thought. They come, they go ... nothing gained, nothing lost.

John Michael Greer said...

Farfetched, I don't expect computers to go away soon. I do expect them to become progressively more expensive, as the internet becomes less reliable and access to it becomes more restricted; it's the death of a thousand cuts rather than some sudden systems crash that's likely to do both of them in. All the more reason for some of us to move further down the curve in advance, and get the next generation technology in place.

Michael, thanks for the links!

Isis, depends on the funding base of the university in question. Those few that have stable private sources of funding not dependent on investments may be able to pull through. Public universities, and those private ones that got caught up in bubble economics, are in deep trouble already and for many of them, it will only get worse. It would be good to see librarians at university libraries start thinking about a worst case plan for preserving their most important holdings if their funding goes away entirely and the university they serve is boarded up -- but I'd be amazed if anyone is thinking in those terms yet.

John, all these are important points. The question ultimately becomes this: what do you, personally, care enough about to be willing to invest your own limited time and money into preserving?

Steve, it's a fine idea, but can you get together the equipment and funding to make it happen? If not, I'm not sure this is helpful. Once again, the question is what you yourself can do.

Koho, low-acid paper made of cotton or hemp will last for centuries; it's the stuff made of wood pulp that turns back into sawdust in fifty years or so. As for inks, any standard carbon ink ought to be fine. Both the paper and the ink can be made by hand.

Dougald, thanks for the quotes! Excellent stuff.

Toast, very funny! I must be on the bleeding edge, then, because I have a couple of thousand of these very advanced information storage devices, with all the peripherals.

Fed Up, from my perspective your claim misstates the situation cruelly. When Diego de Landa burned nearly all the Mayan mathematical and astronomical codices, to name only one example, a priceless part of the heritage of our species vanished forever. Books may be congealed thought, as you say, but uncongealed thought doesn't keep well.

Rick said...


Excellent post; you've certainly touched a nerve. Three tidbits:
1. Hemp, along with its many other benefits, makes excellent paper.
2. The Long Now Foundation ( has a Rosetta Stone project to work on digital data preservation issues in conjunction with its 10,000 clock. Worth checking out.
3. The transmission of data/knowledge over time is a fertile field of inquiry, involving memetics, entheogenics and religion, literacy, and much more. A couple of titles I'm working with in this area are Leonard Shlain's "The Alphabet Versus the Goddess," and Neal Stephenson's outstanding novel "Snow Crash."
As a former typesetter, I think the marriage of computer typesetting and letterpress printing is a match made in heaven; and as custodian of a personal library of over 1,000 volumes, I'm deeply concerned about the issues you've raised. I look forward to more discussions. Thank you.
Best wishes,

Ricardo Rolo said...

Surely books are a far more reliable medium than the current favourite media storages ( and even today computers are not reliable, like some mortage in the US cases proved: the bank simply could not produce a document that proved that some mortages had occured when asked by judges ), but even books have a lot of limitations in terms of storage of information:
-They have to survive

This one is self-evident, but books are very frial things. They burn, they are very sensitive to high humidity and celulose eating animals love them. The ink may not be very durable also. All of this without considering the periodic book burns.....

-The language where they were written has to survive in some meaningful way. Same for the signal system used in the writing.

No common people will keep books for more than a generation or two if there isn't anyone that understands the language there. Roman and Greek books survived because there was some people that knew Latin and Greek, in spite of the common people didn't knew anything regarding that. Same for the Chinese counterparts. If people don't understand them, they will simply reuse them ( like the Gnostic Gospels found in Egypt in the the middle of the XX century, that were being used as paper windows ) and they will not last long. Or worse,, they might even survive in perfect fashion, but no one may understand them, even if the alphabet or the language are still alive. I could quote the ever present Mayans or the Easter island writings, but I have to quote a more revealing case: I lived for some years near of a place where it was found some stones written in the Southern Iberian culture. This people had a alphabet of their own, but they sometimes used greek letters ( like Russians use sometimes latin letters, in spite of having the cirilic ). We thus know how the letters were pronounced ( well, with a heavy classical greek accent.... ) and we can even phonetically read the other alphabet writings, but we can't understand what is written there. Pretty much like if the Inuit with latin alphabet became the standart for the Northern America ( with english reduced to almost ( or even being ) a dead language ) and one person knowing that would try to read a english-written novel.... they would be able to recognize the letters, they could even phonetically read the novel ( with inuit accent ), but they wouldn't understand a word ( besides any inuit word imported from english ....)

- The context of the book theme has to survive in some meaningful way

If you notice, most of the books that survived the rises and falls of this world were of topics that didn't needed a special formation to understand: love, politics, philosophy, war .... More technical stuff simply disapeard: we have no latin book describing
the use of lighter cements in higher parts of cement-made buildings, like we discovered the romans used in the Pantheon, for a quick example. Technical books, as a rule of thumb, don't survive, unless they are related with war ( and even then, we only have a handful of them from the Roman days, like Vegetius, and some more from the chinese counterepart, like Sun Tzu ..... ), and even if they survive, they can be completely useless due to lack of context ( I recall a small novel from a quite a while ago, A Canticle for Leibowitz (I am quite sure that the Archdruid knows it ), where at a certain point two monks were discussing what was Electronics ( the art that Saint Leibowitz used before the atomic war ) and one tells that it was the art of using the Electron, that, according to the only fragment avaliable "was a torsion of the nothing negatively charged". This are completely valid definitions of Electronics and electrons if you put them in the modern days science context ( The ever exotic Quantum mechanics ), but that will not help you a tiny bit in doing a electric engine or a radio, especially if you don't know quantum mechanics ... )

- The content of the book has to be suficienty useful and not too much dangerous to the governements.

This is somewhat covered by the other items, but I think it needs a separate explanation.

Making books is a expensive enterprise ( it might be cheaper per unit than manuscript, but the fact is that, if we use the medieval ratio of 9 farmers/sheppards/fishermen to produce enough to sustain a non-farmer, you'll need 9 farmers/shepards/fishermen working for every person that is working direcly or not ( like the blacksmith or the lumberjack ) in the printing press. That in terms of human society is highly expensive ). This means that Printing press may only survive in a society with a lot of food excedents, and that is the same thing that makes powerful governements viable. The only times where there was a relative free press was when a sociological accident produced a high productive society that didn't had a strong enough governement ( like Gutenberg Germany or the Thirteen colonies ). On more normal times governement has been able to control the press in one way or another. This obviously puts a hard limit on concepts that have a chance to survive printed: for a example, I'm pretty sure that the gospels, with their revolutionary Jesus whipping the Temple sellers or calling Herodes Antipas ( technically his king ) a fox, or with Peter saying loudly to the Jewish authorities that it is more important to please God then men would had been burned a long time ago or simply not recopied/reprinted to oblivion if it wasn't the word of God for the Churches.... and even then there were obviously cuts and inserts in them. The non-sanctioned gospels prove that.... There is also the case of Confucius writings: we don't even know if any of the survivors of the First emperor anti-Confucian rage or the reconstructions made after that have actually any of the original material in it, of if it has, if it wasn't distorted to mean a thing completely diferent of the original meaning.

Bottom line: the books that are recopied or reprinted most of the times are the ones that are useful enough and not too harmful for the rullers of the time... Don't expect, for a example, that detailed plans of a flying machine
survive if the state can't/don't want to control the air ( this already happened in a time with priting press : search for Bartolomeu de Gusmão Passarola )...

I'm not saying that books are not a good information storage medium in harsh days, but in reliability nothing beats the old master-aprentice relation and the medieval memorization techniques in terms ( there are still some people that use them... my favourite is the walk method: you make a walk while thinking on the things you want to remember, assigning every item to a particular feature of the walk path and when you want to recall it, you make the math mentally until that item... pretty similar to what we do when we don't find the house/car keys. This works well because our brains are better storing images than concepts.... so we tag a mental image of the path with the concepts we want to remember ), because this kind of relationship most of the times also transmits the context of the teached knowledge, a thing that no other medium ( including books ), can do.

P.S Related to this, a link to a small essay of a self proclaimed "war nerd" regarding the hubris of the persons of falling civilizations, that always think that their fall is the end of the world:

He's a little truculent, but he's got a point in there.

wylde otse said...

Too bad "our elite" waddle about like silly fatted geese, with a vision extending all the way to the end of their beaks. So much good stands to be lost along with the unsustainable.

Great (and brave) comments here, especially on durable paper. Book-binding is not yet a lost art.

das monde said...

One digital technology that could be used to preserve information for long ages is perforated cards or tapes. Even the type of perforated cards used in the 1970s should last longer than the usual paper. Information density can be improved up to the point of (thick) needle piercing, especially if we are just interested in leaving a lot to read for some future generations. To preserve the small holes and strengthen the cards, lamination can be used. Not just cellulose but plastics are usable to make cards (like with the “durable” poker cards) - we heard a lot how purely degradable are plastics in natural environment.

The binary code for texting can be even read by a trained human eye; half of the ASCII code would be more than enough. Optical magnification of small holes can be made pretty low tech. Simple devices for card reading and teleprompter-type display could be feasible in a low technology world - either using simplest electric circuity, or perhaps purely mechanically.

Ternary (rather than binary) text coding can be a big helper. One of its beauties is that 3 tribits (ternary bits) can encode 3^3=27 symbols - just enough for the English alphabet and a separator. With 4 tribits you encode 3^4=81 symbols - good for capital and lower case letters, basic punctuation signs and arithmetic symbols. (Plus you can use one symbol to refer to an alternative symbol table.) Ternary perforation is not a problem - you would use two types of holes and a blank. A ternary code would be easier to read to trained humans, because of shorter length and richer patterns. Even theoretically, a ternary system encodes information more efficiently than a binary one - because 3 is closer to exp(1) or something. Who knows, a materially stable ternary computer might be just possible; even 3^9~=20”Kb” RAM would be welcome.

Music has been already encoded in perforation - you may have seen street organs in some European cities. To encode images economically, the optimally dense hexagonal/triangle grid of pixels can be used instead of the usual square grid.

das monde said...

Regarding my first post here: sometimes throats of leading elites indeed get cut in collapse turmoils, but more often than that their throats are fine, I guess. It should be generally easier to turn parts of the masses against each other, or against some pure scapegoats, than organize them to take informed radical action against the “monopolist” of violence. The elites may have good knowledge of workable tricks.

Besides, often a distinction should be made between nominal rulers and less obvious elites of various social and economic powers. By the critical time, the former may merely represent a public relations cover of a hidden consistent promotion of special interests of the latter. Whatever happens to the king, essential control of turmoil events may remain in the same hands.

Even if the elites fall thoroughly, the distribution of the recent knowledge can matter a lot socially. We may forget it at the times of democratic knowledge distribution (especially in science), but generally knowledge “does not” have to be shared publicly. Monopolies of basic knowledge may differentiate the society dramatically. The perspective of attainable slave cheap labour for many generations tempt various kinds of elites and accidental “John Galts” to cooperate like nothing else.

Carw Gwynt said...

John wrote that the peak of bookbinding appeared to have been in the 18th century. Respectfully, I disagree. Many of the techniques developed for mass production of books (following the acceptance of movable type letterpresses) moved towards faster and faster methods of binding the books, but not necessarily better techniques. There are still books that were bound in, for example, the 12th century that have stood up better to time than those bound in the 18th century. I will agree that 18th century techniques made books more accessible, by producing more books.

Jacques de Beaufort wrote about production of paper, specifically about shredding the fibers. It's not so much shredding the fibers (despite a commonenough technique used for handmade these days involving the use of a blender). The main goal is to reduce the papers to a really small size. One of the most common techniques for doing this in the past was to use large wooden triphammers, beating the fibers into pulp. Animal power, windmill power, water power, all can be used for mashing up the pulp for the production of paper. Also, it appears that the better source for the fiber for paper-making is worn out clothing, rather than freshly acquired fiber, because a lot of the breakdown process has been accomplished through wear-and-tear.

As Brian Bost noted, there are still a number of small presses using letterpress printers and movable type. I have more than 40 cases of movable type myself (although currently I only have a tabletop letterpress and a large proof press). There are suppliers for these presses, but I'm not sure anyone is making new ones (most of the ones available for sale are relatively old), and there are limited sources for new type (movable type will eventually wear out). There is an active community of letterpress workers who are attempting to preserve these presses so that they aren't simply reduced to scrap (which many already have been).

My regular employment requires constant work on computers over the Internet, but there is nothing quite like curling up with a good book of an evening. And if I find an electronic copy of a good book through the Gutenberg Project, I can download it, print it, and bind it myself, to experience the book as it was meant to be enjoyed.

Eremon UiCobhthaigh said...

Das Monde,
Your post about punch cards reminds me of the French silk looms of the turn of the 19th century that used serial punch cards to control the warp and weft patterns. These were the very same looms that the french laborers threw their wooden sabots into in acts of labor defiance.
The same punch card technology could be used to reengineer Charles Babbage's difference engine and other mechanical calculators.

Eremon UiCobhthaigh said...

Thanks again for pointing out what should be painfully obvious to all, but so seldom is. It seems as though the best use of the internet at this time would be to download and make hardcopy of all the practical, medical, and technical information that can be had.

Toomas said...

Thanks to everyone for this excellent

I know that our kind and patient host
John Michael Greer = JMG was a bit
skeptical of microform (microfilm,
microfiche, ...) when I raised the
idea, for the second or third time
on this forum, a few weeks ago.
Specifically, he questioned the
future availability of technological
resources, including inputs of energy,
for constructing microform-reading

Today I wish to start by stressing that
while a lot of energy and technology is
needed to create microform, much less
is needed to read it. Any microscope
adequate for a hospital or a school
will do, and no specialized training
in deciphering is needed. One inspects
the little sliver of microform with any
general-purpose microscope - that's a
device that embeds no electronics, that
does not require even electricity for
its operation - and one sees familiar
printed words in the eyepiece.

In fact I somewhat overrepresented the
difficulty of the case last time round,
by saying that any society which knows
how to assemble a pair of lenses into
a compound microscope will be able
to read microform. What I should have
said is that a simple (single-lens), as
opposed to a compound (multiple-lens),
microscope will do. The practicality of
this is demonstrated by microbiology
pioneer Antonie van Leeuwenhoek
(1632-1723), who made little hand-held
single-lens microscopes with simple
hand tools. If Leeuwenhoek was able
to see individual spermatozoa, then
someone imitating or rediscovering his
lens-grinding methods will be able
to see individual letters in microform.

In previous postings, I neglected
to address the question of
climate-controlled storage for a
microform archive. A quick check on
the Internet reveals that the best
contemporary plastic-based microfilms
will last for on the order of 500 years
or 1000 years if reasonable conditions
of temperature and humidity are met. (I
guess it is okay to keep the vault
at the temperatures of today's Nova
Scotia summers, and yet not okay to
hazard the temperatures of today's
Arizona.) That is not too bad, but I
nevertheless in the last few days found
that we can do better if we are
willing to invest a lot of energy now,
when we still have it, in creating
metal-plate microform, inscribing the
tiny letters with an ion beam. A firm
specializing in this technology is
Norsam Technologies in the USA, with
a writeup - the public Web, which I
researched last week, is my sole source
of knowledge regarding the firm - at
Here we find a few paragraphs
promoting Norsam's "HD-Rosetta
Archival Preservation Services".
One "HD-Rosetta" metal plate, about 5
cm (2 inches) square, and about 6 mm
(1/4 inch) thick, is said on the Norsam
Web site to tolerate temperatures as
high as 500oC (900oF), to last at least
a millennium, and to hold between 5,000
and 18,000 pages if the envisaged
means of retrieval is the optical
microscope. (A much higher pagecount,
it is said there, will fit onto a plate
if the envisaged means of retrieval
is the scanning electron microscope,
but all of us on this JMG blog will
add that that is not realistic for a
post-Peak-Oil information-retrieval
scenario.) The Norsam writing machine
is said to engrave 7,000 pages on a
metal plate in an hour, meaning that
a single HD-Rosetta plate will get
finished after one has paid Norsam for
an hour or two of machine time.

Since the Norsam ion-beam writer takes
digital files, one might imagine
some philanthropic soul, such as
George Soros, laying out some tens
of thousands of dollars to enable at
least some portion of the Project
Gutenberg open-public-access texts
to be read into a Norsam writer,
I suppose right within the walls of
Norsam Technologies, straight from the
Web. So that would be a way of helping,
say, Wordsworth and Blake, not to
mention Horace and Catullus, survive.

But I'd also like to put in a special
plea for preservation of science. What
REALLY has to be kept are (as indeed
our host JMG once pointed out in
this forum) the books that convey
the method, the general approach,
the strategy and the tactics and
the mental disciplines as opposed
to the factoids. I would suggest
that in the first instance this
means preserving a small shelf of
textbooks for the core undergraduate
curriculum, selected to embody best
international pedagogical practice in
the formation of the working scientist.
In calculus, we can forget about
the rather superficial mathematical
cookbooks that are used on ordinary
campuses for teaching the ordinary
"MATH101" or "MATH201". But we do
have to conserve an author like Spivak,
who retraces the very thought processes
used in developing univariate calculus,
ultimately building up to the full
rigour of epsilon-delta definitions and
(Spivak's first-year textbook is
used for honours-stream univariate
calculus courses in elite schools. I
imagine it is the first thing that
gets thrown at you if you embark on
a four-year programme of pure maths
in the Ivy League or at Cambridge.)
In physics, we can conserve French and
Taylor's MIT introductions to classical
mechanics and quantum mechanics, at
the North American PHYS200-to-PHYS299
level, first and foremost because
they retrace in historical detail
the repeated
transformation of conceptual
(philosophical) foundations under
the repeated impact of laboratory
investigations, but additionally
because they have unusually subtle
problem sets, with the usual sets
of back-of-the-book numerical

Now, continuing to focus on this sector
of science, I'll look at pagecount,
in each case rounding pagecount to 2
significant figures:

* Spivak _Calculus_, 2nd ed: 650 pp
* Spivak _Calculus_ , 2nd, edition,
"Answer Book" with worked detailed
solutions for problems
(line-by-line proofs,
with delicious remarks such as
"If a more analytical proof is
desired, note that the reflection
of (a,b) through the antidiagonal
is (-b,-a)"): 410 pp
* French, _Newtonian Mechanics_, 750 pp
* French, _Vibrations and Waves_, 320 pp
* French and Taylor, _An Introduction
to Quantum Physics_, 670 pp
* French, _Special Relativity_, 290 pp

The total pagecount then comes in
at 650+410+750+320+670+290 = 3090
pp, or with appropriate rounding
3100 pp. That is enough for a single
HD-Rosetta plate inscribed with the
largest letters (the most easily read
letters) emanating from the Norsam
ion-beam writer. With the HD-Rosetta
plate duly written, that is to say duly
engraved, we have a syllabus that makes
clear the full thrust of mechanics
(outside thermodynamics, admittedly),
as it developed from Newton to high
Victorian times. Additionally (this
is crucial) the conserved syllabus
explains the lines of investigation
and mental discipline that led to the
twentieth-century abandonment of the
Newtonian paradigm. The message to
our remote descendants can thus be:
"Here is how we did Newtonian mechanics
from 1650 or so until just after 1900,
and here is how we tore it all down,
or rather exhibited it as a mere
potentially misleading special case, in
a big revolution led between 1905 and
1930approx by Einstein and the quantum
mechanicians: now study our history
and see if it guides YOU in asking your
OWN questions about physical reality."

Since monasteries outside the
great cities are more durable than
universities, and since they already
have a tradition of conserving saints'
relics and other small-but-valuable
bits of property, it might make
sense to have such HD-Rosetta plates
stored in monasteries. In the USA, one
reasonable monastery is the Archabbey
of Mount Saint Vincent, founded
in 1846. This institution I have
visited, and I remain in communications
with it as an Oblate Novice. European
examples are more impressive still,
with St Gall (to take an example;
I have not visited) possessing the
triple advantages of operation since
719 A.D., remoteness from the ocean,
and political embedding in the ancient
and predominantly stable jurisdiction
of Switzerland.

I would imagine that HD-Rosetta plates
would serve as a repository to tide us
over if things get temporarily very
bad before getting better again. In
an era of renaissance, HD-Rosetta
plates could be read, perhaps with
a mere single-lens Leeuwenhoek-style
microscope, by scribes who then either
write books out with pens or set type
for letterpress.

Conventional books themselves
are not robust enough to keep
things going easily if things
get very bad, since in non-desert
climates they have to get copied
and recopied every few centuries,
in a race against the decay of paper
or parchment. Our Greek and Roman
literature comes down to us not from
Greek and Roman manuscripts but from
copies-of-copies-of-copies, dating not
all the way back to antiquity but only
to early mediaeval times. Additionally,
the energy requirements for keeping
a university-scale library of paper
books secure against fire and flood,
with adequate climate control, are
rather high.

Readers interested in other aspects
of library conservation might
enjoy the discussions on this blog,
under the JMG postings for 2008-05-14
("The Same New Ideas") and 2008-05-28
("Why Decline Matters"). Somewhere
in those discussions, I made a few
postings, drawing attention to a few
other points that I will not elaborate
here - for instance, to the conceivable
relevance of international cooperation
under the aegis of UNESCO or of the
folks at

in great gratitude to everyone
for raising, once again,
the centrally important topic
of book conservation,

Toomas (Tom) Karmo
verbum at interlog dot com

mjc said...

Regarding (1) technical obsolescence and (2) information being obscured by inability to read an old format:

1) I work in the defense industry, and the dependence on commercial products that may (actually, will) go out of production before the need for them does is an enormous problem. One effort to solve this is the existence of languages such as VHDL and Verilog that specify the circuits of electronic devices in such a way that newer hardware can be used while preserving functionality. The more common way is to buy all the spare parts you think will ever be needed.

2) File format independence is one of the big reasons that Don Knuth invented TeX (the mathematical typesetting language) and put it in the public domain. It is a markup language, where the input is plain text intermixed with formatting commands, all readable and editable by and simple text editor. As long as simple text files can be read, TeX files (and descendants such as LaTeX) can be read and understood even without a computer.

However, I definitely fear the intermediate future (10-20 years from now).

John said...

Carw is right, I misstated: I should have said "the plateau dropped off around then for the sake of mass production". As for the letter presses -- I want. :)


As for what I would preserve?


Sorry, that was a librarian joke. :)

I think a really idiosyncratic collection would be the most helpful. Open ended manuals. Things that teach principles but are timeless. Mythologies. Just to make sure there is more than one story out there.


Tom Karmo -- I love the Library of Congress classification on your site!

marielar said...

Hello all,

OneCrazyMama wrote:

"My fear is that Fate's strong sense of irony would come into play and Oprah's book club titles would stand to last the ages while the finest minds of the 20th century would turn to dust on forgotten library shelves, with only bookworms (of the invertebrate variety) to enjoy them in between."

To echo Crazymama comments, one of the thing missing is the critical thinking and knowledge to do the triage in what is worth saving and junk. We are faced with a incredible mass of published materials and even in more main stream area,like fiction, people are not accointed anymore with the landmarks of literature. Bookclubs and medias read and dissect the latest offerings on the shelves but dont read or discuss Mark Twain, Melville, Tolstoi etc...

In every fields its getting harder to find copies of the 'classics'. Online shopping is giving us a bit of a respite, but I remember vividly hunting second hand bookstores and librairies in search of some elusive book which should never have fallen in the out-of-print category. Visit most bookstores and ask for Sinclair's Babbit, Cervantes's short stories or Darwin's Formation of vegetable mould, and they will give you a puzzled look. The Harry Potter craze took me by surprise because all in all, it is rather badly written and it is not original. In retrospect, it made sense because the mainstream media and the public are not accointed anymore with the masterpieces of the Fantasy genre or any others, for that matter. I dont say that somebody must read only the great classics, but at least some of them.

We would like to think that it is different for specialists in medical, scientific or social sciences, but many wont look at literature older than five years. During undergrad studies, important ideas of the discipline will be covered briefly and then forgotten due to lack of use later on. One of the thing I appreciate most with JMG blog is his reference to key authors such as Toynbee.

Triage can be also a painful exercise. When budget and space are limited, what do you pick? Your favorite, albeight not the greatest author, say P.G. Wodehouse, or somebody less accessible, but more important, like Thomas Mann?

Pbearnard said...

As mentioned in a prior comment, a book or any written record is only useful if the language is still understood and skill of literacy is maintained. I worry, given the coming contraction in resources and population, that the greater challenge may be preserving literacy on any widespread and useful scale. Unlike a spoken language, the symbols and grammar of reading and writing must be consciously taught and practiced to be learned. That may be a luxury as we lurch down the slope to a sustainable human population and whatever level of social organization that results. If literacy becomes a skill confined to a succession of social elites then what is preserved or destroyed, and learned, will be based on their immediate priorities. Or literacy in current languages may be lost altogether.
Are there any strategies that might keep reading accessible and useful to people struggling to survive? Perhaps publishing durable books of simple stories with straightforward language and illustrations, or practical knowledge, diagrams of useful implements and machines with basic descriptions? People will tell stories and pass along useful knowledge orally in any case, so what will make books worth the effort to keep and read? The mental image I have is of a group of people somewhere in the future uncovering a collection of books, somehow preserved. Will they recognize them from their own well worn volumes or consider them another curious object from the “before times”, best used now as fuel for fire?

dancing_bear said...

I would also recommend an older,but still useful long term archival technique of microfilm. Photography is a relatively simple technology, compared to chip fabrication, and while exceptional optics are difficult to fabricate, people have been making glass lenses since the Middle Ages and photographic records since the early 1800s. The UN used to offer a portable fiche reader and a library of technical and literary 'standards' that fit in a shoe box for under $300 back in the 80s. It was meant for educational use in poor third-world countries, which I am afraid is where we are headed.