The Future Library Project

| February 10, 2015

Future Library Tree Rings by Katie Paterson

In the Library and Information Science field, so much focus is put on improving and changing libraries now and in the immediate future. But what about imagining what a library might look like in the far future? That’s exactly what Scottish artist Katie Paterson is doing by establishing the Future Library, a library that won’t be accessible until the year 2114.

Paterson and the Future Library Trust, a group comprised of editors and publishers, will invite one writer each year to contribute a piece of original, unpublished work to the library. Upon completion, the manuscripts will be stored in a specially designed room Deichmanske Public Library in Oslo, Norway. The room will be accessible by the public in 2018, and while the physical storage space will be visible the manuscripts will not be read until 2114 by anyone. Margaret Atwood, of Handmaid’s Tale fame, will be the first author to contribute to the library.

At the beginning of the project, Paterson planted a literal forest of one thousand trees in Norway. When the project is completed, the trees will be cut down to create the paper that these books will be printed on. As far as I can tell, there are no set plans for where the books will be stored after that, though I think it’s safe to assume that the Deichmanske Public Library will be involved if they still exist at the beginning of the 22nd Century.

Here is a link to a short film by Paterson about the project.

There is so much that astounds and fascinates me about this project that I have trouble deciding where to begin. I suppose the first thing is the sheer size of this project and the length of time that it will take. For example, there’s the maintenance of a forest of trees in a time where climate change and global industrialization pose risks to the natural world. Who knows what the state of the natural world will look like in the next century? Or the availability of land? Will people try to buy the land at exuberant prices because undeveloped land will be so rare? Will people try to keep the Future Library from cutting down those trees in order to preserve what forests they can?

Margaret Atwood, Future Library’s first author, and Katie Paterson, Future Library creator.

There are just so many variables that can not be planned for in this project, almost all of them having to do with time. There’s not even any guarantee that this project will achieve its end goals, after all Paterson herself is thirty-one and, unless something game-changing happens in the world of medical science, she will be long gone by the time the trees are cut down and the books are printed. Writers who will be selected may not have even been born yet, editors and publishers who will be part of the Future Library Trust may now just be learning to talk, and Paterson will simply be forced to hold out her project to the future and hope that someone grabs on. It’s a little frightening when you think of just how much will be left to chance.

However, if you look at Paterson’s body of work (available on her website), her passion for the Future Library makes a lot of sense. Paterson’s work often deals with time, space, and our very short role in the larger cosmic picture. Many of her works have involved the cosmos like Timepieces (Solar System), a series of clocks that display the time on the solar system’s planets in relationship to Earth, or The Dying Star Letters, letters proclaiming the deaths of stars. While the Future Library will be on Earth and not in outer space, it also represents something bigger than individuals, as well as the hope that something will continue after the people who set in motion are gone.

And while the sheer amount of time this project will take is daunting, the possible results are incredible. The Library will not just be a collection of a literature, but a record of the culture, language, and values that will inevitably change and evolve over the course of the next hundred years. It’s as much an ongoing time capsule as it is a library project. I’m sad that I won’t be able to see the results, but watching it unfold year after year and imaging the possibilities is a fine consolation prize.

The Future Library’s official website can be found here, where you can sign up for a mailing list announcing events and future writers.