The Technium

The Library of Utility

[Translations: Japanese]


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Kevin Carson

    I’m afraid your library of utility would run up against the problem of what James Scott called “metis,” or Polanyi called “tacit knowledge.” The greater part of technical skill, arguably, consists of a feel for tools and materials that cannot be reduced to either a verbal formula or a diagram and conveyed without direct experience. For such knowledge, if the human transmission link is broken, reconstructing it will be hard.

    • Kevin_Kelly

      Yep, this is the problem the Library is trying to cure.

      • David

        Right, and just doing it scientifically (with full human testing) would be a really interesting thing to do. In fact, I think that the act of writing of the books for this library is a far more valuable thing than the having of the library. We would have some great debates along the way, and learn a great deal about ourselves.

  • I think Niven and Pournelle explored this idea in “The Mote in God’s Eye.” I’ve always liked the idea.

    ‘Metis’ or ‘tacit knowledge’ will be re-acquired far more quickly by people working with tools that are known in advance to have reasonably optimal designs, towards goals that are known in advance to be reasonably well worth reaching. So the library addresses the problem pretty well.

  • Ralf Westphal

    A great idea!

    But why paper to store the information? Why not use a more durable material like acryl or plastic to print on/etch in texts and graphics?

    And why not set up more than one of such archives? Maybe one for every 1,000,000 square miles? Because if all´s lost then people will be pretty immobile at first.

    And surely such archives need to help the civilisatory bootstrapping process by teaching the languages used, the textual as well as the graphical languages.

    I guess for such archives to be of value they have to view the remaining humans as some kind of aliens who are quite unfamiliar with what the form and content of the archives is.

    After a devastating blow to global civilization how long would it take until someone would really want to make use of the archives? 1 year, 10 years, 100 years?

    The utility of a Library of Utility probably hinges on the continuity in culture and language of humanity. Once the archives languages are lost, once the basic capability of reading and reasoning are lost (due to the hardship scattered human bands would suffer in a post apocaliptic world)… bootstrapping would be a very, very hard process.

    So maybe even passive archives would not even help. Maybe they needed to be accompanied by an Order of Conservers whose members live with the archives in isolation to have a higher probability of suriving the apocalypse?

    • Dranorter

      I think perhaps there should be many archives, but each should be slightly different or even radically different, to sow seeds of variation in the post-apocalyptic world. This would be partially to prevent the future humans from becoming too obsessed with whatever is in the archives. Say one of these archives contains instructions for building a computer, as well as all the prerequisites which are necessary in order to get there. (Wow, it had better not include source code for a lame hack-ish operating system like all our modern ones! Best make it a lisp machine!) It seems to me more likely that, having constructed the computer, the new civilization would treat it as a centerpiece to some religious ritual than that they would figure out something good to do with it. And the same may go for any tool.

      So my proposal is to have different libraries represent different worldviews. Some might be a showcase of utility, demonstrating how to make various things. Others could concentrate on teaching science or mathematics; maybe one would preserve a good deal of modern chemistry, another, physics, another, linguistics — fields with different viewpoints on science. And there could be one preserving literature or other arts.

      Really I think individual disciplines and viewpoints interested in their own continuation should individually fund these libraries.

  • Just following on from Ralf’s comment, of making use of the archive in 1, 10, or 100 years; it would appear that due to the evolving nature of language and culture the archive would be most useful immediately following an apocalypse or collapse. Most useful as in greatest probability of enabling survivors to rebuild, given their more recent knowledge (including tacit) and familiarity with the archive’s content.

    Am I correct in thinking this archive is essentially a big blue print with instructions on how to build, from simple beginnings and materials, progressively more complex tools? All the way from fire and woven baskets to recombinant vaccines and supercomputing clusters?

    Provided reasonable access to food and water I wonder what is the minimum size of group needed to utilise such an archive to make a decent start at a rebuild?

    • Ralf Westphal

      I guess that´s a good question: What´s the “half time” of such an archive?

      And from there: If we assume that building the current civilization took about 2 mio years (of which the most recent 5,000 brought the biggest increase in knowledge)… how can we be sure that none such civilization has existed before? :-) Of course not in 100% the same way as ours, but advanced enough to find it necessary to set up Libraries of Utility.

      Has anyone looked for them? Where would we expect them? How would they look? Would they have been made to last until today? Would we be able to recognize them? Maybe by playing with this thought we could learn something about how we should set up such archives.

    • Kevin_Kelly

      Mark, you ask a good question. So far with set of one examples, its hard to know. Although we could look at the minimum number of pioneers needed to make a city that will last.

    • David

      I think it’s pretty clear that somewhere near the front there need to be some pretty clear instructions on how to bootstrap the English language – like translation dictionaries between all the major languages today, as well as “English for babies” lesson books.

    • AnthonyC

      That’s a really interesting question. I’ll speculate wildly.

      A band of humans 40-150 strong would be typical of a hunter-gatherer society (about as far back as a disaster could push us). I’d bet groups at the upper end of that range could afford to have one or two holy men or whoever, doing non-survival related tasks. Assuming there was some memory of our current civilization passed down, these people would probably be interested in such a library. Some of the knowledge would be immediately applicable- things at the level of metallurgy, carpentry, and agricultural best practices. Some would have to wait until the population got large enough to have narrower specializations.

      If the first bits of knowledge were good enough to attract neighboring bands, you could have a city of 1000 people within a decade or two. Within a generation or two you could have civilization at the level of ancient Greece. With a good enough guide you could go from there straight to the renaissance, bypassing the dark ages and going straight to the scientific/industrial age.

      I think the trickiest bit might be getting past (passed?) the level of wood-powered steam engines. Odds are that coal, oil, and natural gas won’t be available in substantial, easily reached quantities the way they were 300 years ago. I think it would be unrealistic to think we could jump straight from wood to nuclear power or photovoltaics, but it may be possible to get such a civilization to produce electricity with a crude windmill or solar thermal heat engine.

      So how long would it take? It think the first steps would be hardest, because they have to happen when the society has little ability to devote resources to future development. Once you have enough people and wealth to have just a small community of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians- a few dozen- people who could spend their lives learning and rediscovering- getting the rest of the way should be relatively straightforward, if lengthy. Optimistic scenario, a return to near-modernity within two centuries or so.

  • kathrin

    Your paper library will be burnt for heating or cooking purposes long before anyone will have the time to make use of it.

    • Kevin_Kelly

      Why is that? There is plenty of wood around.

      • kathrin

        Because the books are already dry, collected in one place, and you don’t need a saw or an axe. People used cathedrals and temples for building material even though there were plenty of stones around …

  • tim

    A big part of civilization is in the customs and laws. Such a library would have to include instructions on how to organize a large group of people (hopefully in a democratic way). Bureaucracy, money and policing.

  • matthewbattles

    I want bibliospores—unbearably small seeds, made to last for millennia in a kind of stasis, which when watered and tended grow into books.

  • J Landis

    I believe 10,000 books is a very high number. A few hundred books, or even a few dozen, could make a huge difference.

    A fellow named Dave Gingery taught himself the art of sand casting through a combination of book research and trial and error. He produced the parts for a series of progressively more sophisticated machine tools: lathe, drill, shaper and milling machine.

    He eventually created, from scrap metal, a machine shop that would have been state of the art, say circa 1910.

    A pretty good start, considering that those are the tools used to produce the first automobiles, airplanes and locomotives.

    Gingery’s books would make an excellent starting point for this library.

    In fact, many of the books in Lindsay’s catalog would be useful.

    • Kevin_Kelly

      Yes LIndsay’s is great. For my take on bootstrapping the industrial age and Gingery see this earlier post

      • Kalman

        If we’re going to be technium-shaping, I would personally not bootstrap the industrial age.

        Do we need a metal lathe? A drill press? Maybe, maybe not? It would certainly help people rebuild and eventually it would help support the growth of another hundred-billion humans on this planet..

        So, what are the discussions of what information should/should not be passed on and to what realistic outcome do we believe they can effect?

        Also, who is having those discussions? We all dream of a better world… but all of our dreams are different.

        Questions that undoubtedly has been asked by others.

        Ultimately, how could we recreate ourself but better? What is better?

        I would move the technium towards a direction that would bootstrap the co-existence of man/current eco-system/technology….albeit naively because I question if we know what that entails.

  • Graham Hale

    Has anyone ever mapped the dependencies of one technology on to another. To make one thing you need a raft of earlier technologies which were present before it was invented. You could take this all the way back to stone hand axes , and tools of wood and bone. A chart of technology dependencies would be an interesting starting point.

    • CarlosT

      I think Sid Meier did this once…

      All joking aside, this is a great idea, especially if you could easily retrieve the list of supporting technologies for a particular device.

  • David

    While I like the idea of this library, I think that civilization would be safer if we instead created and hid a million hardened Kindles that contain this library’s full catalog of books. If there’s only one then it becomes a super-weapon, or a fiery victim of some future demagogue. We can’t be naive about this: Too often, we as a race try to control knowledge.

    So what would you think of this idea: A Workshop of Utility? It would be a place with chisels, lathes, furnaces, beakers and engines. And instruction books, of course. By a strange prejudice we think of knowledge as being a set of propositions, so we naturally think of a library of books as the place to “contain” it. But in many cases, our knowledge is much better encoded in *objects* and not propositions. One of the things you should be able to do at the Workshop of Utility is to build a duplicate Workshop, having brought in only maximally available raw ingredients and studied only the books therein.

    • Guest

      How will they get electricity?

  • James Lovelock makes the case for paper as a long term storage medium here:
    I have a personal penchant for copper scrolls though:)

  • Marcin Jakubowski has recently given a TED talk on his work on an open source, replicable set of tools for modern civilization:

    Also, SKDB (apt-get for hardware).

  • SEED Mag has an article with some lead items for the library…

    • Kevin_Kelly

      I found those statements hugely disappointing. Now trying to think what I would say instead….

      • Maybe the SEED article produced aphorisms, perhaps a product of the shape of the question. What question should be asked of contributions to a library of utility?

  • CarlosT

    Also, this is rather similar to the concept that Hari Seldon laid out for the Encyclopedia Galactica.

    Of course, it was all a lie engineered to get the Imperial Regent to create the First Foundation on Terminus, but in any case, there are some definitely similarities here.

  • Dean West

    This is a good idea, and what the Encyclopedia Foundation is about. We believe the Long Now is doing something similar, too. You are correct that 10,000 books would do it. That would be more than enough. Well under a thousand could do a “reboot” to early 20th century levels, with 10,000 you could really explain a lot.

    We put this article in our Resources page on our website at Hope you can visit our site sometime, looks like we’re on the same page!

  • Dean West

    So you know, in case you don’t get to our site:

    The 13th Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica is the 11th Edition of 1911 plus three supplemental volumes current up to the nineteen twenties. With those 32 volumes (average of 1,000 pages per) you could get up to an early 20th century level of tech.

    You should also stack all the McGuffey Readers, or other K-12 learning books so that any who find your library can learn enough to take advantage of the information. That would not add more than 20 volumes, of a few hundred pages per on average.

    As you are at a little over 50 volumes, you could round it out with select books on select processes. Agriculture, Animal Husbandry, Biology, Chemistry…and such. The Machinist’s Handbook would be of aid.

    We think you’ll see that you could have a quick and dirty “reboot” with little more than a 100 books. A thousand would allow you to be very thorough. At ten thousand, you’re just showing off! (In a good way!)

    Please know that modern paper lasts little longer than 75 to a 100 years. You may wish to be thinking along the lines we are, which is to transcribe the appropriate books on to metal plates. If you must use paper, have two copies of each book. One that could be made available to the public, the other stored in an oxygen free environment of 65 degrees Fahrenheit and a humidity of 40% – constant.

    That will get you a few centuries. Let us know if we can be of help.

    • Kevin_Kelly

      Thanks, Dean, for your suggestions.

  • Michael

    It’s interesting to think of how the discovery of such a library would affect the balance of power, and whether the contents of the library could be manipulated to address this.

    I’m thinking that whoever controlled the library could choose to mine it primarily for information on tools of empire-building , e.g. weapon-making and military strategy, suppressing any other content (e.g. the importance of good nutrition and hygiene, how to create a free and fair society). So rather than focusing purely on the mechanics of each topic, perhaps the authors/compilers would want to ensure that all the content drives the adoption of structures and practices that could ease the transition to fairer and more rewarding societies.

    For instance, a treatise on manufacturing replaceable machine parts could stress in different sections the importance of engaged employees, the patent system, the free market and informed customers as mechanisms for allowing faster development of (and access to) good quality parts. A discussion of farming could mention how key free movement of goods is in ensuring access to markets, what the germ theory of disease is and how it impact foods, the importance of simple standard units of measure, the application of the scientific method to breeding. A handbook on military organisation could constantly highlight the importance of accountability, due process, clear rules and regulations, consistent application of those rules.

    Compiling such a library would be like a blend of “Civilisation” and “Foundation” with a dash of “A Deepness in the Sky” – trying to match the “how-to” information that a society would be seeking at a given stage in its progress, to the subtle guiding information that would nudge them into adopting the “best” structures for that stage: “should they be encouraged to establish a republic before they can produce steel?” and so on.

  • Jack Herrick

    As the founder of wikiHow, I’m obviously biased here, but I think some wikiHow articles could provide a great teacher of basic skills if we ever needed to reboot civilization. Some random examples that come to mind:

    If someone ever starts building this library, please get in contact with me so wikiHow can help!