The Technium

When Hard Books Disappear

[Translations: Japanese]

Hard books are on their way to extinction.

Biologists maintain a concept call a “type specimen.” Every species of living organism has many individuals of noticeable variety. There are millions of Robins in America, for instance, all of them each express the Robin-ness found in the type of bird we have named Turdus migratorius. But if we need to scientifically describe another bird as being “like a Robin” or maybe “just a Robin” which of those millions of Robins should we compare it to?

Biologists solve this problem by arbitrarily designating one found individual to be representative and archetypical of the entire species. It is the archetype, or the “type specimen,” of that form. There is nothing special about that chosen specimen; in fact that’s the whole idea: it should be typical. But once chosen this average specimen becomes the canonical example that is used to compare other forms. Every species in botany and zoology has a physical type specimen preserved in a museum somewhere.

Books and other media creations are now getting their type specimen archive. The same guy who has been backing up the internet (yes the entire web!), and is racing Google to scan all books into digital files, has recently become concerned about the lack of a physical archive for all these digitized books. That guy is Brewster Kahle, the founder of the Internet Archive. Brewster noticed that Google and Amazon and other countries scanning books would cut non-rare books open to scan them, or toss them out after scanning. He felt this destruction was dangerous for the culture.

We are in a special moment that will not last beyond the end of this century: Paper books are plentiful. They are cheap and everywhere, from airports to drug stores to libraries to bookstores to the shelves of millions of homes. There has never been a better time to be a lover of paper books. But very rapidly the production of paper books will essentially cease, and the collections in homes will dwindle, and even local libraries will not be supported to house books — particularly popular titles. Rare books will collect in a few rare book libraries, and for the most part common paper books archives will become uncommon. It seems hard to believe now, but within a few generations, seeing a actual paper book will be as rare for most people as seeing an actual lion.

Brewster decided that he should keep a copy of every book they scan so that somewhere in the world there was at least one physical copy to represent the millions of digital copies. That safeguarded random book would become the type specimen of that work. If anyone ever wondered if the digital book’s text had become corrupted or altered, they could refer back to the physical type that was archived somewhere safe.

But where? The immediate answer is: in cardboard boxes, stacked five high on a pallet wrapped in plastic, stored 40,000 strong in a shipping container, inside a metal warehouse on a dead-end industrial street near the railroad tracks in Richmond California. In this nondescript and “nothing valuable here” building, Brewster hopes to house 10 million books — about the contents of a world-class university library. The containers are stacked two high and are plumbed to remain at 30% humidity. Together with their triple waterproofing (plastic, steel container, steel roof), they will remain dry even in short periods of neglect.


But he is archiving more than just the paper books. Even digital versions are physical in some way. So the Internet Archive is also storing in these interior shipping containers the tapes of the previous versions of digital scans, and the hard discs of today’s scans, leaving room for the physical form of whatever media platform is next. There will be a next, Brewster says: “When they were making microfilm of books, they thought they would never have to rescan them. When they were being scanned at 300 dpi, they thought they would never have to scan them again. We know someday these books will be rescanned. They will be waiting here in boxes.”

The big idea that EVERY digital form ultimately rests in a physical form is a deep truth that needs to be understood more widely. From Brewster’s summary of the project:

As the Internet Archive has digitized collections and placed them on our computer disks, we have found that the digital versions have more and more in common with physical versions. The computer hard disks, while holding digital data, are still physical objects. As such we archive them as they retire after their 3-5 year lifetime. Similarly, we also archive microfilm, which was a previous generation’s access format. So hard drives are just another physical format that stores information. This connection showed us that physical archiving is still an important function in a digital era.

The books are not meant to be retrieved one by one, but as a collection, by the pallet full, say. But they are stored with the idea that they will be needed eventually. The specs of this multilayered system:

Books are cataloged, and have acid free paper inserts with information about the book and its location. Boxes store approximately 40 books with labeling on the outside. Pallets hold 24 boxes each. Modified 40′ shipping containers are used as secure and individually controllable environments of 50 or 60 degrees Fahrenheit and 30% relative humidity. Buildings contain shipping containers and environmental systems. Non-profit organizations own and protect the property and its contents. Buildings contain shipping containers and environmental systems.


This past Sunday this long-term archive for paper books was opened to visitors. The current capacity is about half a million books. Many of the books were bought for almost nothing on the used book market, and others were collections of books donated by book lovers. The Archive is looking for more collections to scan and store. It costs about ten cents per page to track, catalog and scan a book. One advantage owning the books they scan is that it gives them a small edge in claiming the right of fair use for the digital copy they make. They try to have scans of only books they own.

A prudent society keeps at least one specimen of all it makes, forever. It still amazes me that after 20 years the only publicly available back up of the internet is the privately funded Internet Archive. The only broad archive of television and radio broadcasts is the same organization. They are now backing up the backups of books. Someday we’l realize the precocious wisdom of it all and Brewster Kahle will be seen as a hero.


  • Danny Adams

    This is something I’ve wished for years I could do, but never had the resources. I already think Brewster Kahle is a hero.

  • AnthonyC

    “Someday we’l realize the precocious wisdom of it all and Brewster Kahle will be seen as a hero.”

    Some of us already do :-)

  • All those books in those storage containers could become more valuable than the all gold in Fort Knox a century from now. I mean, stranger things have happened in the past. Anything that is considered the ‘original source material’ in which digital copies were created from might be considered invaluable and highly collectable by future generations who only know of them from old stories and movies. 

  • nickgogerty

    It is a profoundly important effort.  More deep thinking long term projects like this should be undertaken. Kudos to Kahle

  • bowerbird

    kevin said:
    >   It seems hard to believe now, >   but within a few generations, 
    >   seeing a actual paper book 
    >   will be as rare for most people 
    >   as seeing an actual lion.

    just about anything could happen
    “within a few generations” of now,
    if we assume the human race itself
    can avoid extinction for that long…

    but it’s a given that the “actual lion”
    will not do so.  you might well outlive
    the last of the actual lions, mr. kelly.

    but i will assume the average housecat
    will live to see the future, and i predict
    that “hard books” will be as common as
    the average housecat in decades to come,
    thanks to the efficacy of print-on-demand.

    bookstores will disappear, and so will
    the corporate “publishing industry”, and
    every page of every book in the world
    will be available online, world-wide, 24/7
    — once we knock out the capitalists who
    want to put a toll-booth on knowledge —
    but people will _still_ want to print books,
    especially when it’s just a-penny-a-page.

    aside from the fact hard-copy is useful
    (because _how_ “useful” it will become,
    in the future, is an unknown right now),
    we like physical objects, as “souvenirs”.
    printing out a book gives tangible proof
    that that book is _meaningful_ to you…
    because even if the e-book is “plentiful”,
    the copy you printed is “one-of-a-kind”…


    • I agree with what you said – except for the capitalists as toll-booth collectors line. Right now book publishing is a very expensive endeavor. The beauty of ebooks is that it will, to a large part, eliminate this expense. This is capitalism at its best. New technology replacing old, as the car replaced the horse shoe.

      • Colnel

        One EMP blast and all ebooks are deleted.

        • Yes. You’re correct that EMP blasts would cause huge problems. But one wouldn’t. Information is redundantly backed over distributed servers so *one* would just be a pain in the a$$. Thousands on the other hand would do great damage.

          Now protections against EMPs are being developed and soon the price will drop to the point that we all could afford it and be able to protect backed up data.

    • Isaac

      The corporate publishing industry, for all it’s woes, employees thousands of thoughtful, intelligent, and competent editors who sift through the untold mounds of written word rubbish, electing and and helping to craft the words of authors into the things we call great literature. One man’s gatekeeper is another man’s curator. You may not value this function in creative society, but and I many others actually do.

      • Kevin_Kelly

        I value editors, and I don’t believe they are going away. Books as artifacts may go away, but editors will not.

  • Muhammad H

    I hope there is some redundancy.  What if the archive gets flooded or catches fire or has a tornado go through it?  Multiple copies of this archive on different continents would be awesome.

    • Kevin_Kelly

      Yes indeed. Others need to make one on other continents.

  • esanoche

    “A Canticle for Leibowitz”From Wikipedia:
    A Canticle for Leibowitz opens 600 years after 20th century civilization has been destroyed by a global nuclear war,
    known as the “Flame Deluge”. The text reveals that as a result of the
    war there was a violent backlash against the culture of advanced
    knowledge and technology that had led to the development of nuclear
    weapons. During this backlash, called the “Simplification,” anyone of
    learning, and eventually anyone who could even read, was likely to be
    killed by rampaging mobs, who proudly took on the name of “Simpletons”.
    Illiteracy became almost universal, and books were destroyed en masse.

    Isaac Edward Leibowitz had been a Jewish electrical engineer working for the United States military. Surviving the war, he converted to Roman Catholicism and founded a monastic order, the “Albertian Order of Leibowitz”, dedicated to preserving knowledge by hiding books, smuggling them to safety (booklegging), memorizing, and copying them. The Order’s abbey
    is located in the American southwestern desert, near the military base
    where Leibowitz had worked before the war, on an old road that may have
    been “a portion of the shortest route from the Great Salt Lake to Old El Paso.” Leibowitz was eventually betrayed and martyred. Later beatified by the Roman Catholic Church, he became a candidate for sainthood.

    Centuries after his death, the abbey is still preserving the
    “Memorabilia”, the collected writings that have survived the Flame
    Deluge and the Simplification, in the hope that they will help future
    generations reclaim forgotten science.

    • colnel

      Printed ink on paper books and analog microfilms are forever and digital are temporary. Archieval ink on archieval paper printed books and archieval quality analog microfilms (plus their analog mechanical viewers) has a life span of 500 years to 1,000 years. The forgotten discovery of a new kind of paper made from a mineral called white bentonite clay called Alsifilm discovered and used in the 40s during the war as a substitute for mica for our electrical and electronic World War II hardware was tested successfully as a wood paper substitute for making books but vested and selfish and political interests sabotaged the project by simply ignoring it until it was almost forgotten except for a handful few who kept the project going on. Imagine that, a paper which is mineral based, and using a mineral clay based-ink, can allow us to make printed books to last as long as the Ancient Sumerian cuneiform tablets!

  • Nikalong

    Never heard of copyright libraries?  Every book published is in them, protected by the state.  Not in old containers in a bad part of Richmond CA, for G_d’s sake. 

    • LMA

      If you are thinking of the Library of Congress, which is the copyright library for the United States, contrary to the common misconception, it does not retain a copy of every book published in the U.S.  See FAQs 4 and 5 here: 

      • Stinley

        In the UK there are 6 legal deposit libraries: British Library, National Library of
        Scotland, the National Library of Wales, the libraries of the
        universities of Oxford and Cambridge and Trinity College, Dublin. The legal deposit legislation ensures that each Library is entitled to a copy of all books, journals and newspapers published in Britain.
        From :

    • Kevin_Kelly

      “Copyright libraries” are getting rid of books by the dumpster load. They are under no obligation to house everything, and it increasingly expensive to do so, especially if they have to retrieve one or two books at a time.

  • I used to own a Kindle. I just sold it on Amazon and bought a book on one of the tech subjects that I am trying to learn. The reason I did this is because of ease of use. 

    I was reading mainly technical books and non-fiction books on the Kindle. While I enjoyed the tactile feel of the Kindle and the highlighting features, I didn’t like how if I was searching backwards for a piece of information I had to either guess the location of where the information was or refer back to my bookmarks and highlights, which was essentially a list. I really missed just thumbing through a book to find the information based on my memory of where the place I was looking for or where I had inserted a sticky note.What people seem to miss is this point: Books are great technology. Books are a kind of technology that is a very reliable way of keeping, finding, and transmitting information and entertainment the same way that a pen and paper are great technologies for recording information.I’m not the only one that feels this way.I don’t think physical books are going away anytime soon the same way I don’t think snail mail was going away with the advent of email or that journals and diaries were going away when blogging took off.

    I think that meat space is still more important than the virtual as well.

    • Catherine Morgan

      This is my experience as well– with audio books, as I’ve not yet purchased an e-reader. I’ve listened to books (nonfiction and technical), and then purchased a hard copy for future reference; or I’ve borrowed the hard copy from a library and copied the information. Is it a learning curve? I wonder if and how students are learning to adapt to an environment where everything is bits and bytes.  

    • Ada

      I think I’m in love with this comment.

      • Ada, you are right, i think that Andrien has a good point. Meat space is more important than the virtual as well!

  • “Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.” – Albert Schweizer
    Maybe there are some books and websites that would be better forgotten about! Curation is fundamentally about taking responsibility for what will survive and what will be discarded. Next time you go out with your camera don’t bother trying to choose the right shot just video everything then you won’t miss the decisive moment. You could capture your entire life and then your kids could spend their entire lives looking through the life you never led because you were too busy filming it.
    If we had access to everything ever written in the 20th century (letters, books, pamphlets, newspapers, etc)would our lives really be that much richer? Surely we just want to know what they thought was important plus a little bit more for color. What arrogance makes us think that people in the 22nd century will have their lives enriched by having access to every word we ever typed. They will probably be too busy living their own lives!

    • I think you’re missing the point. The central idea here, I believe, is preserving *knowledge*, not words. Knowledge as in useful human experience, knowledge as in human culture. In the same way we deem ancient culture to be very valuable to us, I think all the knowledge produced in the 20th & 21st centuries will be inmensely valuable to future generations, more so since we are in an extremely rare position in human history, one that could only be achieved by the massive use of fossil fuels, and which enabled some astonishing, never-seen-before breakthroughs in all the sciences. But this could very possibly be a one-time-only occasion, something that we may very well never achieve again in our entire life as a species. This makes preservation of this knowledge all the more important, in my opinion.

      Just my two cents.

  • Gordon

    The description of the storage reads almost like Borges Library of Babel…

    • Patrick

      Except the library of babel already exists, and it’s called the internet. And it has all of the inherent problems Borges described.

      • Dan Ellender

        I tend to seethe internet more as a Book of Sand.

  • Anderson Sanches

    Amazing article!

  • Stefan Sittler

    I can’t help but think a fairly low-lying coastal area, in a place prone to massive earthquakes, in a city riddled with huge gas storage tanks and pipelines, isn’t really in the top of the list for a long-term archive. I understand there were practical considerations, but I hope this effort is flattered by imitation. Maybe another one of these could be put into place near the Long Now big clock site or something, in Nevada or wherever that is.

    • Elizablest

       Living in said area, these were my thoughts exactly. All we need is a quake like the recent one on the coast of Japan and a similar Tsunami and it’s all gone.

  • Tim Ryan

    Canadian communications theorist Harold Innis wrote long before the digital era, but I think you will find his seminal works Empire and Communications and The Bias of Communication very informative on this topic.  In a nutshell, Innis conducted a broad historical analysis of various empires and the dominant communication medium of the time.  Media are either time biased (can last through the ages, like stone tablets) or space biased (can be broadly disseminated, like paper) and the dominant medium influences the character of the society in which it is used.  We might add a third bias – speed biased – for digital media.  Making the digital physical like this could make it a combination of all three biases.

  • Amazing effort! Brewster for President!

  • Another rich guy with a fundamental lack of reality throwing his money into a hairbrained project that will be forgotten in five years. There are physical libraries all over the world with generations of experience in preservation. Why reinvent the wheel? 

    • Kevin_Kelly

      Yep, hairbrained in that genius way that many visionaries of the past were dismissed. In five years from now, everyone will be saying it was an “obvious” thing to do.

  • Dubya

     Within a few years blogs and columns that predict the demise of the paper book will disappear, say Sam Waterford of the London Wag.

    • Kevin_Kelly

      I would be willing to bet against Sam as much as he is willing.

  • brooklynwry

    Yes, e-books and electronic dissemination of information will replace hard bound books. But it’s awfully silly to assert that books will become as rare as lions. Bookies love books, just like music junkies love vinyl, and record stores (ironically, indies, not corporate behemoths) are alive and thriving in 2011.

    • Kevin_Kelly

      Record stores are not thriving. The few remaining may have resisted total extinction, but that is not thriving.

      Books will remain around for bookies, but when the old ones die, there will be fewer and fewer bookstores, catering to a very niche crowd. There will never again be multiple bookstores in each town.

  • The scary thing is the eventual failure of the internet. It will happen. Whether it will takes hours, days, weeks or months to restore service will be the big question. What happens when the power’s out and you need to know how to perform some medical procedure or are looking for some other practical piece of information. 

  • wendy

    I could fall in love with a man who collects that many books!

  • Citizen Kafka

    I live in Indonesian and I’m tired of articles like this that evince a breathless first world technological millennialism. Books will never be outmoded. I’m guessing that four billion or so people dont have broadband internet and would have to pay several months salary for a laptop. We continue to buy books. Our schools continue to use books. Your technology-driven solutions work in developed countries. Get outside San Francisco. It’s a vastly different world.

  • people don’t buy books for the cover–people buy them for their contents in the case of nonfiction, and for experience in the case of fiction.
     Hard books will not completely disappear, but they will be like the CDs and casette tapes–they will be replaced by their more ethereal offsprings in most forms. The reason they will stay is the same reason 15th century technology will stay–people buy them for nostalgia and habits. Old technologies are not completely erased, they are transcended and included by newer technologies.
    But let’s not forget, all these ipads, kindle books, too are ethereal and bound to be obsolete in decades of time. They’ll be replaced first by non-invasive wearable glasses, digital walls, information spaces. Then those too will be replaced by invasive technologies–just imagine millions of books and local internet stored in your digital cerebellum. 
    Impermanence is the nature of things.

  • S8vm634

    It is just a profoundly fundamental effort. More rich thinking long lasting
    projects of this nature should turn out to be undertaken.
    free cloud storage

  • Eddie G

    Why scan a book at higher than 300 dpi?