Today I discovered something I should have known for months – in the San Francisco East Bay there is a book archive being created in Richmond. This location was within walking distance of my former home of many years, and such an archive was the subject of numerous seminars I attended at the University of California, Berkeley, which was also a short distance away, and furthermore archiving books was the subject of many of my Probaway blog posts. It is a subject which I had discussed with several people at the University of California, Berkeley I School, and so I am somewhat flummoxed that this book depository project slipped past me. It is one of my pet projects, the storing of every known book in a way which can be retrieved a thousand years in the future. It’s a part of The EarthArk Project. Probably their archive was mentioned many times in my presence but I simply didn’t know what they were talking about.
There is a fundamental flaw with the proposed Internet Archive and that is that it is impossible that their book repository at 2512 Florida Ave, Richmond, California, 94804 (37.9293 -122.3457) could survive for a thousand years and more, located where they have placed it. At a public seminar I attended about a year ago, with about twenty executive-level librarians, they were discussing how to create a permanent library collection which would have all the information becoming available, cataloged and indexed in such a way that any portion of it would be accessible by anyone in the future. How many copies of rarely accessed materials should there be, and how could they be stored in ways that they could be retrieved? These people were having a fine time discussing it, when I introduced myself in the role of one of my former occupations – a USAF bomber pilot assigned with several hydrogen bombs, which were to be exploded on selected targets when I was told to do so. The thrust of what I said was that unless they placed at least one copy of their materials totally off designated targets for these weapons, it was inevitable that all of their work of creating a permanent repository would go up in ionized smoke. One strange thing about this statement of mine was that it was made less than a hundred yards from where the A-bomb was first designed and written down on paper, and no one seemed concerned or aware of the reality of the threat. Nor were they willing to entertain potential solutions to the problem. It was too horrible to happen, so it wouldn’t happen, so let’s move on.
To my way of seeing this problem, there is no sense in creating a permanent book archive of all the books of the world at a location which will soon be destroyed. Unfortunately, the history of libraries being destroyed is so common it will bring tears to the eyes of any bookworm. The most famous library which went up in smoke in the Western world is the library of Alexandria 48 BCE, but there have been many more. China burned all its books in 231 BCE, the Meso-Americans burned theirs as a diplomatic policy to destroy hostile societies when they won a war, and those that were missed by the indigenes were later burned by the Spaniards in 1562. There are many similar episodes, and all of those tragedies happened before humanity had really super weapons. In those days the bibliocides had to burn books one at a time, but now with modern technology and H-bombs, we can burn a whole city’s worth in an instant, and there are approximately 30,000 A-bombs. In our present situation, putting flammable materials like books on a major target like the San Francisco Bay Area and expecting them to last for a thousand years is rather optimistic.
Other similar long term projects have the same problem. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault (78.237 15.501) claims to be placed in a secure position well to the north of Scandinavia. But as remote as it seems to be at first glance, it is not, because it would be a target during a modern major war. It is located only half a kilometer from the only airport for a thousand kilometers around. Any military strategist would be forced to remove this militarily capable airport on first strike, and as that airport goes so goes the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. There are other seed vaults located many places in the world, but they are all at serious risk of annihilation during a major war. The safest place for seeds is high in the mountains of Antarctica, where the temperature is always very cold, and very, very few people ever go there. The safest places for maintaining a few thousand humans and some animal species are the various small islands of the Southern Ocean, which are as far from the fallout of modern war as possible. Even these locations should be built with thick-roofed housing and have a couple of years of food supplies. Published data in the form of books can be kept anywhere it is dry and safe, such as a high altitude desert like Atacama. But even there there might be some human predations in the distant future for firewood, so even with these dead things it would be more secure to put them into totally inaccessible storage containers high in Antarctica.
All of these at present common things could be retrieved in the distant future to rebuild the world, but only by a dedicated group of people making the concerted effort to go get them. The exact location would be published and engraved in stone many places in the world, and thus it would be known to everyone, but getting to the top of Mt. Vinson in Antarctica would be so arduous the only reason for going there would be to retrieve some precious things, like seeds of extinct plants. Placing these things there now using the machinery available to current technology would be possible, using snow-cats or dropping containers from airplanes. Putting these ordinary containers in Antarctica at present would not be prohibitively expensive, but placing these precious things where they can easily be found and destroyed, as in the proposed Internet Archive, means they would not be available to be retrieved when needed. Therefore, the best place to store anything for future retrieval would be high in Antarctica.