A post by Brewster Kahle at the Internet Archive Blogs describes the Internet Archive’s plan to create “a physical archive for the long term preservation of one copy of every book, record, and movie we are able to attract or acquire.” This sounds odd at first, but Kahle explains:

After the Internet Archive digitizes a book from a library in order to provide free public access to people world-wide, these books go back on the shelves of the library. We noticed an increasing number of books from these libraries moving books to “off site repositories” … to make space in central buildings for more meeting spaces and work spaces. These repositories have filled quickly and sometimes prompt the de-accessioning of books. …

Because we expect day-to-day access to these materials to occur through digital means, … our physical archive is designed for long-term preservation of materials with only occasional, collection-scale retrieval. Because of this, we can create optimized environments for physical preservation and organizational structures that facilitate appropriate access. A seed bank might be conceptually closest to what we have in mind: storing important objects in safe ways to be used for redundancy, authority, and in case of catastrophe.

The goal is to preserve one copy of every published work. The universe of unique titles has been estimated at close to one hundred million items. Many of these are rare or unique, so we do not expect most of these to come to the Internet Archive; they will instead remain in their current libraries. But the opportunity to preserve over ten million items is possible, so we have designed a system that will expand to this level. Ten million books is approximately the size of a world-class university library or public library, so we see this as a worthwhile goal. If we are successful, then this set of cultural materials will last for centuries and could be beneficial in ways that we cannot predict.

There’s much more discussion of details at the link. I like the idea of keeping physical books in safe conditions—I don’t trust this newfangled internet whozeewhatsis.


  1. Bathrobe says

    I don’t trust this newfangled internet whozeewhatsis
    Hat, you are sounding older and more curmudgeonly than your usual self!
    However, I agree. It’s scary to have everything in digital form. One swipe and it’s all gone…

  2. Well, in less than a month I’ll be a sexagenarian; I have to start practicing.

  3. It might even make sense to convert their current digital holdings to a more robust analog format. It shouldn’t be that difficult to print digital documents onto non-nitrate microfiche slides, for example.
    You can also store audio photographically — that’s how sound films worked for decades — and with the right chemicals and film stock, those records could last for centuries, to be recovered by anyone with a bright light and a way to convert that light to a voltage that drives a diaphragm.
    Even if the distant future is a technological utopia with a surplus economy, they’re still not going to know what to do with 5.25 floppies, and CDs aren’t far behind.

  4. John Emerson says

    They could even print out facsimile versions of unique titles, just for preservation purposes.

  5. If we’re talking about books surviving a catastrophe, shouldn’t at least two print copies of each be archived ? Preserving-in-pairs has been demonstrated to work. The expression “unique title” obscures the fact that many a book is not a book, but several books – when there have been various editions with substantially different content. To keep the lexome intact, all editions should be taken on board.

  6. Also manuscripts and laundry slips.

  7. John Lenin says

    Isn’t THE PROBLEM that our culture ALREADY can forget NOTHING… We have become late byzantines commentating on commentators. Face it people most of the past is rubbish, and don’t get me started on the present…We need cultural amnesia. John Lenin

  8. Preserving-in-pairs has been demonstrated to work.
    No matter how sexually explicit the content, books won’t reproduce, G. I’m glad someone’s preserving books, is anyone saving recipes? Food and drink don’t automatically survive an apocalypse any more than films or books do. I’m keeping a bottle of port and a spare pair of reading glasses in a plastic bag under the house.

  9. I’m keeping a bottle of port and a spare pair of reading glasses in a plastic bag under the house.
    I hope you will have something more ethereal to tell the audience when you appear on Desert Island Discs.

  10. I suppose you can afford to be ethereal when you know how to make pastrami.

  11. Roberta Wedge says

    Aren’t these called … national libraries? The British Library, the Library of Congress, etc.? What is this proposing that they don’t cover?

  12. It will be international, for one thing. And more repositories is better.

  13. As John Lenin suggests, some thought should be given to separating the wheat from the chaff before filling the repositories. Speculative writings, for instance, could be given lower priority, and later stored in suppositories if there is enough money left over.

  14. Having a digital version/copy of a physical book is quite logical to have as age and various elements adversely affect the paper, and keeping them all secure requires a lot of resources.
    Being an Environment Advocate however, just curious on which of these procedures have bigger carbon footprint, the safekeeping of millions of books or that of the immense digital library?

  15. Bathrobe says

    Speculative writings, for instance, could be given lower priority
    You mean, like, philosophy?

  16. Digital versions have their own fragilities and vulnerabilities. Young as they are, it’s unreasonable to presume that they’re more robust than high-quality paper.

  17. You mean, like, philosophy?
    Yes: all books should have lower priority that does not explain how to do something practical, like make a fire in the absence of matches. How to turn water into wine would seem to be practical, but the book in question is for the most part suppositional – and it doesn’t actually explain how to effect that transformation.
    These schemes to preserve books don’t get to the heart of the matter. What is threatening their survival ? It is the consequences of man-induced catastrophes like global warming, biological warfare etc. So if neutron bombs were used to eliminate all human life, the books would no longer be threatened.

  18. Sounds like a plan!

  19. We may be tampering unwisely with natural evolutionary processes if we save all books, not just those which would have survived on their own.
    Are there books which have particular survival value (or the reverse) for books collectively, because of their effect on humans? What about books asserting that global warming is not caused by humans?

  20. empty: What about books asserting that global warming is not caused by humans?
    Such books should be saved, by all means ! Anything that instills hope, particularly of the irrational kind. I see the survivors setting up a monument to The Great White Void, for his having thought ahead.

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