Ever since reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything a decade ago, I’ve had some background worry about large-scale global catastrophes. A couple of chapters in the middle I couldn’t bear to finish reading. I’ll sheepishly admit here that even the remote possibility of a super-volcano or a comet collision making life very unpleasant for a long time, also perhaps thrusting us a millennium or two into the past technologically, scares me a little bit. (Not a lot, just a bit!) And then I wonder what we are doing to prepare for these society-disrupting terrors in all their horrifying non-zero possibilities. Earlier this year, I was glad to hear that Lewis Dartnell had written a book called The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch, but as the book weighs in at just over 300 pages, I wagered many details would necessarily be left out.
I’m happy to report there is someone on the case. Rocky Rawlins comes to us with a hero’s name and an idea for rebuilding society: his Survivor Library intends to preserve for the remaining 0.000001% to 10% or so of humanity details on “how to survive when technology doesn’t.” You can hear an interview with Rocky on NPR’s On The Media or if you’re up for a dystopian read, the library’s about page lays out the grim future we could face, and how we can dig ourselves out of our knowledge-free hole:
As the library has grown over time we’ve tried to cover both the simplest, more basic self-sufficiency skills, such as growing food and raising livestock through the most advanced and sophisticated technology of the time such as aeroplanes and communications systems like telephone and telegraph.
Where there are books on industrial processes, methods, formulas, techniques, we included those as well. Even the more advanced technologies of the periods are within the reach of people starting from scratch. Steam engines may seem primitive to most modern people but they powered the industrial revolution in much of the world well into the 1900s.
Basic knowledge of chemical formulas and processes are recorded in books from these periods ranging from the most basic industrial chemical needs through household materials in common use.
The Library in its entirety is a compendium of the Technological and Industrial Knowledge of the 1800 through early 1900s.
It is the knowledge needed to rebuild a technological and industrial infrastructure from scratch when the modern infrastructure ceases to function.
I’m not sure we need to know how to play whist or grow tobacco after the end of society befalls us, but books on the topics of medicine, sanitation, shelter, and many of the other 100+ categories would serve our survivors well.
You may note that this is an online resource, which depends on the Internet and the power grid to be accessed. Rocky and company expect you to plan ahead. All the books they’ve scanned are available as PDFs which he asks you to at least download and store locally, and preferably to print out on paper.
Interjection: Somehow I’m reminded of the Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last“. Be sure you’ll be able to access this knowledge!
Keep in mind this important caveat: the books were written “before we understood such things as disease vectors and the toxicity of substances such as mercury. …. they do contain formulas, recipes and knowledge that we now know to be dangerous and harmful. Before considering using any of these techniques or applying the skills and knowledge in them, apply common sense and modern knowledge.”
That said, I am looking forward to the library that tells us how to rebuild the world without recreating all of the technologies of the 19th and 20th centuries—some of which were environmentally disastrous. We could rebuild society with the wisdom of learning from our mistakes, right? I’d like to know who is working on that library.
Whether or not you share my Bryson-inspired Chicken-Little fear of the end of life-as-we-know-it, the books contain a lot of lost and common knowledge any Maker would appreciate.
What would your ideal Survivors’ Library contain? Tell us in the comments below, and add them to the Survivors’ Library’s suggestion page.
[Note: I sent this writeup to Alexander Rose of The Long Now Foundation, and he pointed me to his piece on The Manual for Civilization. That post includes a running catalog of similar projects. He also reminds me that Lewis Dartnell will give a talk at The Interval at Long Now this spring.]