There is a story about the great hall of one of Oxford’s colleges. I say story because it is almost—but not entirely—true. New College, which is new only by Oxford standards, meaning it was founded in the 14th century, invites such storytelling, and the story goes something like this: When New College built its great hall, the founders also planted a forest of oak trees. Five hundred years later, when the oak beams of the hall needed replacing, the custodians of the college found the forest in the records and realized it was planted to provide the lumber.
From acorns to architecture: a story of perfect planning—only it’s just a story, one thoroughly discredited by successive archivists of the college, who emphasize the forest was acquired a few decades after the hall was built.
I thought of New College’s forest and hall last week when I read about Katie Peterson.
The Future Library is optimistic about civilization, but also the environment and literature. Peterson is sanguine about the forest surviving, but also about human society having an appetite for art and the desire to read the printed word a century from now.
In May of this year, Peterson planted 1,000 spruces in a forest just outside Oslo. A century from now, that Norwegian forest will be harvested to make the paper for printing books that have never been read before. Every year between now and 2114, Peterson has seen to the commissioning of an original work to be stored in Oslo’s New Public Deichmanske Library, where they will all await publication. Peterson announced earlier this month that Margaret Atwood has agreed to write the first work for the Future Library.
This isn’t a time capsule so much as a cultural hope chest, a collection of poems and stories created and curated one by one for posterity until finally they are all printed together. Peterson has called the project her “most ambitious artwork to date,” one that she first thought of years ago by “making a connection with tree rings to chapters—the material nature of paper, pulp and books, and imagining the writer’s thoughts infusing themselves, ‘becoming’ the trees. Almost as if the trees absorb the writer’s words like air or water, and the tree rings become chapters, spaced out over the years to come.”
Conceptually, the Future Library is related to Peterson’s other work. She once submerged a microphone in Iceland’s Jökulsárlón lagoon to broadcast the sound of the Vatnajökull glacier melting to a mobile phone in an art gallery. She also reburied a grain of sand from the Sahara desert after shrinking it to nano-size. These earlier works—observing environmental change and decay, engaging scales both microscopic and cosmic—relate deeply to the concerns of Future Library. For her part, Margaret Atwood has said, “I am very honored, and also happy to be part of this endeavor. This project, at least, believes the human race will still be around in a hundred years!”
Atwood is right. The Future Library is optimistic about civilization, but also the environment and literature. Peterson is sanguine about the forest surviving, but also about human society having an appetite for art and the desire to read the printed word a century from now. A printing press is even being stored in the New Public Deichmanske Library in case there are no other working presses in the future.
Peterson is not only a grasshopper, though; like the ant in Aesop’s fable, she has made provisions for winter. Before planting the trees in May, she had to acquire rights to the land and research the species best suited for a century of growth and eventual harvesting for paper pulp. She also formalized the Future Library Trust to provide for the forest and the manuscripts until the project ends in 2114. There are already seven members, among them the literary director of the Man Booker Prize and the editor-in-chief of Oktober Press, and its membership will change every decade. Peterson has had to plan, both artistically and financially, for a project that might well continue after her death.
And there, of course, Peterson, while embarking on a visionary work of art, is like every other artist who came before her. Every word that is written, every canvas that is painted, every photograph that is taken, every single work of art is created with the crazed hope that not only now, but forever in the future someone will want to experience it, even that some unborn audience will want to encounter it. In that way, every library is a future library, even when they lack the extraordinary constraints designed and executed by Peterson.