March 30, 2017

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and Norway’s gonna save the printed word


Svalbard’s Global Seed Vault

In these trying times—times characterized in this country by the imminent destruction of the Environmental Protection Agency (despite rising temperatures and tides), the precarious fate of our National Parks, and the increasingly flippant use of phrases like “nuclear holocaust”—it’s important to think about the future, such as it is, with a seriousness commensurate to its uncertainty.

But good news: Norway, reports Huffington Post UK’s Oscar Williams, is already on it. In fact, they’ve been on it for a while. Nearly a decade ago, in 2008, the nation constructed, on the island of Spitsbergen about 800 miles from the North Pole, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a secure seed bank (the world’s largest) capable of surviving nuclear disaster.

And now, this year, Norway has completed its second “doomsday vault” in Svalbard — and this one’s a library. It’s called the World Arctic Archive. That’s right: to Norway’s mind, preserving humanity’s written and printed culture (one of the many things that the Trump administration, and plenty of other world leaders, are determined to undermine through both intimidation and budget cuts) is second in importance only to the ability to grow food (which is to say, to continue living).

The World Arctic Archive, nestled deep in the permafrost, utilizes a mass storage technique developed by a firm called Piql. Piql uses film to physically store information for up to an estimated 1,000 years. Their technology does not rely on digital storage, which is more vulnerable to hacking and wear. To this point, Piql’s Stefan Axelsson, an expert in computer security and Associate Professor at the Department of Informatics and Media Studies at NTNU Gurgaon, notes that runes carved in stone by Vikings a millennium are still readable today. Comparatively, current standards of media storage are “highly volatile.”

Importantly, the World Arctic Archive is indeed a world archive. It’s open for use by countries other than Norway. Thus far, only Brazil and Mexico have arranged to have their national archives place in the vault for safekeeping. Hey, if the United States survives Trump, maybe these books can live there, too.



Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.