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The Future Library with unreadable books

One recent Sunday morning, in a forest north of Oslo in Norway, more than 200 people gathered to watch a ceremony. They had walked in a procession ­– some with their dogs, others their children – along gravel trails, directed by arrows on the ground made from sprinkled wood shavings. The air carried a scent of pine needles, burnt logs and strong Norwegian coffee.

At their destination ­– a recently planted forest – the people sat or crouched on a slope dotted with spruce trees. Each tree was still only around 1m (3ft) tall, but one day, when the spruces are more than 20-30 times the size, they will provide the paper for a special collection of books. Everyone there knew they would not live to see that happen, nor would they ever get to read the books.

This was the 2022 Future Library ceremony, a 100-year art project created to expand people's perspectives of time, and their duty to posterity. Every year since 2014, the Scottish artist Katie Paterson – along with her Norwegian counterpart Anne Beate Hovind and a group of trustees – has invited a prominent writer to submit a manuscript, and the commissioning will continue until 2113. Then, a century after the project began, they will all finally be published.

It began with the author Margaret Atwood, who wrote a story called Scribbler Moon, and since then the library has solicited submissions from all over the world, with works by English novelist David Mitchell, the Icelandic poet Sjón, Turkey's Elif Shafak, Han Kang from South Korea, and Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong.

This year, Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga and the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard came to the forest to hand over their stories (along with returning authors Mitchell and Sjón). Forbidden from revealing the content of their work, they could only share the titles: Dangarembga named hers Narini and Her Donkey – Narini derives from a Zimbabwean word for "infinity" – while Knausgaard submitted a more enigmatic title, simply: Blind Book.

All the manuscripts will be stored for almost a century inside locked glass drawers in a hidden corner of Oslo's main public library, within a small, wooden repository called the Silent Room. In 2114, the drawers will be unlocked, and the trees chopped down – and 100 stories hidden for a century will finally be published in one go.

The authors ­– and everyone else who was in Oslo that Sunday – knew they would almost certainly not live to see that happen. "It's a project that's not only thinking about us now, but about those who are not born," explains Paterson. In fact, she adds, "most of the authors are not even born yet".

So, why build a library where no-one today can read the books? And what might be learnt from its story so far?

The Future Library is not the first of Paterson's artworks to tackle the human relationship with long-term time. She traces her fascination with the theme back to her early 20s, when she worked as a chambermaid in Iceland, and was struck by the extraordinary landscape around her. "You could almost read time in the strata, you could feel the midnight Sun and the energy of the Earth," she says. "It just was a very beautiful, sublime, awakening landscape to be around."

This led to one of her first works, Vatnajokull (the sound of): a phone number that anyone could call to listen to an Icelandic glacier melting. Dial the number, and you'd be routed to a microphone beneath the water in the Jökulsárlón lagoon on Iceland's south coast, where blue-tinged icebergs calve away and float towards the sea.

Since then, Paterson has explored deeper timescales from various angles, geologically, astronomically, humanistically: a glitterball that projects nearly every known solar eclipse in history onto the walls, the "colour" of the Universe throughout its existence, the aroma of Earth's first trees, or a necklace carved from 170 ancient fossils marking each stage of life.

One of her most recent exhibitions in Edinburgh, Requiem at Ingleby Gallery, featured 364 vials of crushed dust, each one representing a different moment in deep time. Vial #1 was a sample of presolar grains older than the Sun, followed by powdered four-billion-year-old rocks, corals from prehistoric seas, and other traces of the distant past.

A few visitors were invited to pour one of the vials into a central urn: when I was there in June, I poured #227, a four-million-year-old Asteroidea fossil, a kind of sea star. Later in time, the vials represent the age of humanity, capturing human accomplishment – Greek pottery or a Mayan figurine – but also darker moments: the bright blue grains of phosphorus fertiliser, microplastic from the deepest part of the ocean, or an irradiated tree-branch from Hiroshima. When your art deals in deep time, there's no ignoring the onset of the Anthropocene, the age shaped by humans.

Long-term lessons

Of all her work exploring the long-term though, Future Library is the project most likely to be remembered across time itself. Indeed, it was deliberately created to be. And this year its longevity was ensured: Oslo's city leaders signed a contract formally committing them and their successors to protect the forest and library over the next 100 years. 

The way Paterson and collaborators have designed the project therefore could hold broader lessons for the rest of the world: about how to make something last, and also about what it takes to inspire people to think beyond short-term distractions.

The Future Library project is one of many artistic projects I've encountered in recent years that seeks to foster longer-term thinking. Over the past few years, I've been writing my own book called The Long View, which is about why the world needs to transform its perspective of time. Along the way, I've heard a musical composition that will play for 1,000 years, read an endless poem being embedded in a Dutch street one letter at a time, and acquired a framed invitation to a party in the year 2269. 

I particularly admire the Future Library project, because not only does it encourage a more "long-minded" perspective, it also invites all those that learn about it to reflect on their duty to posterity and what they are leaving behind for future generations. In the 21st Century, we are passing on so many malignant heirlooms to unborn people: a heated atmosphere, plastic fibres in the oceans, nuclear waste beneath the ground. It's rare that our generation is genuinely giving something to unborn descendants. Certainly the 7.8 billion people alive today will leave behind plenty of positive heirlooms – classic songs, exquisite objects, grand buildings or movie masterpieces – but is it a truly selfless gift if you enjoy it first?

The Future Library might be contrasted with another type of "legacy library": the US presidential variety. While the latter is also a donation for posterity, the motivation is perhaps less noble: the living politician gets to enjoy their name plastered on a grand building within their lifetime, a monument to their reputation.

That's not to say that the Future Library should be seen as an act of sacrifice. Nor do I believe, as one critic once suggested, that it is an elitist time capsule that excludes people. Some might argue that the core purpose of a library is make books available to all, but the project offers various other benefits to those who engage with it the present day.

Sometimes I encounter a sentiment that assumes that caring about future people means forgoing pleasures in the present. The Future Library shows that it is not zero-sum: giving to tomorrow doesn't require taking from today.

There's no avoiding the fact that you and I can't read the books, but anyone can enjoy a visit to the forest (see it on Google Earth). When I was there, the paths were full of families, hikers and mountain-bikers, enjoying a day out on publicly accessible land. It's also possible to spend time in the Silent Room, which houses the manuscripts. It's situated inside Oslo's main (actual) library, and after the 2022 ceremony, the city mayor Marianne Borgen cut the ribbon to open it to the public.

Discovering the Silent Room is like coming across a portal to another world. After taking a series of escalators up five floors – past the students working at the desks and children leafing through picture books – you arrive at what looks like a wooden cave, in a quiet corner among the bookshelves. Once you've taken off your shoes, you can enter. Inside, ridges along the walls encircle the small space with 100 locked glass drawers, one for each of the manuscripts. "It feels like being inside a tree," says Paterson. "It's quite magical, because it's very small and intimate: surrounded by tree rings, with light shining through the manuscript drawers."

Visiting Norway that weekend, I was also struck by how much Future Library has come to mean to all the people involved, and how much it has enriched their own lives. Over the past eight years, the project has been growing a passionate community alongside the trees. Hovind calls it the "Future Library family", and is visibly moved when she talks about how far they've come since their uncertain early days.

One thing I've learnt while researching the foundations for long-term thinking: it becomes far easier to nurture the long view if you can do so within a community. People are far more willing to care about deep time and unborn people if they are surrounded by like-minded peers – with all the social benefits of kinship and shared values that this can bring. 

For Future Library, this community also helps to support the longevity of the project itself. If Paterson had chosen to work alone, its fate would depend on her own interest and continued existence, but now there are hundreds of people involved, it could easily continue for 100 years (and beyond) without her – in the same way that a fibrous rope does not rely on a single thread running its whole length. As Paterson pointed out during the ceremony, "Future Library is built by many hands".

I've found that communities willing to embrace traditions and rituals are also more likely to endure. For the Future Library, the ceremonial handover in the forest has gradually evolved to include music and readings – this year, a mixture of Zimbabwean, Norwegian and Buddhist performances. In my research on long-term religions and secular cultures, I've observed how rituals can be vessels for carrying ideas and beliefs across time: through repetition and ceremony, they bring people together regularly, ensuring that a shared value – the belief that future generations matter, for instance – continues to thrive and grow.

A final thing I admire about Future Library is its capacity to evolve and adapt over time. Paterson and colleagues designed it to give subsequent generations choice about how to shape the project: which authors to select, how to conduct the ceremony each year, who to invite, and eventually what will go on the books' covers.

There will also be decisions ahead over the cultivation of the forest. At the 2022 ceremony, the Norwegian forester charged with caring for the trees pointed out that he had planted broadleaf species alongside the spruces – a standard practice to encourage healthy growth. He explained that future custodians of the project will therefore have to decide whether to keep this diversity of trees in place, using multiple woods for the books, or stick to a spruce monoculture. Spruces would make a neater but darker forest, he said, while a mixture of species would be chaotic but bring more light.

Perish or publish?

Over the next century, the authors themselves will also need to adapt each year. For example, the current cohort know for certain they won't live to see their books published, which for some has brought a certain freedom. For Mitchell, it allowed him to include Beatles song lyrics that will have passed out of copyright ("Here Comes the Sun" – a story detail he let slip accidentally in 2017); Knausgaard joked about the joy of not worrying about literary critics; and Dangarembga described a feeling of liberation: "If they decide whenever the vault is opened that this is not what they want to publish, it won't actually threaten my existence."

However, in a few decades' time, many of the authors will live to 2114. Will it change what they write? The very last author, drafting their words in the 22nd Century, will only have to wait a year. With that in mind, I can't help but wonder if future trustees might elect to change the original plan, and publish only Atwood's book in 2114, followed by Mitchell's the next year, and so on. It would be a radical alteration, but allowing future people to make such decisions is a value at the heart of the project. The best legacy our generation might seek to leave behind for unborn people is not a monument to our own glory – it's the ability to choose.

"The Future Library project is a vote of confidence in the future," Mitchell wrote in the notes accompanying his contribution in 2015. "We have to trust our successors, and their successors, and theirs, to steer the project through a hundred years of political skulduggery, climate change, budget cutbacks and zombie apocalypses… Trust is a force for good in our cynical world, and the Future Library is a trust generator."

Indeed, as the writer Jay Griffiths pointed out in the notes accompanying the submission for 2020: "The word 'tree' in English and tre in Norwegian are both related to the following words: true and tro; trust, trustworthy and troverdig; the old-fashioned English term 'I trow' (I believe it for truth); trust and betror; tryst, betroth and trolove, trusting in love and the future."

Ultimately, the Future Library is an expression of hope – a statement of confidence in the possibilities that could lie ahead for our children over long-term time.

When I spoke with Paterson, she pointed out that while she herself would never read the books, there was at least one ceremony attendee who might – her son, who would be in his 90s by the 22nd Century. During the weekend, he had no qualms about wandering up to the famous authors, and asking them questions. During a moment of quiet solemnity, watching the writers enter the Silent Room to place their manuscripts in the drawers, he shouted out: "WHAT'S INSIDE?" (It's actually what everyone was thinking.) Mitchell – still in his socks after removing his shoes to enter the room – sat down next to him on the library floor and told him what he had seen. I like to imagine he also revealed a few details about his secret story, but that would of course, be forbidden.

Afterwards, Paterson took her son's hand, and led him inside to take a closer look. He didn't know it yet, but this place, the forest, and the community that assembles here once a year, would be a part of his and his mother's life for decades to come – a thread that runs through both their lives, and perhaps far beyond.

Richard Fisher