By Bryan Voell

Future Library is a monumental art project by Scottish artist Katie Paterson. Utilizing paper made from trees planted in an Oslo, Norway forest, one writer a year for a hundred years will contribute a text. These writings will not be read or published until the year 2114, when at last they will be unveiled in a “specially designed room” in Oslo’s New Deichmanske Library. As their website states:

Future Library is a living, breathing, organic artwork, unfolding over one hundred years. It will live and breathe through the material growth of the trees — I imagine the tree rings as chapters in a book. The unwritten words, year by year, activated, materialized. The visitor’s experience of being in the forest, changing over decades, being aware of the slow growth of the trees containing the writers’ ideas like an unseen energy.

Since beginning in earnest in 2014, Future Library has three contributing authors: Margaret Atwood (2014), David Mitchell (2015), and Sjon (2016).

In early August, 2017, I had the pleasure of interviewing via Skype Anne Beate Hovind, Project Director and Chair of the Future Library Trust, about this project.  

I first asked Hovind about the role of librarian for the Future Library: what it looks like from her perspective and how it differs if at all from a “present” library. Hovind sees Future Library as a collaboration with New Deichmanske, which is presently under construction.

“A dream would be to have a silent room in the library,” she says. “Libraries are an important public space. They keep Oslo awake. It is a place for contemplation, reflection, where literature draws [timelines] backward and forward.”

It is this appreciation for libraries as a place that cannot be owned yet like nature is “owned” by everyone that lies at the core of what Future Library is all about.

“We have a responsibility to trust in our future,” Hovind says. “In Norway we have a tradition of a Commons, where we all have the same rights in using this space. It’s ours. We have a very strong sense of ours. Nature is a common. The ocean is a common. When it comes to climate change, this sense of commons only increases.”

Future Library Handover day 2016 with David Mitchell. Photo by Kristin von Hirsch.

The trees in the Future Library Forest have grown up to 25 cm this summer. Photo: Jon Karl Christiansen.

Artist Katie Paterson. Photo © Giorgia Polizzi.

Margaret Atwood and Katie Paterson | © Giorgia Polizzi.

Oslo Public Library. Photo © Atelier Oslo and Lund Hagem.

Future Library draws together these ideas of shared public space, cultivation/curation for future generations and literature in fascinating ways. “What is the future? How do you start a project that continues for one hundred years?” Hovind asks. “You have to trust the future generations.” She adds that, like librarianship, farming involves “taking care of resources beyond our time, backwards and forwards.” For Hovind, librarianship involves “speculation, imagination, making use of space for the written word.” While artificial intelligence “will beat us in collecting information at speeds we can’t dream of,” Future Library calls our attention back to the need for “human speed.”

Within Future Library is the acknowledgement of the inherent contradictions between the intentional act of slowing down the pace of curation to a glacial crawl and its connection to a modern library, which brings massive amounts of information to people in seconds. “Future Library is a little conservative [in this regard]. But there is no contradiction here,” Hovind states. “A library works at slow and fast speeds and librarians embrace these contradictions every day.”

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