Conversations with the Collection | Staff Insights on Future Library

Being so close to the artworks every day, our Security and Visitor Services team have a unique relationship with our collection. Colleagues from this team have written creative responses to an artwork or artist of their choosing from the Conversations with the Collection display at Modern One. These personal pieces aim to open up different ways of seeing our collection. This blog was written by Hannah Killoh on Future Library by Scottish artist Katie Paterson.

Since the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, the number of books available to us has continued to grow. The Industrial Revolution (around 1760 to 1840) saw printing and publishing become increasingly automated, thanks to the availability of new technologies. Lower production costs made books more affordable and accessible to the wider public.

Today, despite the prominence of digital alternatives like e-readers, the physical book remains desirable and in demand. The business of publishing, therefore, is to create books that inspire, motivate, and educate, but also to meet public demand and to sell as many books as possible. It is good business sense for a publisher to encourage a best-selling author to write more books in the hope that good sales will continue. 

To this end, publishers go to great lengths to create a kind of ‘brand’ around their authors. Take the best-selling novelist Margaret Atwood as an example. I don’t think it’s too presumptuous to say that if Margaret Atwood writes a book, people will buy it. As well as their many awards and critical acclaim, her novels are also well designed, well marketed and well published. Her ‘brand’ even extends to film and TV; the worldwide success of the TV adaption of The Handmaid’s Tale (2017–) has directly benefited the original book’s sales (1985). Atwood also has a busy calendar of public events ranging from book talks to tours and judging panels. She’s now such a household name that it seems whatever she does, people will pay to read it, see it, or just simply be in her presence.

Katie Paterson Future Library 2014 - 2114 © Katie Paterson

With all of this in mind, what if I told you that Margaret Atwood wrote a book – only read by the author herself – that sits in a sealed drawer in a public library in Oslo, Norway?   What if I also told you that no one will have access to this book until the year 2114, along with 99 other books by 99 other authors, printed on paper from its own dedicated forest of trees? I don’t know about you, but I’d say, in today’s capitalist, dopamine-hungry society, that’s pretty unbelievable. Well, that’s exactly what artist Katie Paterson  has done. In 2014 Paterson started the Future Library:

'A forest has been planted in Norway, which will supply paper for a special anthology of books to be printed in 100 years' time. Between now and then, one writer every year will contribute a text, with the writings held in trust, unread and unpublished, until the year 2114. The manuscripts will be held in a specially designed room in the new public library, Oslo.'

Paterson’s Future Library takes slow publishing to a whole new level. When we compare the speed, intention and publishing production path of Future Library to the standard processes used today, it’s quite a stark contrast. When I first encountered Future Library, I immediately began to think of the effort and production that goes into making a book. I’m filled with more questions and curiosities than when I’m browsing in a bookshop.

Future Library is especially inspiring when you consider that Margaret Atwood was the first author to be invited to submit a manuscript to the project. I think we can all agree that this book would have had the potential to become a huge financial success. Instead, the book sits in a special, custom-built vault in Norway, waiting to be printed on its own dedicated forest of paper in 2114. And that, I think, is the genius of Katie Paterson. Her artwork makes me question what I know and creates poetic circumstances and juxtapositions that leave me in awe. I’ll never know what Atwood’s Future Library text is, or the other 99 texts for that matter, but I’m okay with that. Instead Paterson gives me the space to slow down, reconsider, and remind myself of what books and publishing should be all about: curiosity, wonder, imagination and connection.   

By Hannah Killoh, 11 May 2023