Norway Decided to Digitize All the Norwegian Books

Between this and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Norsk people are set for the future.
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Svalbard Global Seed Vault (Reuters)

The National Library of Norway is planning to digitize all the books by the mid 2020s. 

Yes. All. The. Books. In Norwegian, at least. Hundreds of thousands of them. Every book in the library's holdings.

By law, "all published content, in all media, [must] be deposited with the National Library of Norway," so when the library is finished scanning, the entire record of a people's language and literature will be machine-readable and sitting in whatever we call the cloud in 15 years. 

If you happen to be in Norway, as measured by your IP address, you will be able to access all 20th-century works, even those still under copyright. Non-copyrighted works from all time periods will be available for download. 

Here in the States, we are struggling to make even a small percentage of English-language works accessible to the citizens of our fine country, despite the efforts of groups like the Digital Public Library of America, Hathi Trust, and (I dare say) Google

Which means that we are not ready for the apocalypse. But the Norwegians, that's a people preparing for the deep future. Now they are home to the Svalbard Seed Vault and they will have all the books stored away. 

Imagine digital archaeologists coming across the remains of early 21st century civilization in an old data center on the warming tundra. They look around, find some scraps of Buzzfeed and The Atlantic, maybe some Encyclopaedia Britannicas, and then, gleaming in the data: a complete set of Norwegian literature

Suddenly, the Norwegians become to 27th-century humans what the Greeks were to the Renaissance. Everyone names the children of the space colonies Per and Henrik, Amalie and Sigrid. The capital of our new home planet will be christened Oslo.

Can America afford to be left behind? 

Seriously, though, smaller countries with friendlier attitudes toward government and the humanities surely have an easier task than Americans in preserving our past. But we're hardly trying. 

Our libraries do what they can, but the idea of digitizing literally every book published in this country is a goal that we should shoot for and fund. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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