As a librarian with a futuristic bent, Heath Rezabek has developed the Vessel Project as a way of studying how we can preserve our knowledge and culture against future risk. That work — and Heath’s ongoing engagement with the Long Now Foundation — asks what we might put into a long-term archive housing the essence of our community. Finding the answers involves ‘community curation,’ asking varying interest groups to develop and discuss their choices. We’re going to run such a survey with the Centauri Dreams readership, helping to firm up a shortlist of books on interstellar topics that I’ve been wanting to return to for some time. That list will appear tomorrow, but today Heath explains strategies for building archives to represent communities like the one that clusters here around interstellar flight.

by Heath Rezabek

In my first Centauri Dreams installment, I noted that I had recently begun an Internship with the Long Now foundation, assisting and advising in their initial community curation of a 3,500 volume collection called the Manual for Civilization. At that time, I promised updates on the project as it progressed, since it bears such a kinship to themes and objectives reflected in the Vessel Project. I have not yet done an update.


Image: The Interval: Long Now Foundation, San Francisco, CA.

With the site of the collection soon to open — the name of their headquarters space being The Interval — and with myself about to make a trip out to San Francisco for part of those opening activities at the end of May, now seemed like a good time to reflect upon my experience as an Intern on the Manual for Civilization. The Internship draws to a close, and I look towards the future, by considering the importance of community curation at all levels and in all kinds of communities. I will also tie these thoughts back to current and prior work on the Vessel proposal, and launch an effort towards community curation of a core reading list for Centauri Dreams readers based on Paul Gilster’s existing shortlist on interstellar research.

As a brief summary, the Long Now Foundation is a nonprofit organization whose purpose is to foster long term thinking through concrete projects which catalyze public debate and discussion about the very long term, while at the same time striving for substantial real-world goals. Its cornerstone project is the construction of a 10,000 Year Clock, “designed to run for ten millennia with minimal maintenance and interruption. The Clock is powered by mechanical energy harvested from sunlight as well as the people that visit it. The primary materials used in the Clock are marine grade 316 stainless steel, titanium and dry running ceramic ball bearings.” No completion date is set, but construction work at the first site in west Texas is in preparation.


Image: The Rosetta Disk.

Another project with concrete utility as a key for decoding 1,500 human languages is the Rosetta Disk. At the ESA’s invitation, an early copy of this disk is on the Rosetta probe.


Image: The Rosetta Probe (ESA).

Over time, Long Now has undertaken numerous other concrete efforts, and the Manual for Civilization is one. This collection is to be a 3,500 volume book collection and library, housed at its new headquarters in San Francisco, The Interval. At time of launch, their plan is to have 1,000 of those volumes on the shelf, and to build the rest of the collection over time through various community-driven means. These include annual vetting of the existing collection and the chance to debate the addition or removal of items in what is proposed to be a fixed number of items.

The overarching question used to drive curation is “What books would you most want to help rebuild civilization?” To ask this question of a small subset of individuals is, obviously, to push them to think well beyond their means (much as is true of asking designers and engineers today to plan towards building an eventual interstellar starship). Yet this is a community dedicated specifically to long-term thinking, and to fostering that activity through its efforts.


Image: The 10,000 Year Clock Prototype (Power and Winder test).

One of the earliest critiques and responses to the Vessel proposal on Centauri Dreams was from a reader who could not see the point of attempting comprehensive archival of cultural content in the first place (much less other material, such as endangered biomass or scientific knowledge). The reader suggested that individuals and communities would always be undertaking archival tasks and the passing-down of their own heritage, making any kind of concerted effort unnecessary.

As a librarian, I continue to disagree; yet working on the Manual for Civilization project has reminded me that there is a spectrum of appropriate response to the need for remembrance as a mitigation of permanent stagnation or flawed realization. While the first draft of the Manual for Civilization does strive to be comprehensive, there is also significant room for interpretation and opinion in its scope. Its primary categories, at this stage, are a blend of comprehensive and community-focused topics: Cultural Canon and Mechanics of Civilization are both categories which point at widespread and general utility (once fleshed out by the addition of unfamiliar or more broadly global materials). The two other initial categories, Rigorous Science-Fiction and Long Term Thinking/Futurism, are there in part because of their direct interest to the specific community doing the curation — in this case, the Long Now Foundation.


Image: Categories in the Manual for Civilization (as of January 2014)]

With the facility and its opening events now in sight, Long Now has been bringing together existing physical copies of many works on the shortlist, as well as seeking out donor copies to fill out the collection. I myself have committed several to those shelves, including two signed editions. I have been impressed by the positive response seen both in the public, as well as in myself, to the prospect of helping to build a physical reference collection meant to endure over time.

It has also convinced me that similar processes could be carried out for other communities of interest, and perhaps with different types of materials. Empowering a community to build what amounts to an extended wishlist for that collection becomes the first step in establishing and stewarding its cohesion over the long term.

One of my own contributions to the process was the proposal that we create a customized build of the A/B sorting platform, (which I find useful for a great many things). This was done, allowing the project to pull ISBNs and other metadata into the survey from a custom metadata entry system. The community was invited to propose titles, and begin the process of sorting the ones already in the list.

Additionally, and appropriately, the core collection was seeded with the personal shortlists of Long Now’s founding members and some community exemplars (as I call them). (See Brian Eno; Neal Stephenson; Stewart Brand; Kevin Kelly. A blending of the lists — the community curated A/B lists and the shortlists of community exemplars — was undertaken by Long Now leadership, and thus the first curation list was born.


Image: Neal Stephenson selects titles for his shortlist, as a community exemplar.

During this process, we encountered a few questions regarding the diversity of the collection and its sources. The most public and illuminating of these questions came from Maria Popova, who runs an outstanding literary blog called Brainpickings. Her list and discussion was illuminating in itself, but it also helped me over a mental hurdle in understanding the purpose and point of such a process, and this has enriched my own conception of the larger long term goals of the Vessel Project.

As I wrote in my comments-response to a similar inquiry on the Long Now blog,

“I do think it’s important to remember that this particular collection is meant, initially, to serve as a core collection reflective of its hosting organization, housed at their headquarters site. While the question of what would most help rebuild or preserve a cultural core is a crucial one to ask, there might also be as many answers as there are communities of interest willing to ask it. I think that’s a good thing, actually: it reminds us that no such collection could ever be absolutely authoritative unless it were nearly exhaustive, but at its best might strive to be a reflection of its constituents’ ideals and aspirations. The wider that circle, the more comprehensive the collection — but universal representation right from the start would be nearly impossible.

The core lists being submitted by founders and community [exemplars] is only one current going in to the process. […] Every such collection is bound to differ in its details, and in those differences lie a strength. Who’s to say which resources will confer the greatest resilience or remembrance for a given community, other than that dynamic community itself? We can aspire, but more importantly, I think, is that the question “What do we feel is most worth passing on over the long term?” be asked, by as many unique communities as can.”

In articulating this, I had arrived unexpectedly at a middle-ground between the original ideal of Vessel — the seeding of numerous institution-level comprehensive collections, secured against unforeseen catastrophes in a range of ways — and the default remembrance strategy of throwing seeds to the wind, come-what-may, suggested by the critique that everyone will already save whatever matters for themselves.

The community of interest is the place where those two strategies meet.


Image: Interior visualization of The Interval.

This middle ground suggests a larger role for what I call community curation and community collections. Community may be very broadly defined, to include everything from a small family to a whole nation or colony. It seems useful to consider the possibility that larger collections might be built up of smaller collections: if each item and set of items bequeathed to a community collection is vetted for its long-term importance (however one wishes to define that), then as a whole the collection will reflect this objective even if the sets within it differ significantly.

The key element is to ensure the asking of the question. It can be phrased in different ways, complete with the differences those many ways suggest. “What would you place in a vessel containing the essence of your community?” “What is important enough to you to pass on beyond your own time?” “What best reflects the essence of your community’s knowledge and influences?” “What is most worth saving?” “What is at most risk of being lost?” And so on.

There will always be space and a place for those who answer this question simply with their lives, by saving what they value in their own collections and passing it on when they themselves pass on. However, given the complex challenges which face future generations (wherever they may make their homes), the asking of these questions and the community curation of collections which result may serve as crucial guidance in the short and medium term. Perhaps surprisingly, and perhaps controversially, we can propose that the greater the number of these communities and diversity of their resulting collections, the greater these collections’ value to communities in the future.

In other words, the idiosyncrasies seen in the Long Now Foundation’s collections, far from being a weakness, are a source of hybrid vigor and a carrier wave for the priorities this particular community will have as it evolves. A community has asked a particular question, and preserved its own unique approach to adapting as it moves into the future.


Image: Manual for Civilization (Logo).

At the end of May, I will travel to San Francisco to celebrate this Internship and to see the collection in its seedling stage. I will return with a renewed sense of direction and purpose for the Vessel Project, clear to me already in outline. Future efforts will continue to ask the question of curation to, hopefully, a range of communities. Each will answer somewhat differently, and in these differences will lie those communities’ particular traditions.

The results of these Vessel Surveys will be made openly available whenever possible; books are perhaps an increasingly controversial medium to use as a baseline, but they are also surprisingly resilient as media, and in the short term are good markers for particular ideas, priorities, and influences. Vessel Surveys which embrace other media are possible as well.

Not all will focus immediately on core materials for rebuilding civilization, but might initially focus simply on the themes and ideas integral to that community. Such would be the case with a thematic community like Centauri Dreams.

In this spirit, and with Paul’s blessing, I would like to facilitate a community curation of the Centauri Dreams readership. Initially, we will start with books; but if comments suggest that ideas or some other carrier for influence is preferable, we can launch a survey for that type. This is an experiment and a gift, from one member of the Centauri Dreams to all others, and from all of us to all who come.


Image: Centauri Dreams: Community Curation Vessel Survey (Live tomorrow).

In the fullness of time, who knows who might find these influences pivotal to their own exploration?

Tomorrow, we’ll present Paul’s initial shortlist of key books as influences, and then we will open up a Vessel Survey for suggestions of others from the community.