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The Clock of the Long Now is a clock designed to mark time for 10,000 years. That's a really long time for humans, but what if there existed a species that would see such a clock as "a bit short lived"? This species would make J. R. R. Tolkien's elves look like mayflies, naturally living for a million years. However, unlike the elves, who operate on at least somewhat human timescales, this species take a long time to do anything. For instance, libraries on their world lend out books for a thousand years; the line at the DMV may last for decades.

Given these huge time spans, a paper book would decay considerably, even if kept in excellent conditions - paper dries out and becomes brittle, and inks can fade. How could this species construct a book, knowing that it may well sit on a shelf for tens of thousands of years before it is ever touched, let alone read? What materials could they use, and still keep that "book feel"?

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Of course. I feel like a terrible Tolkein fan... somehow, I mixed up my lore, and thought they lived a long time, but not forever... consider me chastised! – ArmanX Mar 25 at 20:42
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@Hypnosifl That should be fine; as long as it is book-shaped, with pages that can turn, and doesn't weight hundreds of pounds. I'm considering giving them excellent eyesight, so very tiny print is still legible; that would give the books better information density. – ArmanX Mar 25 at 21:17
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Would they care about books like this? If you lived millions of years, you would witness the rise of mountains, the oceans dissapear and reappear...the world is only permanently in its place due to our short time frames....elongate this time frame to the millions, you would witness and likely embrace the ever changing. Would you seek permanency in anything? – Twelfth Mar 25 at 21:37
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There's this technique for etching data into a quartz crystal that's predicted to able to "endure for as long as 13.8 billion years at temperatures up to 350 degrees Fahrenheit", but I'm not sure if it would produce difference in shading or color that would be visible to the naked eye. – Hypnosifl Mar 25 at 21:56
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Off of the topic, but your species will live long enough and move slow enough to have problems with other forms of sapient life springing up around them. These guys will have trouble getting much done before their planet dies, and will have problems with things like people disappearing in the middle of a conversation due to animal predation. – Sean Boddy Mar 27 at 17:32

17 Answers 17

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Given sufficient technology and/or magic:

Various types of crystals are quite stable under normal (surface-of-Earth) conditions. One might imagine “pages” made of an opaque crystalline material (eg: perhaps sapphire, which could be doped with impurities to give it opacity in practically any color). The “print” would be woven into the crystalline matrix as the “pages” are being manufactured, whether by growing the crystals over some kind of doped substrate, or perhaps a variation on 3D printing.

The things I can readily imagine to use for this are all effectively rigid, but could be made quite thin. I believe that a few-mils (paper-thin) thickness of opaque sapphire would have about the flexibility of sturdy cardboard, be effectively unbreakable with human strength or normal impacts, and so one could still bind them into booklet/folio form, turn pages, et al.

A slightly less far-reaching variation might be to use metallic alloys in a similar way, although oxidation (rusting) might embrittle them over the course of centuries.

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I like that idea - assuming such materials are plentiful (and I have no reason for them not to be), crystalline pages would make excellent, if a tad heavy, books; a replaceable "dust cover" would easily protect it from scratches and falls, too. – ArmanX Mar 25 at 20:48
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Sapphire is effectively an aluminium crystal, so it's more about the technology to fabricate it than material availability (at least on Earth) – BRPocock Mar 25 at 20:51
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Correlary: papercuts might be really serious. – BRPocock Mar 25 at 20:51
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@ArmanX - Scratches? Sapphire and similar crystals are amongst the hardest materials in existence.. – Random User Mar 27 at 2:07

Obviously the best way to keep your books in a near pristine condition would be to use e-books, but as you're asking to maintain that "book" feel, we'll move away from technology.

There are three enemies to the longevity of a book: moisture, heat, and sunlight. To solve most of these problems, store the book in a cool (but not damp or mildewy) and airy open room underground. Make sure that this room will maintain a mostly stable temperature and humidity level. You've effectively eliminated heat, sunlight, and moisture as threats to your book by taking this simple step. However, as you've pointed out paper dries out and inks become brittle over time.

To prevent the paper from drying out, use the technology that stores the US constitution. According to this,

When the four cases were built, air was pumped out, and they were filled with helium and some water vapor to keep the parchment documents from becoming brittle.

This is assuming you have the advanced technology of today. Adding a touch of water vapor can keep the document pliable, but too much could render it too damp.

To solve the second problem you've addressed, fading ink, you might try this:

The enclosure is hermetically sealed and filled with the inert gas argon instead of oxygen, because oxygen reacts with the materials in paper and ink to degrade them. The argon maintains the atmospheric pressure that the air would normally exert on the map.

Overall, I would say combine all of these methods. Store it underground in this case that will provide a helium, water vapor, and argon-rich environment for the book.

Edit: As mentioned by @Bookeater,

Using the most durable/longest lasting ink possible as well as parchment instead of non-acidic paper would help the books outlast the test of time. Also, by binding the books together through sewing rather than glueing would be helpful. One step further would be inscribed thin gold leafs for newspapers and stone tables for best-sellers.

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+1 Nice answer! Also materials used can be adapted. Best ink possible as well as parchment instead of non-acidic paper will help the books endure. Sowing them together instead of glueing. One step further would be inscribed thin gold leafs for newspapers and stone tables for best-sellers. Yum. – Bookeater Mar 25 at 19:12
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Even parchment will decay in "tens of thousands of years", let alone sealed chambers remaining sealed... – Serban Tanasa Mar 25 at 19:19
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Use e-books? Hah! Tried to read a floppy disk or mag tape lately? – jamesqf Mar 26 at 0:00
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I have heard it said that it's not just the media you need to worry about lasting for a long time, but the device that's used to read the media. Are you still able to watch a tape in Beta format if the tape was still good? :) – Rick Henderson Mar 26 at 2:10
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I'd upvote this question if it weren't for the first paragraph. The idea that e-books endure longer than books is just plain ridiculous. – Roman Reiner Mar 26 at 20:15

Lithography

The term is derived from two greek words: lithos (stone) and graphien (to write). Lithography literally means writing on (or in) stone. This method was invented to serve as a quick and cheap method for mass printing of books. It is basically a stone stamp. When carefully dipped in ink and stamped on a piece of paper, you can immediately print a full page.

One method for your book shelves would be to store the lithographs instead of books. Stone slabs don't require any very special care and a book can be printed on demand any time anywhere.

Also, for better printing quality and to allow for storage of more lithographs in a small place, you should use this technique with metals instead of stone. Thin (3 mm) sheets of stainless steel or titanium (for nobles) can be used to store all the precious information ready to be printed immediately as desired.

Parchment

Basically it is writing printed on leather, instead of paper. If stored with anti-bacterial substances, these can easily last for centuries. And if higher quality leather is used (tigerskin, wolfskin, goatskin and deerskin, instead of buffalo or other thick skins) and stored carefully, the books would stay good for millenia.

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This reminds me of the Rosetta Disk project (which, if memory serves, is supposed to last 10,000 years). – 2012rcampion Mar 25 at 19:40

These are folks for whom a day is but a neon-like flicker, and seasons come and go as clouds on the sky. Regular methods won't work for these slow folks. Just like our society does not attempt to build things out of vapor, neither will theirs use paper or other such nondurables as stainless steel (life of mere centuries, would melt like an ice-cream cone on a summer day in their eyes).

So it would have to be things that are durable, and their entire society would be built of such things. Perhaps a collection of monumental granite slabs, perhaps hyper-durable alloys with deep etchings. More likely, they'll solve the problem in ways we cannot even envision, since our entire mayfly species evolution would seem like a transient summer to them.

Think long processes: geological changes, complex sculptures in orbit, alterations to slow patterns of molten rock underground feromagnetic flow, flare patterns of nearby stars. We know they are patient. What's a million years to them?

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I'm going to take a different approach than the other answers and try to do something within your universe.

These creatures must live off some sort of food, meaning the animals in their Universe must live on some time scale about as long as them. If not then the meat from the dead animals would spoil and become poisonous before they ever had a chance to prepare it.

So I recommend making a book out of the animals' hide or other parts that must necessarily last on the time scales as long as these people survive.

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This is an excellent point to keep in mind, in general. – JDługosz Mar 26 at 5:37
    
Tatoos on their skin. – joojaa Mar 28 at 19:43

No

"Forever is a long-time."

  • $10^{2500}$ - Universe slips into Heat Death or Big Rip or other event
  • $10^{100}$ - Dark Age - not even Black Holes remain
  • $10^{40}$ - Black Hole Age - only Black Holes remain
  • $10^{14}$ - Degenerate Age - Stars stop forming. Stars fall into black holes or flung from their galaxies. Planets fall into their stars or are flung from their stars. All nuclear matter decays.
  • $4 \cdot 10^{9}$ - Earth swallowed by Sun.
  • $2 \cdot 10^{9}$ - Milky Way / Andromeda galaxy merger.
  • $1.5 \cdot 10^{9}$ - The brightening Sun kills all life on Earth.
  • $2.5 \cdot 10^{8}$ - Earth's continents form a new super continent.
  • < $2.5 \cdot 10^{4}$ - Earth enters next Ice Age
  • Present Day
  • $-8 \cdot 10^{7}$ - Age of Rocky Mountains.
  • $-4.8 \cdot 10^{8}$ - Age of Appalachian Mountains.
  • $-4.6 \cdot 10^{9}$ - Age of Solar System.
  • $-1.38 \cdot 10^{10}$ - Age of Universe.

Even when talking about shorter periods of time, chemical and physical weathering destroys even the hardest and most chemically resistant materials.

Even if you store an object made of steel on the surface of the Moon, it will eventually weather and all information on it will be destroyed. Cosmic rays will eventually destroy all data stored electronically.

You can't beat entropy.

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What about geologically inactive celestial bodies? Is there anything which would eventually destroy a book buried on e.g. Pluto? I imagine radioactive decay and stray cosmic particles passing through the rock could be a problem. But are they bad enough to harm e.g. a very large sapphire tablet within, say, 10⁴⁰ years? – Michael Mar 26 at 20:02
    
At 10^40 years, black holes only remain. Therefor the book would be in a black hole and destroyed. – Eric Johnson Mar 26 at 23:52
    
My point - which I should state explicitly in the answer is that we can store information for long periods of time, but nothing lasts forever. When you're talking about astronomical ages, its gets exceedingly difficult to retain information. Entropy is a cold-hearted bitch. But only until its surroundings warm its heart to ambient temperature, lol. – Jim2B Mar 27 at 20:02

This species mastered the creation of synthetic life forms (begun AD 2016 by an obscure and long-extinct hominid that once dominated the world, but had the notable distinction of having destroyed both their ecosystem and their own species ultimately) and designed a race of living books, poor creatures capable of memorizing and reciting entire books, but with no interest (by design) in anything else.

They were housed in cathedral-like structures, millions of the Book-Bearers in residence. The Book-Bearers wore special uniforms of coarse material that looked and felt to the touch much as the covers and bindings of the legendary books of the ancients. Each bloodline of Bearer passed on the recitation of their family Book and continued to be ready at moment's notice to stand before the Eternal Ones and speak each page as commanded, their voices deep and resonant, feminine and seductive, or any of a thousand tones and rhythms, engineered in their very DNA to support their appointed Words.

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Strange description, but interesting idea +1. Wouldn't even really need the "book-bearer" lifeforms to remember or read anything, just storing data in "extra" dna may be sufficient. – Xen2050 Mar 26 at 6:33
    
Thanks. I wondered if someone would immediately recall the DNA as information store concept (it occurs to me you may mean in the Bearer DNA so as to obviate learning a particular book). Because I was in the margin on the requirements ("keep that book feel"), I offered designer lifeforms as eternal (by reproduction of one kind of another; assume the Eternals would not share their defining characteristic) audio books clothed in book bindings as it were (rather than molecular storage media). – Dalton Bentley Mar 26 at 18:00

Living "Book" Plants

Plants that are genetically programmed to grow with leaves holding a different "page" of words (or a pattern, similar to braille books) naturally growing in them. Being plants, there could be generations that grow, live, and die over and over again, so there's always a "fresh" one ready to read.

There are already lots of patterns on real leaves like these:
leaf1small leaf2small2 Clematis armandii and getting a pattern to look like words should be theretically possible.

Or maybe a more basic pattern of dots or bumps would work for a braille-type book, like this image of a fern: fern

Every leaf could have a different "page" of words growing on it, and maybe a big fern plant with each "stalk" could be like a chapter of pages growing in the right order.

Having a shelf/box/garden/field of each "book" should keep growing new plant "books," as long as the sun shines & the rain falls (and nothing else eats them ;-)

[Inspired by Dalton Bentley's answer on lifeforms (like people) who remember (genetically) the contents of books and read them on demand.]

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creative idea. welcome to the site. – James Mar 27 at 5:09

I was going to suggest

Accept that paper is ethereal. Print books on demand, and be satisfied that they'll only last a couple hundred years.

but that introduces a more fundamental problem: whatever tools you use for printing books will wear out/degrade at a rate too rapid to replace them.

What's the most durable, maintenance-free printing technology we can conceive of? I mean, for the volume of printing that would be required, it would have to be mostly automatic—something like letterpress printing wouldn't be feasible given how slowly these people work and how fast books degrade—but all known machines require more maintenance than these people could provide: by the time a technician shows up, say, 20 years later (which is what, 1 or 2 DMV lines?), plastic would crack, rubber would dry out, magnetic media would fail, things would rust, chemicals and fuel would degrade, and a massive quantity of dust would interfere with everything.

If we go with more basic metal tools to chisel rock, we'd have to get those tools sharpened or replaced frequently, I believe. Probably more problematic is the stone—have you tried reading any century-old gravestones? Stone is thus fragile, and would have to be keep out of the elements. No reading on a park bench for a nice 30-year afternoon. More tricky still would be the creation of stone reading material. How long does it take us to chisel a stone tablet? How many decades would it take these people?

Because of these problems, I agree with Jim2B: No.

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Make the pages out of aluminum. As we know from aluminum foil, aluminum can be made very thin. You could make it paper-like, but that would be very easy to tear. More than likely, something close to the thickness of a soda can would do. Aluminum has a half life of 730,000 years, so it will last a very, very long time. In addition to that, aluminum as very non-reactive. It wont oxidize, or react with other chemicals.

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A soda can has a wall thickness of about 0.1 mm. – Michael Kjörling Mar 25 at 21:13
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Aluminum is actually highly reactive. Which is why it forms a protective oxide layer almost instantly if exposed to air. The oxide layer is inert and durable. The difference is usually naturally academic, although some chemicals can dissolve the oxide layer and aluminum is more vulnerable to galvanic corrosion than actually non-reactive metals, but please do not write that aluminum is non-reactive and won't oxidize when its durability is actually due to rapid formation of a durable oxide layer. IIRC aluminum is bad with repeated bending, but we can assume they use some suitable alloy? – Ville Niemi Mar 25 at 21:59

There's no way besides magic or God(which would just involve divine magic). First I'll tell why, later I'll tell what you might try to do.

Everything will eventually be put to an end.

E-books are terrible idea. First of all, you come up with the format. For some other civilization, or even yours years after it's created, it would take years of trying to decode it without knowing what it is. Remember that we can't understand some of the older languages or what they mean, and it isn't even that long ago since they were created. Moreover, PC formats tend to have some hidden data(formatting) that doesn't show up when you're reading text, but is important for program to decode it. You'd basically have little chance of someone decoding it in a rational time. Add cosmic rays and the fact that we don't know how to store data for longer than hundreds of years and you see what I'm saying.

Next, there are all kinds of different "physical" things that you create. These aren't that good either; if you could create a book as durable as our sun, it would last for a very long time, but nowhere near forever; and sun is very durable from our point of view.

Plants, AI, and other forms of life aren't that good too - why would we create them, if they could be destroyed as easily as us? We need to find other way; ultimately, they would just go away with the planet(s), and we already decided that planets and stars aren't the best way to go.

What can we do?

  • A bit of science fiction

You could somehow create a parallel universe, and make it so that it can't really be destroyed. This would require fiction of course, but it's doable. Then, since it's parallel universe, you define the rules - you can make a parallel universe that's single chamber created by some civilization at its peak of glory, so that data is both preserved well and easily understood. You'd have to make it accessible somehow though; you can try doing something like Planescape's portals, you could create TARDIS that'd store the universe inside, or something completely different; that's one way to go.

  • Fantasy way

Magic can be powerful. You might create a magic system that makes magic a resource fully available from any point in time and space; then, you can make a single "stream", or anything similar, that can be modified with enormous effort. The civilization would use all they had to bind the book with the magic. It'd surely feel real.

  • Modify the world

In Discworld, the world is flat, and it's travelling on the back of the four elephants who are carried by giant turtle. Nothing stops you from altering the world to work this way; some ancient creature, or God(Cthulhu? ;)), exists, and you can use it, or ask it for help, so that it stores your book.

But the same goes for physics and chemistry - you can invent some material that's self-replicating, very durable and has some special properties that make it last forever. This might be less or more convincing, depending on what your vision is, but that's another possibility.

Bottom line


In the end, it's all a matter of convincing the reader that your version just works. You'll probably fail to convince everyone, so you can pick whatever fits you best. Personally I'd probably go with parallel universe, but there are all sorts of possibilities that might turn out to be just great in given context. Good luck!

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Nanite-book. It can self-repair and any other functions needed to allow self-repair in as many environments as needed.

Like the Diamond Age's Young Lady's Illustrated Primer. Spinal battery, nano-tech pages that have page-like feel and any other functions you want.

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Use vellum?

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-35569281

Vellum lasts a long time. Dig into the archives of the UK's parliament and pull out the oldest extant law and you'll find a very old document. It was first inscribed in 1497.

Over time, ordinary paper can deteriorate rapidly, while vellum is said to retain its integrity for much longer. Original copies of the Magna Carta, signed more than 800 years ago on vellum, still exist.

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What constitutes "book feel" is very culture dependent. In that spirit, I suggest one of the best ways of producing long lasting books from human history:

  1. Write your books on clay tablets
  2. Burn down the library.

(Clay tablets have the unusual property that burning down the library makes them more permanent, by firing the clay, rather than destroying them.)

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Literally nothing may last forever. But if you species somehow exist, there must be a way for them to create and store their knowledge somehow.

The important question is: how are they even able to survive?

On Earth

In Earth-like world they would have a really hard time: in most of places they would be overgrown by plant-life before they can blink, and encased in dirt if they don't constantly climb out of it - not to mention being eaten almost instantaneously if even remotely edible.

This is why there are very few of such long-lasting lifeforms on our planet - it is evolutionarily disadvantageous.

On a remote asteroid

I would imagine such creatures living on some kind of planet or asteroid, where almost no sunlight reaches, next to no incoming meteors, low temperature, and very low energy income.

In that case it would be advantageous to accumulate what energy is available and spend it really slowly and carefully - almost nothing is happening around anyway.

It is hard to guess what such a creature could look like, I'd wager nothing even remotely human-like, but it is up to you to decide.

Available materials

In above case, a lot of things are very different from what we are used to on Earth. The atmosphere, if any, is likely thin and quite non-corrosive. Water and oxygen only exist as ice. Metals are brittle, but see below. At low temperatures things degenerate much slower too.

Paper/parchment/leather-like materials would not even be available in this scenario since earth-like plants and animals would not survive in such conditions.

What is there to make use of then?

There several types of asteroids, but let's say we have a metallic one. Iron is probably is in abundance there, some other metals including "precious" (and less corrodible) ones like gold and platinum are also relatively easy to come by.

Books

For simplicity sake, let's assume that the aliens somehow ended up being vaguely humanoid in shape and function. Let's also assume they came up with something somewhat book-like for some reason. What would those be made of?

I'm in no way expert in low-temperature low-pressure large-timespan material physics, but I'd say probably some kind of metal alloy. Type of metal greatly depends on availability, temperature, atmosphere, and other environmental conditions.

Metal is extra brittle in low temperatures, however that is because dislocations (impurities in crystalline structure) which make metal bendable, can move much slower than humans would naturally bend it - thus it breaks instead of bending. But your species take their time, so metals might just work for them - unless they accidentally drop such a book: it could shatter even accounting for low gravity.

Storage

Metal also flows really slowly at earth temperatures, but in the coldness of outer space it should keep its form somewhat longer. Lower melting temperature-metals would likely be used. Or their libraries could try to store their books cold same way ours try not to be damp.

Pages should also use some kind of method to prevent fusing together, likely some thin non-metal (silicate?) protective layer.

Production

Because of such small energy income, it would be expensive for the civilization to melt metal. Plastic deformation however is much cheaper for them since they can allow it to slowly happen with much less heat, so they could realistically make somewhat-thin pages by applying great pressure over large timespan.

Writing

If their books are shaped as ours, I'd say they would have series of small etchings or holes in their metal pages, such as in Babylonian script/ braille patterns. Holes are better with thinner pages since they are less likely to close than bumps and shallow scratches to even up with time. Other option would be to use tiny portions somewhat-heated distinctive metal to write, fusing it to pages as they are written.

Since thinking may be cheaper than acting in such a world, in order to conserve energy required to communicate your civilization may opt to use a rather efficient, high-density form of information exchange, writing in something like Chinese characters: very few strokes could easily code an entire phrase, a page could contain several articles.

Magic?

Who knows on what yet undiscovered physical laws and principles can a totally different life-form operate in nothing-even-close-to-earth-like conditions? To us their very existence could easily seem magical. Depending on how is your story told, you may even want to distance yourself from science and rely on imagination entirely.

Human contact

Human contact would likely be devastating to both the slow creatures and their books. Without really slow-moving machinery, even trying to open might break them.

Communicating with aliens would also be next to useless - by the time the answer is received, the question would be long forgotten in history of previous human generations.

In fact, humans might not even realize that the aliens are still alive and not just statues.

Disclaimer

Due to how different are the condition from earthly ones, my answer quite likely contains factual mistakes and such. Please feel free to expand upon and correct me.

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A species that is so long-lived will have a very different culture compared to humans, because of their life cycle: Population "turn-over" (old individuals dying and being replaced by children) will be very low, thus preservation of knowledge will probably be much less of an issue. The spread of knowledge (and fiction) could in all probability be a lot more dependent on an oral tradition. This again would place a greater emphasis on memory and perfect recall. It would also lead to a more coherent social structure.

This suggests the question: will they have a need for books, and if so, what for?

I guess that such species will either have a very much slower rate of discovery of knowledge, leaving them in some pre-modern state of technology (which does go well with the oral tradition), or they will be constantly updating their book technology (along with all other technology), similar to the way many modern people go from one model of smart phone to the next every couple of months even though the device is still perfectly usable. This could lead to the problem of transcribing old media to new tech, and if neglected leading to "cultural amnesia" etc. etc.

If I would need to create a book-like object with today's technology to last a few thousand years at least, I would look at some fibre technology (polymer, glass or carbon), which would be woven or matted into sheets and printed with a similar material with a contrasting color. But even these may be prone to deterioration because of surface damage (water and other fluids in nicks on glass surfaces are known to weaken the material below - and are used when cutting glass because of this). Glass and carbon (fibres) are often coated with polymer coatings so as to protect the surfaces to increase longevity.

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Computer data is fragile, life mutates, and copying introduces errors. If you want something to last, the simplest solution is best: engrave it on something hard, like tungsten. You can then seal it in with a layer of glass (a surprisingly durable material) and bury it when not in use. When the glass protection starts to degrade, you can just add another layer of glass before it wears away, so the actual engraving never comes into contact with the outside world.

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