I love books,

This love brought me to gather hundreds of books of all different types. When I disappear, like all old men's belongings, these will be scattered, thrown away, sold, burnt.

Let's imagine a vault with a modest technology, that could keep these books safe for the next 500 years, up to the point where it will be considered of an archeological and cultural value, so that they will form a collection.

There is a long list of items to be taken care of: Buying the property? Avoiding looting? Make sure great great grand children not looking after their "gran'pa treasure"? Preserve from humidity and light, ground movements? Keeping the secrecy?

Books last for centuries in the dry areas. Shall I prefer a lost cave in an arid region? Or the cold summits of some isolated Canadian mountains?

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    $\begingroup$ Well, the Dead sea scrolls lasted for 2000 years in a cave in the desert. $\endgroup$
    – pojo-guy
    Jan 24, 2019 at 4:32
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    $\begingroup$ @pojo-guy that was mostly written on parchment wasn't it? I guess it would also depend on what the book was written using. Metal sheets would last much longer than paper, and a thick paper probably has a better chance of surviving than thin paper. $\endgroup$
    – Shadowzee
    Jan 24, 2019 at 5:09
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    $\begingroup$ chemical composition of the paper can effect its longevity also. A paper with a high acid content may not last a couple centuries. $\endgroup$
    – Sonvar
    Jan 24, 2019 at 5:25
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    $\begingroup$ There are copies of the Gutenberg Bible printed on paper that are over over 500 years old in various institutions around the world. $\endgroup$
    – Sarriesfan
    Jan 24, 2019 at 7:58
  • $\begingroup$ Not quite a duplicate, but my answer to this question:worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/119834/… Probably applies if you're not set on them staying on paper $\endgroup$
    – ErosRising
    Jan 24, 2019 at 15:40

6 Answers 6


There are about four solutions that have actually worked in history

Interestingly, this is not just a hypothetical question. Librarians and archivists already seriously study how they can preserve documents for centuries.

An example of an important case that has received a lot of attention is that of blueprints for major pieces of highly durable infrastructure, which might be expected to interact with the development of a city for centuries. The general conclusion is that there are currently no electronic methods that are reliable on anything approaching this time frame, so the first step is always to get digital blueprints transferred to (archival quality) traditional media.

Once you have that, well, there are quite a few examples of libraries of books preserved for 500 years. There are a few examples of much, much older books.

1. The desert method

As you already observed, dryness helps to preserve books. There are three main things that destroy books -- although their relative importance depends on the material used for the pages.

a. Some modern papers inherently self-destruct from chemical break down. This was much less of an issue before pulp paper was developed in the nineteenth century, but always has some effect, and may be exacerbated by exposure to light. However, these reactions require the presence of water. Keeping the paper (or papyrus, etc.) extremely dry will slow them down immensely.

b. Insect and vermin attack can rapidly destroy books. A desert environment is not entirely free of these pests but it does help.

c. In humid environments, fungal attack is also a serious issue. It can occur to some degree in drier environments but halts altogether in extremely dry conditions.

The classic example is the Dead Sea scrolls, some of which are as much as 2300 years old. Most people have heard of them; fewer people realise that in total there are over 900 documents found in 11 different caves. The degree of preservation varies. Some of the scrolls that were simply stacked on the bare earth have disintegrated to fragments and have taken decades to partially reconstruct. However many were stored in earthenware jars with loose fitting ceramic lids. This seems to have given them better protection against insects, and traces of moisture in the soil after (the rare) rains. Some of these scrolls could be simply opened and read, millennia after they were placed there.

This is not a unique case. As another example, the Oxyrhynchus Papyri were documents discarded in rubbish pits by a desert community. With no more protection than shifting desert sands, many are still legible 1400 years after they were simply thrown away.

A potential advantage of this approach is that it is very cheap. Desert land costs pennies an acre, and the only other thing you need is some pots. And no long term personnel tasking.

2. Give them to an institution which will preserve them

Many of the most notable examples of well-preserved ancient documents have been in the care of long-lived institutions that intentionally take care of them. Often these are religious institutions; some are academic; and there are a smaller number of examples by governments or long-lived family businesses or estates. A particularly famous example is the geniza of Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo. In Jewish custom, a geniza is a storeroom for revered or sacred documents. In the late nineteenth century this one was discovered to have over 200,000 documents, mainly in excellent preservation, dating back as much as 700 years. Some included hand-written, personally signed letters from famous mediaeval personages.

Of course it helps that Cairo is also arid; but there are equally excellent examples in the Vatican's libraries, and those of ancient universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. The key is that it is not required to try to solve the preservation of the documents once and for all time, because the self-perpetuating institution will monitor and maintain them.

This does, of course, raise the secondary question of what institutions can be relied upon to last 500 years. Sure, any schmuck can found a cult, but most of them don't outlast the founder! Usually, it will be better to donate them to an institution that has already shown it has the chops for the really long haul.

3. The opposite of secrecy: duplicate them extensively

The great majority of ancient documents that we can still read today do not exist because we have a copy that is millennia old; they are available because they were popular, revered or important, and accessible for copying. If enough copies are made, some will survive to the next generation of duplication. This interacts well with the previous point if the institution has a mission to disseminate documents as well as to preserve them -- such as the scriptoria of mediaeval monasteries.

4. Transcribe them to durable materials

It is hard to keep books for a really long time because paper, parchment and papyrus are easily destroyed. However books have been produced on much more durable materials. Nowadays a holographic copy can be laser etched into stainless steel. In Sumer, 5300 years ago they pressed them into clay tablets. If the document was important, they fired the clay; otherwise they just let it dry. The fired versions are close to indestructible.

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    $\begingroup$ re: 4. Today, we have "inkjet" (clay-jet?) printers that can print ceramics. They are used to put realistic and non-repeating patterns onto imitation-marble tiles. They could print scanned pages onto tiles .... $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    Jan 24, 2019 at 15:56
  • $\begingroup$ @nigel222: ceramics are usually printed with dies that tend to degrade in time (unlike old ones that tended to use pigments which are much more resistant to the passage of time). $\endgroup$ Jan 24, 2019 at 17:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Stormbolter No connection with this company or any knowledge beyond these web pages, but xaar.com/en/applications/ceramics $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    Jan 24, 2019 at 17:19
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    $\begingroup$ @nigel222: They support a broad range of inks, but on my experience (that, admitedly, is not very broad, as I only worked briefly with this and it was 8 years ago) I can tell you that fujifilm and fritta had an average lifespan of 10 years... of course, that's 10 years of daily UV exposure. The problem with dye based inks is that most of them are "organic" in nature so they tend to decompose, unlike pigments which are "mineral" in nature. $\endgroup$ Jan 24, 2019 at 17:46
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    $\begingroup$ I would note that, unfortunately, the accuracy of copies (method 3) may leave to desire. Whether by mistake, or by conviction, a copyist may alter the copy if it suits them (censorship, embellishment, ...). $\endgroup$ Jan 24, 2019 at 19:54

Your biggest problem is the books themselves.

Unless the books are made of an acid free paper, they will deteriorate anyway.

See The Deterioration and Preservation of Paper

Now the next question, does anyone need to read it during the next 500 years? If nobody has to read them, you could seal them away in a nitrogen atmosphere inside sealed barrels and they should last but if they are being handled, not so much.

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    $\begingroup$ Best way to preserve them? Put them somewhere nobody will ever read them. $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Jan 24, 2019 at 7:48
  • $\begingroup$ Could you extract some more information from behind that link, it's fascinating and some, like quality of paper, seems critical to the question. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Jan 24, 2019 at 11:07
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    $\begingroup$ It is not only about paper. It is also about glue, cardboard for covers, canvas on the cover (if used), thread for stitching and so on. Even ink matters! It takes only one non-archival component to make the whole book non-archival, and it will be somewhere between needing repairs and totally irreversibly damaged after couple decades. $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Jan 24, 2019 at 13:20
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    $\begingroup$ According to ANSI/NISO Z39.48 - 1992 (mentioned in your link), all books printed in US from 1990s should last several hundred years. Which means that for books printed before that time results will be iffy. Some will be good, some will deteriorate even if kept in inert atmosphere. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Jan 24, 2019 at 17:44
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    $\begingroup$ Note that it is possible to completely fix acidic paper by washing with a weak alkaline solution. The process works, and is in widespread use. The issue for libraries is that some of them have millions of books to treat, and washing and drying a book takes hours. $\endgroup$
    – Securiger
    Jan 24, 2019 at 19:46

Let's assume you don't have the money to reprint the books into a medium that is more stable than wood-pulp paper. Let's also assume you want to be them readily available, so that discards scanning them into tech that will get obsolete faster than writing.

Your main enemies are the natural acidity of the paper: As the lignin decomposes will make the paper dark and brittle, and sunlight will speed the process. There are factors that contribute to the decomposition of the books: these are sunlight(again), which can make inks and pigments fade, and the humidity which can increase the speed of acid release and unbind the adhesives that hold the books together. Finally, there are factors that can contribute to the endangerment of the collection, namely natural disasters and human intervention.

Let's try to address them in order.

  • Paper acidity can be neutralized by dipping the books in an alkaline solution. This is a common practice for books made after the introduction of wood pulp paper and will prolong the life of the books as long as it's periodically dipped. As you don't want these books to be regularly attended, we can scratch periodically, but this would be a mandatory step.
  • If the content is more important than the form, you can unbind the books and then laminate the pages in plastic. This will prevent humidity to affect the paper and can hold the ink (specially if it's pigment and not tint) even if the paper itself deteriorates. If form is more important or you don't have time/patience to unbind the books, vacuum wrap them individually in PET (that is more stable than PVC and will take longer to decompose).
  • To avoid sunlight, you should make your vault subterranean, as you probably already were thinking of that.
  • To prevent degradation by natural disasters and human intervention you should built your vault in a place that is remote and a region that is tectonically stable. This will prove difficult as much of the places that would be suitable (for example, the atacama desert is one of the dries places in earth) are also mineral rich and/or tectonically active.

So we're looking at a small two layer concrete coffin, covered in some kind of moisture absorbing salt, with just enough space for the books to be, situated in a rocky, medium-altitude, sparsely populated and mineral depleted place (the bottom of a mineshaft would be a handy place to put the vault).

Let me suggest an easier way, if I may. Assuming you have the money to do all this, you also can have the money to set up a trust fund with the purpose of preserving your library. Most museums started this way (and in my city of Barcelona, we have the Frederic Marés museum, which is basically a place where a very rich garbage collector put everything, from cigar rings to stolen gothic sculptures). What is more, if your interest in preserving the books is more like showing what a normal person of your era would collect you can talk with a museum that deals with ethnology (the study of the human cultures) and propose the fund with that purpose: they will be probably more than happy to catalog and preserve your books. If you live in United States your best bet would be the Smithsonian.


The easiest solution to this is put them in the vault, use an oil absorbing rag, wipe all of the books down, vacuum seal the rooms, and then use vacuums to pump the room empty of all existing air.

In the absence of air, acids cannot Oxidize. I would also recommend removing all light, as light can also cause damage to books, paper, paintings, color, and parchments.

This is how the Vatican handles the most rare and valuable artifacts it possesses.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding, user60779! If you have a moment, please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. You may also find Worldbuilding Meta and The Sandbox useful. Here is a meta post on the culture and style of Worldbuilding.SE, just to help you understand our scope and methods, and how we do things here. Have fun! $\endgroup$
    – Gryphon
    Jan 24, 2019 at 18:28
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    $\begingroup$ Hi user60779, I think you may be confusing acid degradation with oxidation (a relatively small problem). Acid attack on paper is a catalytic hydrolysis reaction, unrelated to oxidation. As such it requires the presence of at least traces of water, but /not/ any air. Also I suspect that vacuum sealing a room for 500 years is really quite difficult. I absolutely agree about the light, though. $\endgroup$
    – Securiger
    Jan 24, 2019 at 19:58

There is this method - to store the information on glass. Although I am not sure you can call that book.

Although it sounds impossible, I am sure it will easily last 500 years.

A standard-sized disc can store around 360 terabytes of data, with an estimated lifespan of up to 13.8 billion years even at temperatures of 190°C.


Paper books will most probably disappear in a hundred years and will be seen as relics. For that reason, it makes sense to preserve them as paper books, but if you want the information, check the link.


Put a few of these:


Into one of these:

MIT time capsule

This is a time capsule from MIT that is supposed to be opened only in 2957.

This way you can store billions of books using very little money and space. You wish to extract the batteries from the eReaders before putting them in the capsule.

To keep it away safe from harm such as floods, animals, kids and luddites, you can add a protective casing against radiation and send the whole thing to orbit. Before anyone says that this is too expensive: convince a space agency that this is a school project and they might do it for you for free.

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    $\begingroup$ Don't forget the full specs on the power supply required to run it. Probably on a piece of paper :) $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Jan 24, 2019 at 11:53
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    $\begingroup$ What are the odds that the flash memory will still be readable after 500 years? $\endgroup$
    – user
    Jan 24, 2019 at 12:54
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    $\begingroup$ In space, exposed to solar wind and ionizing radiation? Unless you shield the capsule with a cartload of lead or DU, which will make the launching costs skyrocket (pun possibly intended), the eBooks won't last out the year. $\endgroup$
    – LSerni
    Jan 24, 2019 at 18:08
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    $\begingroup$ @aCVn Typical (not guaranteed) MCU flash retention times are of the order of 100 years at room temperature. i.imgur.com/tPq5eNJ.png $\endgroup$ Jan 24, 2019 at 21:20

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