A fictional nomadic group lives in vardos much like the Romani people.


Could such a nomadic group build a giant library on wheels like a giant vardo capable of carrying 50,000 books? This giant library must be pulled by horses.

Create a design of a library on wheels capable of carrying 50,000 books that can be pulled by horses. How many horses would be necessary to pull it?

Assume that one book is 25 cm tall, 15 cm wide, and 5 cm. thick. and weighs 5 pounds. They are displayed in bookshelves containing 140 books each and 1.5 kilograms each (without books).

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    $\begingroup$ 50,000 books? How thick are these books? If each book is even half a pound for little softcover books, that's 25000lbs. You can easily double that if your books are hardcovered. And that's not even with the weight of the cart. For reference, the capacity of a 53 foot semi-trailer is only 13,500lbs, is supported by multiple steel axles, and hauled my a huge engine on paved roads by a 600 horse power engine. $\endgroup$ – DKNguyen Jul 25 '20 at 2:56
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    $\begingroup$ Interestingly, the world record is two draft horses pulling 100,000lbs. But that's on a paved road over a short distance. It seems more common though that a horse (probably weighing around 400kg) can pull about three times its own weight on a paved road, with 1.5x being a more sustainable number all day. $\endgroup$ – DKNguyen Jul 25 '20 at 2:57
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    $\begingroup$ Explain why you would have a single library vehicle, and not a fleet of normal-sized wagons, each carrying a few hundred books. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jul 25 '20 at 5:02
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    $\begingroup$ 250,000 pounds, just in books! The wagon weighs something. The shelves weigh something. Without modern plywood, the shelves would weigh a lot. And these shelves would need something to keep the books from falling free. There is a reason that libraries don't have wheels. $\endgroup$ – NomadMaker Jul 25 '20 at 13:02
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    $\begingroup$ Stay neasr a river and use a barge! That way you can include a reading room (essential during bad weather) and cafe in your library Here's a useful comparison of loading of various forms of transport. itstillruns.com/… $\endgroup$ – chasly - supports Monica Jul 25 '20 at 17:14

12 Answers 12


The best way to do it would be to split among multiple vehicles, each of reasonable size and weight for a horse team to pull all day. That does not change the total number of horses, but it does keep the teams to a reasonable size. For example, one could replace a large vehicle with a 125-mule team with 16 vehicles, each with 8 mules.

The vehicles could be designed with one side dropping down to form a stage The books would be on wheeled bookcases that are packed densely during travel, but pulled out onto the stage for access and display at stops.

At a stop, the vehicles would form a fixed pattern, with the catalog vehicles at the entrance, and maps to help people find the books they wanted.

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    $\begingroup$ Now, I think the frame challenge is this: How big must a nomadic tribe be in order to give away 16 vehicles just for their library? Nomads normally own few things, they aim for the lower limit of what normal people own, just to stay mobile. So it would be contradictory to most nomad's culture to have a "luxury" like 16 vehicles full of books with their tribe. But I like the idea. $\endgroup$ – Anderas Jul 25 '20 at 6:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Anderas Maybe the library is bigger than any one tribe. It may go on a great circuit, spending a season or two with a tribe. A tribe may gain face and demonstrate its importance by being able to support the library for several months, feeding its horses etc. $\endgroup$ – Patricia Shanahan Jul 25 '20 at 7:04
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    $\begingroup$ I think it would be easier for the people to come to the library. Most advanced nomadic tribes did have villages for specialized purposes. $\endgroup$ – NomadMaker Jul 25 '20 at 13:04
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    $\begingroup$ @NomadMaker I'm assuming a very large area serviced by the library. One of its functions is to collect young people who want to read, and take them along. That spreads genes around. $\endgroup$ – Patricia Shanahan Jul 25 '20 at 15:50
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    $\begingroup$ Dave Duncan had something very similar going on in his novel West of January. An entire town called "Heaven," including many centuries' worth of written records in its library, was perpetually on the move, using numerous "snortoises" (large beasts of burden native to the planet Vernier) to keep everything chugging along. One "day" on that planet was about 200 years, and "Heaven" kept moving slowly westward so that it was perpetually located in the area where the sun was just peeping over the horizon at "dawn." Worth reading. $\endgroup$ – Lorendiac Jul 25 '20 at 19:54

It would depend on the tribe and their capabilities.

However I think your scale is simply absurd.

50,000 books is unheard of in such a context. In fact a whole library might not even hold that.

You have to understand the whole context of books in pre-modern times.

(Now I'm aware of different practices, and certainly medieval Europe did not hold many books compared to "Dar Al Hikma" in Baghdad and so on.)

Knowledge would (mostly) not be passed down from books. Only highly abstract ideas and art are given such privileges. And you have to take into consideration that in order to develop any notable art and philosophy, and start translating other works (and all the other prerequisites to large libraries) you have to be a stable state with a lot of free time and a strong inclination to read and write and translate... etc.

People did not just think: I'll go down to the local ancient temple and write down a full description of the thing just for the fun of it.

These prerequisites are all missing from a nomadic tribe, and trying to haul around that many books is absurd. Simple logistics.

You carry the most important stuff only. So why carry around a crappy copy of a second rate "novel"? It's just too much trouble.

Now back to the way people used to do things. A master taught an apprentice who in turn would pass down that knowledge. Oddly enough, even today we highly value technical hands-on teaching, and certainly a school that teaches you the theoretical principles of making cars is nothing like a school that teaches those principles and also puts you in a workshop and tells you to build that darn thing.

So more books doesn't necessarily equal a more educated or knowledgable people. An average first-world citizen with access to millions of books is no more capable of making a simple radio than a citizen of Athena in 100 BC.

And we also know that certain ancient tribes (like Arabic nomadic tribes) had excellent memory. And when I say excellent, I mean the ability to perfectly recite a 100-verse poem with absolute accuracy down to smallest element. So people did have better memories when it came to the things that matter like art or history.

Also I do remember something similar in Europe. I think Caesar killed this group of Shamans or something that had all the history of the tribe and then all their secrets were lost to us, but that was a long time ago.

Lastly the available pool of books and the entire viewpoint on "publishing" was nothing like today.

Do you think that people of the ancient world had thousands of choices and that you had hundreds of genres and all that modern stuff?

People only bothered with important and "good" (read: useful) works.

You didn't sit down and write a crappy YA novel.

It just takes too much time. And even if you finish one copy then you have to spend even more time to write down a second copy.

So people focused on the important books.

Now most of this is general rules of thumb, because we only need the larger context here to come to the conclusion that you need to change something.

Anyway I really think you need to scale it down. Something like 1000 books seems a lot more manageable.

And this is all in regard to the given information. If you did figure out all those things and have strong and reasonable reasons why this is so then I apologize.

I hate to be the guy that just comes around to argue a point that you figured out already. But if not, better change something.

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    $\begingroup$ Screw a radio, even basic stuff like a well designed and properly made plough is beyond most first-world citizens. Even a vast majority of those anomalous individuals like myself who could tell you how to make one couldn't do it ourselves. Also, good point about scale, everyone thinks of the big stuff like the Libraries of Alexandria or Pergamum, but those were assembled over centuries and were only able to get that big due to being in major cultural centers. $\endgroup$ – Austin Hemmelgarn Jul 26 '20 at 1:12

OK, so you want a horsecart for 125 tons of books. The shelves are lost in the rounding, which suggests that your figures are too low. But for a ballpark, I'm even going to ignore the difference between short tons, long tons, and metric tons ...

A large historical example were 20-mule teams hauling two connected wagons with 36 tons total. This suggests roughly 10 mules (or 9 mules and 1 horse) per 20 tons of load. Being optimistic, say the wagon and shelves are as heavy again as the books. That means a 125-mule team ...

  • The example used 19th century wagons and wheels with metal rims. They were traveling on a specific desert route. Wooden wheels in a temperate climate could get bogged down in mud or just soft soil.
  • Coordinating 125 animals sounds like a challenge, too. How much weight does the rope or chain add?

But the Romans managed to transport several large obelisks from Egypt to Rome. The Lateran Obelisk was 450 tons before a part broke off. So (a) loads in your weight class can be transported on the ground and (b) no, it isn't very practical.

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    $\begingroup$ The Romans would not have had to move the Lateran Obelisk far over land. The Circus Maximus, where they erected it, is quite close to the Tiber. $\endgroup$ – Patricia Shanahan Jul 25 '20 at 4:29

If your tribe really wants to move a library of 50,000 books around then their best bet is to create miniature books. Miniature versions of religious books have been around for several centuries; they were both portable and concealable (at a time when possessing the wrong book could get you killed). Obviously they cost more to produce than normal size books, and need a magnifier to read, but for a nomadic people this would be a better trade-off than full-size books.

If a typical book in this library were around 5cm x 3cm x 2cm it would weigh about 40 grams. So 50,000 books would weigh about 2 tons. Much more manageable.


Not with a single wagon no

For scale this is what half a room with 50,000 books looks like.

enter image description here

This is what a library with 200,000 books looks like, Trinity College Library Ireland, it is 20 rows deep, you want a quarter of that so the first 5 rows.

enter image description here

A single ox can pull a cart weighing about 5000lbs over uneven ground all day long.

A single draft horse can manage around 2000lbs

Assuming the books are packed as tightly as possible and not set up for reading, you are hauling about ~50000lbs at the lowest estimate. that is ~25000lbs of books (assuming the purposefully make the books as light and compact a possible) and ~25000lbs of wagon to support the books (since the wagons have to be water tight they end up being almost twice as heavy than a normal ore wagon, which weigh around 7800 lbs to haul 20000lbs.

so you need 10 oxen or 25 horses. the problem is you get diminishing returns by adding more animals beyond a certain point. Once you get to around 20 animals the additional pulling power is negligible. Note will also need well made iron chains and iron wheel fittings for this much weight, which may be difficult for a nomadic people to make. Large teams are also extremely unwieldy, difficult to steer, and take a long time to harness and unharness.

So you can't manage it with a single wagon with horses. You might be able to with two wagons with horses (or one wagon of oxen) assuming it is not a library but packed books, they have to be unpacked when you reach a destination, likely taking several days.

But you can't build a wooden wagon that strong so you have to split it up into smaller loads. the limit on wooden wagons is around 20000lbs of cargo, and that is with solid oak, lots of iron, and hard packed roads.

now if you are going to split it up anyway just split it up into easy to handle 4 horse teams that gives you around 7 wagons. But you are going to need at least 4-5 wagons to haul the food needed to feed so many horses, or you are going to need to do what Dial did for hauling borax and set up feed/water stations every few miles to feed the teams. A horse team will eat roughly a tenth the weight of what they are hauling in feed per day.

If you want an actually library with shelves it is impossible, you are adding 2-3 times as much weight if not more per wagon, which is too much for a single wagon and adds up to almost a dozen more wagons split up (which also require feeding).

  • $\begingroup$ Why do you need to carry horse food with you, rather than allowing the horses to graze? $\endgroup$ – Patricia Shanahan Jul 26 '20 at 15:00
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    $\begingroup$ @PatriciaShanahan A horse can't graze and walk all day, horses are not ruminants they actually need to spend a lot of time eating 4-6 hours a day under ideal conditions, if you let the horses graze your not traveling far, and you will need a lot of land for that many horses to graze, and you need land and seasons suitable for grazing. That is why most working horses had feed. $\endgroup$ – John Jul 26 '20 at 17:35
  • $\begingroup$ How much food do you think a Mongol army took with them? $\endgroup$ – Patricia Shanahan Jul 26 '20 at 17:43
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    $\begingroup$ @PatriciaShanahan Often by taking the feed from those they conquered, feeding their horses was the single biggest problem the mongol armies faced, once you have enough animals in the same place the local land can't support them. This is also the reason mongols only went to war during a small portion of the the year, the times when grass was plentiful, literally disbanding for the rest of the year. It was only only way they could keep their animals fed. but the library has to work all year long. $\endgroup$ – John Jul 26 '20 at 20:24

Here's a bit of a pun: don't reinvent the wheel. :D

In the tenth century… the Grand Vizier of Persia, Abdul Kassem Ismael, in order not to part with his collection of 117,000 volumes when traveling, had them carried by a caravan of four hundred camels trained to walk in alphabetical order.


Happy discovering.


The answer has to be yes. OP has been sufficiently vague that it can't be anything else: "library" might be recreational (for the people owning it or people they visit), or it might be cultural (holy books they daren't lose) or it might be critical to survival. Xe's also been vague about timescale and speed of movement.

Interpreting the question loosely, it would be entirely plausible for nomads to be in possession of a university-grade library which stayed three years in a town and then moved on, with the objective being to visit every century or so in order to make sure that the trainee doctors and technologists had access to original works rather than relying on well-thumbed transcripts. During each migration they could rely on help from at least their destination, and possibly from the people they were leaving who would obviously want them to come back eventually.

And OP's question doesn't specify how many wheels, whether it's a single cart or a convoy, and whether books have to be immediately accessible or only sought out by a trained cadre.


Can they physically do this? Yes. The question would be WHY are they doing this. If they have a contract with some emperor to take his library to his summer home or a god has told them to take his library to a new location, then it’s easy-peasy, they get enough wagons and mules and away they go.

Without a really good reason, they wouldn’t be doing this. And the good reason needs to be a clear profit or existential threat (aka telling a god to piss off is likely to result in a lot of lightening strikes and/or volcanic eruptions). Tradition or love of knowledge isn’t going to cut it.


Even ignoring the weight and reason answers brought up by others working with horses is an inherently dirty business (personal experience speaking here). Moving however many books could be done but actually being able to use them as a library when camped would quickly ruin whatever value the materials had due to the simple inability to get clean enough.

  • $\begingroup$ After grooming horses or cleaning their pens, I can get clean enough to handle books in less than half an hour. They would need to have different sets of clothing for horse chores and library work. $\endgroup$ – Patricia Shanahan Jul 26 '20 at 15:06
  • $\begingroup$ Try it when you're on the trail sometime, when water is in short supply and you need to conserve as much as you can. And remember, those book-handling-clothes have also been on the trail with you so are not hidden away nice and clean at home, instead you are walking around the dust cloud of a nomadic camp. $\endgroup$ – SoronelHaetir Jul 26 '20 at 15:18
  • $\begingroup$ Even an overnight stopping place for a convoy with dozens of draft horses needs to be near plenty of water - this is not just one or two riders and their horses. $\endgroup$ – Patricia Shanahan Jul 26 '20 at 15:23

What is a book? In antiquity, a single papyrus scroll or was an essay or part of a series that made up a book. A stone tablet was a book. China and Japan used paper scrolls, the Art of war was written on bamboo staves linked with wire and string. An essay of one avers and a reverse would, in the Alexandrian Library be considered one book!

To minimize the amount needed to be reserved for books, make sure the books become an integral part of the caravan! The caravan itself is the library! I can store tons of text on the sides of all the carts and wagons, the fencing they carry for the cattle is written upon just as much as the inside and outside of tents and even the skin of their animals and members! No spot that is not decorated with one or another piece of poetry or essay. All the plates together might carry cookbooks and so on.

But the numbers need to be cut down! An early medieval library in Europe was usually just about the size of a large cupboard, a prestigious one would be a whole room containing some hundred books. Thousands were exceptional places like Rome.


Of course a nomadic group could build a library on wheels pulled by horses, even if you somehow restricted the group to "Romany" caravans as in your picture.

If you let your nomads get real and use wheeled platforms such as Genghis Khan's Mongols had, their task becomes about nine or ten times easier.


Under different conditions than on earth mabey.

If it's another world then gravity can be less reducing weight and allowing larger "hourse" to evolve able to pull more each.

The atmosphere could also be extremely dense to the point of providing significant bouncy reducing the weight and making it easy to add lift to even have the wagon turn into an air ship.

Life's chemistry could also be different allowing for stronger lighter "wood" and animal with stronger muscles and carbon based "bones".

Carbon bonds can allow for far stronger materials than steal if arranged correctly.

Under different conditions life might evolve to make stronger materials out of carbon or other elements.


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