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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > September 2018

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Vol. 38 No. 7 — September 2018

Keepers of Knowledge in a Post-Literate Future
by Jan Zastrow

Helping future generations remember and relearn the science, history, art, and literature of the past could be the way back to a future without computers or digital information.
This column is a longer version of a talk I gave at the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists in August 2018. The panel was titled, “Dinosaur Footprints: Archiving and Preservation in the Anthropocene,” and it explored how human civilization’s impact on the environment may affect our professional behavior and culture in the short term and long term.

By way of background, Rory Litwin of Litwin Books, LLC sponsored a colloquium on Libraries and Archives in the Anthropocene hosted by New York University (NYU) in May 2017. In his call for proposals, he wrote the following:

As stewards of a culture’s collective knowledge, libraries and archives are facing the realities of cataclysmic environmental change with a dawning awareness of its unique implications for their missions and activities. Some professionals in these fields are focusing new energies on the need for environmentally sustainable practices in their institutions. Some are prioritizing the role of libraries and archives in supporting climate change communication and influencing government policy and public awareness. Others foresee an inevitable unraveling of systems and ponder the role of libraries and archives in a world much different from the one we take for granted. Climate disruption, peak oil, toxic waste, deforestation, soil salinity and agricultural crisis, depletion of groundwater and other natural resources, loss of biodiversity, mass migration, sea level rise, and extreme weather events are all problems that indirectly threaten to overwhelm civilization’s knowledge infrastructures, and present information institutions with unprecedented challenges. 1

Topics at the NYU symposium included environmental studies and information risk analyses, the unraveling of systems, community archives and activists, and the role of libraries and archives in a world much different from the one we are accustomed to. Most intriguing to me was the concept of the complicity of our professions, our libraries, and our repositories in climate change and all that entails. This was the first time it dawned on me that we were part of the problem.

Framing the Futures

When I was a grad student at the Manoa School of Futures Studies at the University of Hawaii–Manoa, my professor and mentor Jim Dator—one of the world’s premier futurists—always said, “Any useful statement about the futures [plural intended] should appear to be ridiculous.” With that in mind, what you read here may sound preposterous—and that’s a good thing.

Wearing my hat as a futurist, I’m asking, “What might information work look like in a world without the infrastructures we take for granted?” I hypothesize that many of our historical techniques as information professionals could be the way back to a future without computers or digital information.

I’m framing my statements based on a dystopian scenario, one that is apocalyptic, post-internet, and post-computer. Imagine this: Cities have largely been destroyed, and small clans of people band together according to their affiliations—familial, religious, political. Electricity is scarce, coming from solar and wind power. Most libraries, archives, and institutions of learning have been destroyed, and servers storing digital information have largely been wiped out. Knowledge exists only in people’s minds and memories.

In a world such as this, we may possibly return to our old ways as keepers of knowledge—recounting oral histories through memorization, documenting by hand, creating indexes, and “translating” textual information into other formats. And in a world without reading and wri­ting as we know it, the young could be educated through singing, dancing, and pictures—a throwback to learning in ancient times.

Let’s Talk About Literacy

As information professionals, our job is evaluating, organizing, and transmitting information, whether it’s primary sources in an archives setting or secondary sources in a library. Currently, that’s predicated on societies that support certain systems and technologies and that commit resources to education, publishing, computer technology, the internet, and much more. We have a vast interweb of technologies, societal expectations, and cultural norms surrounding the transmission of knowledge. Our democracy is founded on freedom to know what’s happening in our government and around us.

Given all that, it’s hard for us to imagine that literacy—reading and writing as we know it—is a fairly recent skill set. Neither Socrates nor Homer were literate, nor was Jesus or the Prophet Muhammed. They were all dependent on others to document their words and set them down in written format. In fact, writing was criticized as being an artificial “aide-de-memoire” when it was first implemented. Socrates complained to Phaedrus in 370 B.C. about his “discovery” of writing as a replacement for Socrates’ oral method: “for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. … You give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”2 Imagine what he would have to say about users of social media today.

Graphs to Graphics

In fact, the technology of writing is only one very specific way to transfer knowledge. Pictures, or pictograms, are another much older technique; cave art was an attempt to keep a record of species that had been seen before, preserving the knowledge of them for when they returned. 3

Another interesting example from Asia is xylography—that’s printing Chinese ideographs using wooden blocks based on the meaning of the character rather than its pronunciation. This meant the ideographs could be read by people in many languages other than just Chinese. This provided an enormous market for Chinese books, while sale of books in European alphabetic languages were limited to people who could read each specific language.4

Think of infographics and the worldwide popularity of graphic novels today. As a prescient prognosticator once said, “The last literate person will die in 2050.” Maybe 2050 is a little too soon, since many of us reading this will still be alive by then. But it will probably be true by 2150. In any case, it’s undeniable that graphic and aural methods of taking in information—watching and listening—are on the upswing worldwide.5

Memorization and FTF Learning

Remember the story in Fahrenheit 451? Away from the piles of burning books, the dissenting “1%” memorized entire volumes to prevent the obliteration of literature by a dystopian government. They wanted to be able to pass those classics down to the next generation after the totalitarian regime was gone.

They’re not the first ones to have thought of that: Transmission of knowledge in Islamic society, for instance, has always been oral through the recitation of poetry, the holy Quran, and learned scholarship passed from master to pupil. “Person-to-person transmission was at the heart of learning in the Islamic tradition. The best way of getting at the truth was to listen to the author himself. Muslim scholars constantly travelled across the Islamic world so that they could receive in person the reliable transmission of knowledge.”6 The written form—whether a manuscript or print version—was just an aid to the memory and considered inferior, even dangerous, because it could be misunderstood or misinterpreted if read alone without a teacher.

Similarly, poets in ancient Greece were regarded as educators, keepers of tradition, and human repositories of the collective knowledge of the culture. Poems were not meant to be read in books, but to be performed publicly as rhapsodies, often accompanied by music. Despite the ambivalence Socrates expressed about the use of writing in Phaedrus, his student Plato’s intellectual revolution away from image-thinking and toward abstract thought would’ve been impossible without the technology of writing.7

From Oral Tradition to Mnemonic Professionals

Many cultures have passed their history, wisdom, and folkways down in spoken, rather than written, format. When traditions are kept by professional memorizers, they lay great stress on strict accuracy because they are responsible for preserving the dynastic traditions.

One technique to remember long litanies is to perform them accompanied by song and dance. This also serves to ingrain the lesson in the audience—they become “social acts of remembering” that imbue them with meaning. Think of the alphabet song we all learned as children to memorize our ABCs; singing and dancing provides oral, visual, neural, and physical cues that become associated with the message. It’s not inconceivable that this method could return as in the days of yore; our occupation in particular may inherit the important role of mnemonic professionals as keepers of knowledge.

As far as returning to older techniques of using the human voice, one contemporary example is that of the human microphone or the “people’s mic” employed during the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2012. Forbidden by New York City regulations to use electrified amplification during its rallies, speakers in Zuccotti Park employed a method whereby concentric rings of listeners would repeat, phrase by phrase, what the speaker said. When the sentence had been repeated all the way through the crowd, the last group would repeat it back to the whole assembly to ensure it had been correctly transmitted. This meant that listeners weren’t able to talk during the rally, so they wiggled their fingers to show support of a statement or crossed their arms to show displeasure—another instance of physically imbuing a message with meaning.

“While the consensus process, amplified at Zuccotti by the People’s Mic, has long been a feature of anti-hierarchical movements—its origins have been variously traced to anarchist groups, anti-nuclear activism, Quaker churches, and tribes in Madagascar—it is probably fair to say that it first came to mainstream attention in this country with Occupy. No article on a meeting of an OWS [Occupy Wall Street] General Assembly was complete without mentioning a ‘Mic Check!’ and a sea of twinkling fingers. … The People’s Mic and the Occupy hand signals will one day come to be regarded as paradigms of politics in a post-literate age.”8 (Marshall McLuhan first coined the term “post-literacy” in his groundbreaking The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man,9 to describe the return of many elements of communication typically associated with oral cultures in the electronic age of our “global village.”)

Finding Aids and User Guides

In a society in which reading and writing are no longer commonplace, but are perceived as specialized skills, and with schools already forgoing teaching cursive handwriting, we could take on the role of “translating” writing material for our patrons—ironically, the reverse of the scribes of yore who transcribed for others who couldn’t write. Perhaps the patronage system would make a comeback, with only the privileged being able to afford access to scarce information.

Timeworn methods of organizing and finding information could reappear as well. For the written sources that survive, if no keyword or full-text searching were possible, a return to the importance and necessity of alphabetical order seems likely. “Just as replacing the scroll with the codex enabled huge advances in research, with pagination, indexing, annotation, and cross referencing, so there will be new renditions of old technologies.”10 But even if we do return to these old ways, our implementation will invariably be different, since we would’ve had the experience of computer technology and digital information organization. For instance, we may still keep lists, but we’d figure out how to make linkages through more than just “see also” references. We will be post-literates, retaining a “residual literacy from our use of electronic communications technologies,”11 even if those are non-textual.

Funnily enough, card catalogs could re-emerge, vindicating Nicholson Baker’s outcries at their demise in the early 1990s.12 Serving as both a repository for data and a search tool in the pre-digital era, card catalogs responded to the need for a standardized system to manage rapidly expanding libraries and could do so again.13 Part of our ongoing mission has always been to help information seekers navigate the existing universe of knowledge, regardless of format. Perhaps we’ll even figure out how to make pictorial catalogs to provide access to the post-literates.

What’s Next?

So what might information work look like without the digital infrastructures we enjoy today? I propose that serving as professional memorizers, translating written sources for a post-literate population, documenting concepts (through pictures, recitation, and song), and creating guides and indexes for residual textual information may become our most valuable contributions in such an era.

Just as the face of the Roman god Janus looks both backward and forward, as archivists, librarians, and information professionals, we preserve knowledge from the past for the future. Helping human civilization remember and relearn the science, history, art, and literature of the past could be the way to a future without computers or digital information. The technologies will change—along a spectrum of analog, digital, holographic, and other formats as yet unimagined—but our mission will remain the same, of that I have no doubt.


1. Litwin, Rory, “Call for Proposals,” Libraries and Archives in the Anthropocene: A Colloquium, New York University, May 13–14, 2017;

2. Plato (2002) Phaedrus. Translated by R. Waterfield. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, p. 69.

3. Mithen, S. 1988. “Looking and Learning: Upper Paleolithic Art and Information Gathering.” World Archaeology, 19(3): 297–327.

4. Brokaw, C.J., Chow, K., editors (2005), Printing and Book Culture in Late Imperial China. University of California Press, Berkeley, p. 11.

5. Stephens, “The Death of Reading; Will A Nation That Stops Reading Eventually Stop Thinking?” Los Angeles Times Magazine, Sept. 22, 1991;

6. Robinson, F. (1993), “Technology and Religious Change: Islam and the Impact of Print.” Modern Asian Studies, 27(1),
p. 238. In Mutative Media: Communication Technologies and Power Relations in the Past, Present, and Futures (Lecture Notes in Social Networks), 2015 edition by Dator, James A., Sweeney, John A., Yee, Aubrey M., 2014, p. 65.

7. Havelock, Eric A. (1963), Preface to Plato, Cambridge: Belknap Press.

8. Ruby, Ryan, “Politics in a Postliterate Age,” Journal for Occupied Studies, February 2012;

9. McLuhan (1962). The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

10. Chartier R. (2007), The Printing Revolution: A Reappraisal. In: S.A. Baron et al. (editors) Agent of Change: Print Culture Studies After Elizabeth L. Eisenstein. University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, Mass.
In Mutative Media: Communication Technologies and Power Relations in the Past, Present, and Futures (Lecture Notes in Social Networks), 2015 edition by Dator, James A., Sweeney, John A., Yee, Aubrey M., 2014, p. 41.

11. Ruby, 2012.

12. Wikipedia, “Baker is a fervent critic of what he perceives as libraries’ unnecessary destruction of paper-based media. He wrote several vehement articles in The New Yorker critical of the San Francisco Public Library for sending thousands of books to a landfill, eliminating card catalogs, and destroying old books and newspapers in favor of microfilm.”

13. Devereaux (2017), The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures, Library of Congress.

Jan ZastrowJan Zastrow is a Washington, D.C.-based archivist, information professional, and futurist trained at the Manoa School of Futures Studies at the University of Hawaii–Manoa. Contact her at