The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 9, Number 2
Apr 1985

The Man Who Saved Books

by Norman D. Stevens
Director of the Molesworth Institute, Storrs, Connecticut

Old Olds had been widely regarded as one of the world's great eccentrics. He had become a book collector in the 1990s when book collecting was no longer fashionable except among a handful of individuals and institutions who still collected a few rare books for their binding and other aspects of their value as physical objects. Old Olds had been the last person interested in books for the sake of their intellectual value and in the book as a useful artifact for the conveyance of information. What had marked him as an eccentric was his passion for collecting books with a zeal which had once been seen only in large research libraries such as the Library of Congress.

It was, in fact, the dispersal of its once proud collections by the Library of Congress that had inspired Old Olds. In 1990 he had gone to the Library of Congress to locate a copy of an unusual book that one of his ancestors had written on basket-making which included sample strips of basket materials showing different weaving techniques. The staff even managed to find the book for him. He had just begun to resolve a major problem in the difference between a weaving technique developed by his ancestor and one used by native Americans when the book was recalled. Old Olds inquired and was told that it was to be converted to a new electronic storage medium. He protested, pointing out that the samples might be lost, but to no avail. He subsequently found that, indeed, the text was fine but that the reproduction of the sample weaving techniques made them all look alike so that the information was lost. In pursuing the matter, he learned that, as a matter of policy, the Library of Congress sold all of the converted books to a commercial plant for pulping. He immediately bought the plant and even managed to save the weaving book. Old Olds soon began to save all of the books his new company acquired from the Library of Congress. By 2000 he had begun to acquire any and all books disposed of by libraries as they began to dismantle their printed collections.

Fortunately Old Olds was wealthy and libraries were selling material cheaply. As his collections grew, he was faced with a massive storage problem. Almost everywhere, land had become expensive as the world population continued to grow. One of his other businesses had acquired large holdings in the Antarctic, so soon his collections were shipped to a large storage building he had constructed there. Old Olds was also methodical and as he acquired these books he had a staff of librarians who produced, in card form, catalog copy for every item before it was shipped south. He also had every book needing deacidification treated. By 2010 Old Olds had acquired the world's largest collection of books. He was regarded as an eccentric who had managed to collect the world's largest assortment of useless materials as virtually everything in his collection was available cheaply and readily through electronic storage devices. There were frequent television reports on this eccentric who was listed in the Gum-ness Electronic Data Bank of Universal Records as owning over 100 million worthless books. When Old Olds finally died in 2023 his obituaries downplayed the contributions he had made in the development of the world rubber trade and highlighted his eccentricity.

With his death the collecting of books cane to an end, for by that time almost every other book in the world had long since been destroyed or had disappeared. His family, which was arguing about the disposition of his wealth, regarded his book collection as worthless and ignored it. There it sat frozen in time. From time to time news stories would once again tell of Old Olds' Folly.

In 2050 the first cracks in electronic information appeared. Some historians discovered that the machines necessary to interpret older electronic information no longer operated and could not be repaired or replaced. There was no other way to retrieve the information. By 2055 it was discovered that there were previously unforeseen problems with the permanence of certain kinds of electronic storage techniques. Data that was there one day mysteriously disappeared the next. No simple remedies were at hand. As the world population grew and economic conditions worsened, major problems developed with the world power supply. Power became expensive and, above all, scarce. Dim-outs, brown-outs, black-outs, and powerless days became a way of life. All of this made it increasingly difficult to obtain and use information that was accessible only through electronic storage devices. The world faced an information crisis. Frantic efforts to find ways once again to make information readily and inexpensively available were begun.

In the midst of those efforts the world political climate worsened. On November 11, 2069, between 11:00 a.m. and 11:11 a.m. (Greenwich Mean Time), World War III occurred. When it was over large segments of the world population had been destroyed, large areas of the planet were uninhabitable, and electronic information had almost entirely disappeared.

As those who survived sought to reconstruct civilization, the retrieval of information was a high priority. Despite the best efforts of surviving scientists, however, most electronic information was irretrievably lost. Those records that were found could not be interpreted. After several years of turmoil, somebody finally remembered Old Olds' books. They were the remnants of the old civilization that emerged in the last quarter of the 21st century. Moral: Be not the first to cast the old aside.

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