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Alaskan Range: Books For The Generations

"There’s a place for e-books in the modern world; I certainly enjoy my Nook reader while traveling. But I also have a nice collection of acid-free books that my great-great-great-great-grandchildren will one day use, even without electricity,'' writes librarian and columnist Greg Hill.

“Beware of over-confidence; especially in matters of structure,” was the sound advice of Cass Gilbert, noted architect of the St. Louis Public Library, U.S. Supreme Court, and Woolworth buildings. Those are words worth heeding, especially by Kodiak residents, who for the last few months have had to put up with news articles that begin, “If you think the fiscal cliff is bad, Kodiak, Alaska is dealing with a ‘fecal cliff.’ ”

An Anchorage Daily News article explained that “an expansion at the city’s landfill means that raw sludge from the sewage treatment plant can no longer be dumped there.” A new composting plant will be complete in a few months. Meanwhile the undesired by-product piled up until a plan was developed to “stockpile” the stuff at the landfill.

There’s obviously plenty out there to beware of. “Beware” is “of uncertain origin,” but the Old English term “bewarian,” “to defend,” was being used in 1200. “Beware” might also be a conflation of “be” and “wary.” And while “wary,” meaning “prudent, aware, alert,” wasn’t recorded in English in the 1550s, it probably dates back to the ancient Proto-Indo-European word-stem “wer-” which meant “to cover.”

One of the best ways to “cover your assets” is to drive defensively, like my sweet momma teaches in the local AARP Defensive Driving classes. Her worthwhile instructions came to mind when I read a recent BoingBoing.net posting about how to “Adjust Your Car Mirrors Properly to Avoid Accidents.” Like AARP, BoingBoing cites the Society of Automotive Engineers recommendations “to adjust the mirrors so far outward that the viewing angle of the side mirrors just overlaps that of the cabin’s rearview mirror.” This can be disorienting initially, “but when correctly positioned, the mirrors negate a car’s blind spots.”

That’s fine, but what about the seeds of the world? What would happen if we’re blindsided somehow and lost our last wheat, apple, or soy seeds? We probably won’t have to find out, thanks to the Norwegians. They created the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a sort of non-circulating seed library, inside a non-tectonically active island 810 miles from the North Pole. The seeds are mostly Nordic and African, and are kept in a refrigerated, non-staffed facility constructed 390 feet inside a sandstone mountain’s cavern. It contains 750,000 seed samples out of the world’s 4.5 million seeds, 1.5 million of which are agricultural, with each sample kept at zero degrees Fahrenheit.

Forewarned, as they say, is forearmed. The old Romans used to put it “praemonitus, praemunitus,” which meant the same thing. “The saying is so straightforward,” the Phrase Finder, www.phrases.org.uk, notes, “that it was originally simply ‘forewarned, forearmed,’ warning to distinguish between “to arm in advance” and the noun ‘forearm.’” The earliest use of the phrase in English was “forewarned, forearmed: burnt children dread the fire,” in Robert Greene’s 1592 book about foiling confidence tricksters, “The Art of Conny-Catching.”

Your public library’s forewarned librarians plan for the unexpected, like how we’d provide services without electricity. The library has an emergency generator but also a marvelous additional back-up. Carl Sagan described this as “a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles … Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you… Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”

Book buyers considering e-books ought to recall another Roman expression, “caveat emptor,” or “let the buyer beware.” A Wall Street Journal article last August asked “Who Inherits Your iTunes Library?” Bequeathing print books and CDs is easy, “but legal experts say passing on iTunes and Kindle libraries would be much more complicated.” Besides the issue of how to divide one person’s e-library account into smaller portions, “one doesn’t have the same rights as with print books and CDs. Customers own a license to use the digital files, but they don’t actually own them.”

There’s a place for e-books in the modern world; I certainly enjoy my Nook reader while traveling. But I also have a nice collection of acid-free books that my great-great-great-great-grandchildren will one day use, even without electricity. As Edward Lee Masters warned, “Beware the man who rises to power from one suspender.”


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