Critical Analysis of Future Library by Katie Paterson

Coursework, Creative Arts 1.1 Experience Creative Arts, Creative Arts BA (Hons), Project 2: Encountering Time - A Critical Analysis, Research & Reflection

In this exercise, we are asked to go back to a particular work from The Shape of Time lecture and engage with the work in more depth. I feel to some extent that I already did this with The Spiral Jetty in project one and so have decided to focus this time on Katie Paterson‘s The Future Library (Paterson, 2014)

As I wrote in my initial write up about Paterson, I was drawn to her work as anything with a scientific slant like this always grabs my attention. It also seems to fit in with what Grayson Perry suggests as one characteristic of an artist in Playing to the Gallery (Perry, 2014) that artists should just enjoy the process of making. Paterson is very unlikely to ever see the full impact of her work, as it won’t be finalised until 2114. She won’t see the reception it gets, the fame that goes with that, she is simply creating something for others to enjoy and contemplate.

Formal Elements

Future Library is a forest that has been planted in Norway. The trees that have been planted will be used to produce an anthology of literature in 100 years time. For each of the 100 years between 2014 and 2114, one writer a year will contribute a text that will be locked away until 2114 when it will be published (Paterson).

In terms of formal element analysis, it is a little more difficult to stick to the starting points mentioned here. It is difficult to categorise Paterson’s work as art, lens-based or literature. This brings up a point from How to Write About Contemporary Art (Williams, 2014) that with contemporary pieces, we need a different language than the traditional formal elements.

Wider Contextual Information

Katie Paterson is a Scottish contemporary artist. Her works have a lot of ecological themes. Her graduation piece Vatnajökull (the sound of), featured a mobile phone number connected to a microphone submerged in a lagoon beneath Europe’s largest glacier. Related work includes Langjökull, Snaefellsjökull, Soheimajökull, in which the soundscape of melting glaciers was created by making LPs from ice consisting of glacier meltwater. She has also done projects where she mapped 27,000 known dead stars.

We are living in an era where climate change and the environment are at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds but simultaneously not in terms of action. People are detached from nature and where products come from and the time taken for nature to produce them. We live in an era of convenience where books can be bought at a click of a button and downloaded, or even physically bought at the same time as your supermarket shopping. Future library reminds us of time, of nature and how we can interact with nature in a slow way to enjoy it to its fullest.

Existing Interpretations and My Analysis

Using the library search function I have found a lot of existing interpretations. An interesting piece is by Paulina Mickiewicz in Esse which is a Canadian based contemporary art periodical. In the article, any questions based on Future Library are raised “Am I a writer of my times? Who do I write for? How much does the response of the reader matter to me? What is in a text that makes it timeless? And for some of us, it poses the hardest question of all: Will there be people in the future who understand the language I write in?” (Mickiewicz, 2017). This element of the piece I had not considered at all as I had focused mainly on Katie Paterson’s role and feelings towards it. There is a whole other side of the work which is the contributions of the authors who write the yearly manuscripts. They too will never see the response to their work, they are unlikely to be alive when their work finally gets published and enjoyed. I agree the most difficult question of all is if people will even understand the work, will people even read paper-based books at all in 100 years time? As Mickiewicz describes the Future Library as “A critical reflection and commentary on our old infrastructures of knowledge (will the book in paper format still exist in a hundred years?”. Margaret Atwood is one of the authors contributing and she is famed for her dystopian look at the future, in Handmaids Tale the women of the future aren’t allowed books at all, will this be a scary reality?

On the whole, I do agree with this interpretation of the work but it wasn’t my first thought. My initial focus and what I feel is an even stronger topic to reflect on is the role of the forest itself rather than the content of the books.

Another interpretation is by Michaela Bronstein (2019) in the PMLA journal. Again, Bronstein focuses on the books written more than the forest itself, but this isn’t surprising as it is in a modern language journal. What this does highlight to me is the wider appeal of artwork to other disciplines and how we can use art to further our thinking and understanding across academic areas. Bronstein writes not as an artist, but as someone interested in literature and yet here is a whole journal article inspired by a piece of art. Bronstein argues that “writing for the future, writing away from history, can be a progressive and even utopian act” and that the artwork encourages us to reflect on what we are leaving behind for future generations. This is more along with my initial thoughts about the artwork. I think more than anything it forces us to think not too far into the future. One hundred years is just out of reach for us but will impact generations that come after us that we will have intimate knowledge of, they are probably our grandchildren that we will hopefully meet. Climate change does make the future immediate, the actions we take now have a direct impact and we have a responsibility for the future that future Library reminds us of.


Bronstein, M. (2019) “Taking the Future into Account: Today’s Novels for Tomorrow’s Readers,” PMLA/Publications of the Modern Language Association of America. Cambridge University Press, 134(1), pp. 121–136.

Mickiewicz, P. (2017), “The Library of 2114”, Esse, vol. 89, pp. 40-49.

Paterson, K. (2014). Future Library.

Paterson, K. Future Library. [online] Available at:

Perry, G. (2014). Playing to the Gallery : Exploring the modern relationship between society and art. London, Uk: Penguin Books Australia.

Williams, G. (2014). How to write about contemporary art. Thames & Hudson.

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