The average internet user who happens upon Survivor Library, a collection of about 7,000 books in PDF format that teach people how to rebuild civilization after the proverbial Collapse, may think it's just another fear mongering, doomsday prepper site.
"What happens AFTER the Solar Flare that destroys the electrical grid and all electronics?" asked the site's About Us page. "AFTER the other 90% of the population has died from starvation, dehydration and disease. AFTER the roving gangs and raiders are eliminated and local communities form to provide security and relative peace. What Then?"
It's easy to imagine that people who use this site are the ones that have homemade bunkers and have stocked enough canned goods to feed a family for weeks. But Survivor Library's founder and administrator, who calls himself "The Librarian," doesn't identify himself that way.
"It's not like [the show 'Doomsday Bunkers' on] the Discovery Channel," The Librarian told me. "I'm not a prepper in the traditional sense. I'm in my early 60s, and I'm not going to be the guy who puts a backpack on who treks to the mountains to find a secure hideout. But I take some precautions to the extent that I store a few items that might be useful in an emergency."
These days, The Librarian, whose name is Rocky Rawlins, works in IT for a local internet retailer along the coast of North Carolina. Rawlins has been working with computers in one way or another since 1975, he said, at one point with the Army to design computer systems for wartime logistics, later with insurance companies. He also says he started one of the first BBS systems in the 80s, which he kept active for almost 20 years because it offered voice-to-text capabilities that helped the vision impaired navigate the web more than other sites on the early internet.
I'm not a prepper in the traditional sense
But Rawlins also knows how to work with his hands. He was a semi-professional woodworker and furniture maker for a decade, and has lately taken to book binding. Skills like these, he said, have largely been lost as machines have taken over.
"For example, I've got a collection of books ready to put on the site about navigation," he said. "Back in 1812, a 14-year-old midshipman was expected to be able to compute the location of his ship within half a mile from anywhere in the world using a chronometer and set of tables. The U.S. Naval Academy stopped teaching celestial navigation in 1998, because now it's all electronic."
If something were to go wrong with a ship's GPS, Rawlins said, the crew would be in trouble.
But topics range from medical procedures to foraging and cooking food to engineering and construction. Rawlins uploads a new section or topic every few weeks, with 40 to 150 books per section, which his 600 or so members download immediately. He finds about 80 percent of the books from university web sites, he says, and all the books are either open source or no longer protected by copyright.
These books can be of interest to anyone who wants to learn old skills and technology, but Rawlins built the site as a failsafe of information should all technology stop working. While the threat of technological catastrophe may sound overstated, some researchers and government officials share Rawlins' concerns.
On his web site—and in the frenzied emails he's sent me—Rawlins points out that an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP), caused by a large solar flare that bombards Earth with radiation, or a nuclear bomb detonated in the atmosphere above a specific country, really could knock out the electrical grid for some or all of the planet.
A brief internet search corroborates his statement; one study determines that Earth has a 12 percent chance of getting hit with a massive, debilitating solar storm between 2012 and 2022. Solar flares like this have occurred in the past, like the Carrington Event in 1859. Back then, only telegraph machines were rendered useless by the flare, but now everything that has a computer, from our refrigerators and cars to our financial system, would go haywire.
"There was [an EMP] that barely missed us two years ago, and if it had hit earth, we'd be living in the 1800s right now," Rawlins said.
This automatic identification system that ships use to track each other would be useless after an EMP. Photo: Clipper via Wikimedia Commons
"When you work with networks, one of the things you look for is single points of failure, points that, if they fail, they will take whole network down," Rawlins said. "So you build in redundancies so that won't happen. You can think of our infrastructure has a single point of failure: computer circuits that are not shielded."
Even with just a few billion dollars of preventative investment, Rawlins said, the US would be able to recover a lot more quickly if such an event were to occur. But inaction by politicians and by special interest groups has been frustrating.
"When [the commission] reported to Congress in 2008, they said, 'You need to do something right now,' because the consequences for not acting are so utterly catastrophic that they're almost inconceivable," Rawlins said. "And they've done nothing. So when you see that, you see that they are responsible and should be doing something and won't, there's not a lot you can do."
Rawlins has had to rely on his own ingenuity in moments of disaster. "I live in a hurricane zone, and we've had some major hurricanes in the past that have wiped out power and communication for several weeks," he said. He keeps water filters, a lighter and some canned food around the house just in case. "If you don't know how to start a fire, how do you survive? Do you just sit in the house and wait for someone to rescue you?"
Even though he doesn't think about EMPs that much, he says, Rawlins has a plan in case one should occur while he's at work. His cell phone would be dead and his car's onboard computer would prevent it from starting. "At that point, I open the trunk of my car and get my backpack which I keep in my car," he said. "I go back into the office and explain to everyone what just happened. Then I put on my backpack and walk the 12 mile walk home." And then what? "Then I just survive. If [an EMP] happens, the world has changed. And you just have to adapt to a new world." And his advice to me? "If anything like that happens, get the hell out of New York City."
Rawlins can appreciate the irony of the Survivor Library: the books are online in case of a technological catastrophe, so you wouldn't be able to access them when you would need them most. "We [the site members] have talked about that several times," he said. "What we've decided is that the best thing to do is to keep the books on DVD or on small portable hard drive, and drop it in a Faraday cage with an old laptop." A Faraday cage is basically a metal box designed to protect the contents from electric fields and are easy to make at home, he said.
In another ironic twist, when asked what one book he would take in the event of an EMP, Rawlins says he would take the complete works of Shakespeare. "These [technical] books are really not for me—I'm 60-some years old, and if something like that happens, I'm not going to be around to rebuild the infrastructure," he said. "It's the young people that will have to rebuild."