Author Margaret Atwood.

COLUMN: To the readers of the future: A message of hope

Who hasn’t hidden a message under some floorboards or in a hollow tree, wondering: who, in the future, will read this?

Canadian folk musician James Keelaghan wrote a song called Message to the Future. Ever the storyteller, Keelaghan tells a tale of hope, of hiding messages to a child not yet born in the headboard of a bed, or in the ductwork on a job site. Messages like: “I’ll love you to my dying day.” It’s sentimental, but hope is like that.

Who hasn’t — as a child, at least — done just that: hidden a message under some floorboards or in a hollow tree, wondering: who, in the future, will read this?

The Saturday Globe and Mail featured an article by Mark Medley that spoke to that hopeful sentiment, and my librarian’s heart. Scottish artist Katie Patterson conceived a project to take a message to the future through the writing of the world’s great authors.

And our own Margaret Atwood was the first invitee! She won’t be hiding her words in a tree, but trees are involved.

Part time capsule, part museum, The Future Library Project will see 100 writers contribute 100 stories over the next 100 years. To be read a century from now, they’ll be stored in a purpose-built room in the new library in Oslo, which will be completed in 2018.

Building new libraries is considered by some to be a hopeful thing; those in the know see it as a critical investment in the future.

Neither time capsule nor museum, libraries are all about the future, rooted firmly in the present. So today’s child can learn and grow and become the future we may not live to see.

The Norwegian Government has granted land in the Nordmarka Forest, where 100 Norwegian Spruce will be planted.

In 100 years, these will produce enough paper to print 3,000 anthologies, and in case we’re not reading printed books anymore, the library will store a printing press to print them. Hopeful, yet pragmatic.

Said Atwood in the Globe article, “It is a very hopeful project. It assumes, number one, that there are going to be people. Number two, that there’s going to be an Oslo. Number three, that there’s going to be a library. Number four, that people will still be reading. Number five, that they’ll still be able to understand what you are writing now.”

Coming from the Queen of Literary Dystopia, that there’s a little bleakness amid the hope is not surprising. But I love that Atwood was the first to be invited.

A novelist, essayist, poet, and children’s author, Atwood has been a champion of literature in Canada — and writers everywhere — for decades.  She’s won dozens of major literary prizes, including the Booker Prize and the Governor General’s Award — five times! She has 19 honourary degrees. She is a shining star for Canada.

And now, she’ll write a message to the future.

Participating authors are allowed to show their work to one other person (the Future Library Project committee — which will change every four years — will not even read the works) but Atwood says that even her husband, novelist Graeme Gibson, won’t get to read hers. Meaning that no other human will see this story until 2114.

I’ve known Jim Keelaghan since we both were relatively young pups and watched the passage of time as he and I, on separate ends of the country, got married, had kids, grew into middle age.

He sings that “the future — well, it’s all we’ve got” as his musical tale comes around to the newborn that all those messages were for. It makes me wistful, and it makes me hopeful.

Like Keelaghan and like Atwood, in 100 years I’ll be long gone, but my grandkids — the ones not yet born — might be among those hotly anticipating the opening of this time capsule of great writing, set to infuse that distant, future generation with a love of reading, with wonder, and with hope.


— Anne DeGrace is the adult services coordinator at the Nelson Public Library. Check This Out runs every other week. For more information go to

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