Records mark the past, present, and future in Avatar: The Last Airbender

By  Samantha Solomon

Though Avatar: The Last Airbender’s (Nickelodeon, 2005-2008) final episode aired 14 years ago, the television show left an unforgettable mark on its young audience. When the show started streaming on Netflix in 2020, waves of viewers returned to watch, including myself. Perhaps people found comfort in the show during the pandemic, and many new eyes were opened to the incredible art, moving storylines, and powerful social criticism about war, industrialism, and oppression.  

For those who have not watched the show, some people in the world of Avatar are born with “bending” power, or the ability to manipulate one of the four elements (water, earth, fire, and air). Avatar follows the journey of Aang, the most recent reincarnation of the Avatar, the only person who can control all four elements. As the Avatar, Aang is connected to all his past selves and is the bridge between the mortal world and spirit world. In search of a way to defeat the tyrannical Fire Nation and restore balance to the world, Aang travels with water bender Katara and her brother Sokka. They are later joined by Toph, a blind earth bender who can sense motion and objects through the soles of her feet, and much later by Zuko, a reformed Fire Nation prince. 

“Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked.”

Every episode is introduced this way, reminding the audience that despite endearing storylines about love and friendship, the show exists always in the context of war, genocide, and diaspora. That context allowed Avatar: The Last Airbender to explore deeply complicated themes using a speculative world inspired by many cultures, including Japanese, Chinese, Tibetan, and Inuit.

While there are several ways to analyze how that complicated world is rendered across each episode, I will focus on records, record-keeping, and documentation or “information-as-thing.” Information-as-thing applies to all kinds of tangible objects that embody knowledge. Documents are not the only records that contain essential information because “objects that are not documents in the normal sense of being texts can nevertheless be information resources, information-as-thing” (Buckland, 1991). A record can be a book. It can arguably be a fish (Ginsburg, Ruth B., Yates v. United States). Information-as-thing is usually manifested in something material, and people can read, see, interpret, misunderstand, understand, control, and destroy it. 

Finding other forms of resources outside of paper is also important in Avatar. Posters, maps, and scrolls often guide the main characters to an insight, refuge, or even triumph – but these documents are corruptible, easily changed or destroyed. The authoritarian regime of Earth Kingdom city Ba Sing Se disposes of posters and pamphlets that counter the government’s messaging in ‘City of Walls and Secrets’ (2.14). The totalitarian Fire Nation has re-written its history books to better suit its narrative of conquest in ‘The Headband’ (3.2). If these tactics sound familiar from our own world, it’s because they are meant to. And much like in our world, the fragility of paper documents, erasures of history, and domination of information exchange often require the past to be reconstructed through cultural objects, ancient architecture, and other artifacts. Even in a world of earth bending, where someone could use her power to shatter stone carvings and sacred temples, there are many intact structures and objects scattered across the four nations. 

Structures and objects become enduring knowledge resources for the main characters. Records can reveal forgotten past histories that the imperialist Fire Nation seeks to stamp out. Avatar depicts a battle between these destructive forces and the preservation of heritage, which alludes to our own reckoning with history’s erasures and marginalization of non-white cultures. Records in the show represent ties to a greater identity, whether it’s cultural, societal, or intellectual. There is an intrinsic value and sacred nature to records, which makes their loss all the greater. 

In ‘The Library’ (2.10), Aang and the team visit a massive repository belonging to Wan Shi Tong, the Knowledge Spirit, that contains much of the world’s knowledge; illustrations, books, scrolls, and maps take up rows of never-ending shelves. But paper scrolls are not permanent. Wan Shi Tong knows this too well, as materials on the Fire Nation were destroyed by a previous library visitor. All is ash, except one corner of a page, mentioning “The Day of Black Sun” and a date. The scale of that loss is incalculable. As a result, Wan Shi Tong demands that Aang promises not to use whatever knowledge he gathers from the library’s materials for violence. 

In contrast to paper scrolls, non-paper records can hold a quality of permanence. For example, Wan Shi Tong has a planetarium which records the daily movement of the sun, moon, and stars. It even measures future movement based on past data. The planetarium is a tool for Aang and the team, charting The Day of Black Sun, a solar eclipse during which fire benders lose their power for a few brief minutes. Sokka and Aang use the planetarium to find the next solar eclipse, discovering a future date on which they can launch an invasion of the Fire Nation. Invaluable knowledge is gleaned from this object, which can glimpse the past, present, and future simultaneously. Its information is perpetual, enduring. The planetarium has also not been destroyed by the Fire Nation in their quest to delete incriminating information from the world. It is undetected as a resource among attempts to rewrite history and truth. The Fire Nation does not seem too concerned with how information-as-thing can be used to Aang’s advantage. As I explore later in this article, the Temple of Roku is an incredibly significant information source for the Avatar, but the Fire Nation does not destroy the temple for the sake of preserving their own cultural history. While the Fire Nation perhaps knows how information-as-thing can be a powerful tool for Aang and the others, its own self-preservation, and subsequent hubris, causes the conquestors to pass over these monuments of the past. 

Record-keeping is not just threatened by destruction, but also by inaccessibility. Wan Shi Tong’s library, for instance, is in a remote desert location, impassible, and deceptively hidden in the rolling sand dunes. Paper scrolls and texts exchange hands nearly every episode, but characters with disabilities like Toph, blind since birth, are restricted from these commonly used methods of communication. Toph is barred from accessing information in the maps, posters, and paintings that surround her. Even objects like the library’s planetarium, which displays simulations of the night sky on a domed ceiling, are lost on her because of a reliance on visual elements. Toph has her own way of gathering information. As an earth bender, she can “read” physical constructs like buildings and monuments, a power she uses to determine that Wan Shi Tong’s library is partially buried in sand, but not lost forever. When Aang first discovers the library, he almost turns back because only a single spire sticks out of the dunes. Toph stops him, and the rest of the gang, explaining she can feel the cavernous collection intact just below the surface. Yet, even with her special abilities, she is aware that the library will not have materials for her to explore. Toph stays outside of the library because, in her words, books “don’t exactly do it for me,” (‘The Library’). She assumes the library has no knowledge that she would be able to access due to her blindness. She adds, “Let me know if they have something you can listen to,” (‘The Library’). They do not. 

Wan Shi Tong’s library is absent of audio resources, but some groups in the four nations hold strong to oral traditions and storytelling, like the Air Nomads, highlighted in the beginning of ‘The Northern Air Temple’ (1.17). It is important to note that Aang is of Air Nomad heritage. Aang fled his own home at the Southern Air Temple after learning he was the current incarnation of the Avatar. He remained trapped in ice for the next 100 years, during which time the Air Nomad population was decimated by the Fire Nation, and Aang’s survivor’s guilt and trauma is depicted in many ways throughout the show. These stories are a record of a people, culture, and history that establishes a connection to home, heritage, and identity for Aang. As such, listening to them is a source of comfort (‘Northern Air Temple’). 

Song is also important in Avatar. Some of the most important bits of information in the show are gathered from spoken word stories and songs, like in ‘The Cave of Two Lovers’ (2.2) when a half-remembered song about a ‘secret tunnel’ becomes the key to safe passage through Fire Nation-dominated territory. Songs and oral stories are immaterial, so they cannot be physically destroyed, though they can be forgotten. They unveil a historical narrative that had been previously lost to time and destruction.

It is unclear why Wan Shi Tong omits oral records from his library. His attempts to exclude individuals from his knowledge sources in general, though, elevating the library’s status to a level of sanctity that tends to only apply to temples and other sacred spaces. The comparison is apt, as Avatar highlights the ways in which iconographic spaces also function as information resources. In ‘The Spirit World: Winter Solstice, Part 1’ (1.7), Aang and the team travel to the remotely located Temple of Roku. The temple honors a previous Avatar reincarnation, the powerful and level-headed Avatar Roku. It is also information-as-thing: a calendar. A room with a small window tracks the movement of the sun, while a statue of Avatar Roku registers the Winter Solstice. Here, as well, access to information is heavily guarded: the room requires five fire benders to open its doors. Once Aang does access the physical calendar, he must also spiritually connect to Avatar Roku, his past reincarnation and own identity, to fully understand this information-as-thing. Personal identity can be enmeshed with the cultural objects that store information and records. Only someone who can tap into a shared identity can realize some records’ full potential.  

When resources are destroyed, cultural identity is threatened. One example is the Northern Air Temple, one of four Air Nomad temples neglected following the Fire Nation’s conquest (‘The Northern Air Temple’). Aang is distraught when he revisits the temple, a place to which he’d traveled 100 years ago. A group of war refugees, led by a character known as ‘the mechanist,’ have permanently changed the temple. Aang is angered that pipes now cover the murals that once illustrated the history of his people. “You just destroyed something sacred for a stupid bathhouse!” Aang shouts at the mechanist as bulldozers run through temple statues portraying air bending masters of old (‘The Northern Air Temple’).

In this episode, new technology can obscure history, but it also improves the quality of life for those living at the temple, create a sense of comfort and safety. People take elevators powered by steam. The mechanist invents modern hang gliders based on those possessed by the Air Nomads, allowing his son who uses a wheelchair to experience “life in the air,” (‘The Northern Air Temple’). 

However, the mechanist’s ability to elevate the lives of those around him is clouded by his somewhat moral gray area. He has trampled over sacred relics in the name of progress. Aang’s reactions to the ‘updated’ temple show that the destruction of records can equate to a deeply personal loss of cultural history and identity. Aang rejects the mechanist when the man says he was “improving upon what was already there,” (‘The Northern Air Temple’). Aang believes that if nature had taken its course with the abandoned temple, the murals and statues would still be intact. He perceives that the historical records were an acceptable part of the landscape, whereas the mechanist and his people are unnatural.  Even so, when it is revealed that the mechanist has been creating weapons for the Fire Nation, it is conveyed as an act of desperation; he has doomed an unseen population in exchange for a peaceful life for his people. The mechanist is not the villain of the episode, contrasting to Wan Shi Tong’s portrayal in ‘The Library.’ Rather, the power of technology is only as good as those who use it and the intention with which it is used. The mechanist’s misuse points to a necessity for cultural awareness and ethical consideration when using emerging technologies.

Any demolition at the temple is also tempered by the resilience of nature. Though the records of Aang’s people are damaged at the temple, the creatures that live on the grounds—animals and plants—are direct descendants of those from 100 years ago. Information-as-thing tells us that the creatures of the Northern Air Temple act as a record of the past and present. They carry pertinent clues about their evolution, living conditions, food sources, etc. Their composition can indicate climate changes and other natural developments. Their existence also speaks to the habitable environment that exists at the temple. The environment has not been so drastically changed that these natural creatures were driven off or killed. 

In fact, Aang takes some comfort in this notion. In the end, the creatures that still roam the temple help Aang reconcile with the fact that material pieces of his heritage have been destroyed. It is his hope that the mechanist’s people can have a new home and a new place of safety. His connections to identity, and his grief, have not diminished, but he puts the needs of the people before his own and the betterment of society before himself. He acknowledges that the Air Temple can be simultaneously a record of the past, while evolving into a haven for the present people. 

With Aang’s struggle over the destruction of cultural records, we may better sympathize with Wan Shi Tong’s reluctance to share his library with the world. He fears the knowledge found there will lead to war and destruction, claiming neutrality in worldly matters by giving neither side an advantage. Much like with new technologies, raw information is only as good or evil as those who use it. It can require mindfulness and an ethical perspective to prevent misuse. However, Wan Shi Tong does not allow knowledge to be used as it is meant to be, and ‘The Library’ ends with the Knowledge Spirit completely submerging his library in the sands. He barrs all worldly creatures from his repository, the vast wealth of knowledge now accessible only to the spirit world. 

Aang teaches us that the good of society comes before personal needs, even if those needs are inherently tied to identity and sense of self. As such, Wan Shi Tong’s act is a purely selfish one. While Wan Shi Tong is trying to prevent misuse of information, he is ultimately policing how people use information resources, and barring that, eventually denies all access. Knowledge is not meant to be hidden away, buried. It is meant to be shared, and it is up to us to determine how it is used for the good of the people. 


Samantha Solomon is currently seeking a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science through the University of Washington’s iSchool program. She is particularly interested in digital librarianship. She works professionally with social media and marketing and has previous experience as a digital journalist.

Samantha is based in Los Angeles where she lives with her partner and dog. She loves reading, writing, and knitting in her spare time. She also loves watching and rewatching animated shows because they are often complex, but still light-hearted and visually captivating.


Buckland, Michael K., ‘Information as Thing’, Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 42 (1991), 351–60

‘City of Walls and Secrets,’ Avatar: The Last Airbender, Nickelodeon, Sep. 22, 2006

Ginsburg, Ruth B., Yates V. United States, 2014

Hannah, Darwin, and Henry, Mamie, Our Tellings: Interior Salish Stories of the Nlha7kápmx People (Vancouver, CANADA: UBC Press, 1996) 

Phillips, Maya, ‘“Avatar: The Last Airbender” Imagines a World Free of Whiteness’, The New York Times, 18 June 2020, section Arts 

‘The Cave of Two Lovers,’ Avatar: The Last Airbender, Nickelodeon, Mar. 24, 2006

‘The Headband,’ Avatar: The Last Airbender, Nickelodeon, Sep. 28, 2006

‘The Library,’ Avatar: The Last Airbender, Nickelodeon, Jul. 14, 2006

‘The Northern Air Temple,’ Avatar: The Last Airbender, Nickelodeon, Nov. 4, 2005

‘The Spirit World: Winter Solstice, Part 1,’ Avatar: The Last Airbender, Nickelodeon, Apr. 8, 2005

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s