Beset with problems large and small, Betty walked back to her library. The world is changing. Some say that these are the final days of libraries.
Betty had gone home for an evening meal. Despite an early plan, it ended up consisting of last night’s leftovers. To balance the score, Betty had poured herself half a glass of red wine.
Locking the door behind her, she left her empty house and braved the night. The pavement was dark and uneven, but this was her part of town, and she walked with a measured step. From the forest’s edge came the sounds of the monastery preparing for evening prayer through the crisp night air.
At the bottom of Hill Drive Betty stopped and sighed at the gentle rise ahead of her. She trudged upwards to the town center, forcing her mind to dwell on commonplace issues: a fall of snow, Belmore’s overdue books (she tightened her mouth), and Genny’s tearful call.
The path was cold and slippery in reflected light. But Betty had walked this way for thirty years and knew the places to avoid.
Betty’s mind drifted to bigger problems. Once again she wondered if the little town (and the world for that matter) understood the danger swirling around them. She found herself thinking, “People have no idea about what librarians do. There is no real recognition.”
But, then again, maybe that is for the best.
Betty finished climbing Hill Drive and paused to catch her breath before turning onto Main Street. An occasional car illuminated the pavement. Free of the risk of bobcats or lost dogs, she slowed to savor the sounds of each house settling in for the night. She smelled dinner being cooked in the dozen houses she passed, the distinct smell of warmth and a hundred different sounds of other lives.
She thought, “Homes alive with families.”
Street lamps now lit the path, as she walked the final block to the town-hall and library.
Betty spotted Bruce sitting in his late model car. It was parked carelessly outside the only club in town. It had its top drawn back, despite the cold. She thought, “An edgy club, full of young women and old men.”
A passing car lit his face and she heard him talking loudly into his phone. He stopped as her footsteps passed him. Betty avoided his eye.
Betty resisted the urge to run the last few steps to the library. In the dark, she fumbled keys to the staff entrance, her usual practiced entry delayed.
Finally inside, Betty locked the door. She stood awhile in the darkness, listening to the muffled sounds outside. She knew Bruce and wondered how Genny had got caught up with him.
She caught her breath and slowly turned her hearing to the quiet, subtle sounds of the library itself.
In Betty’s Library, most of the books got along with each other.
Many aged peacefully together, greying slowly as decades of dust collected, untroubled by the politics of the day, the threat of global warming or the pressures facing the librarians as technology tightened its grip.
Other books shuffled uneasily on their shelves, demanding attention or affection.
Betty walked down the non-fiction aisle, pausing to push one of the books back into conformity gently. After decades of neglect Volume II of Winston Churchill’s “History of the English Speaking People” had started to emanate a discernible air of smoldering resentment.
Others sat in quiet misery, unloved at inception, ignored at apogee and discarded in old age. Betty ran her hand over an old collection of the Forsyth Saga; untouched save by her hands the last twenty years. She quietly reassured them by a gentle touch of the eye that their time would come again.
She took a couple of steps away, suppressing the awful thought that she was fast running out of space. Hard decisions would need to be made to accommodate more of those dratted public computers.
By and large, space is a common problem for all librarians, indeed, all book owners. In another time, perhaps the unloved would have been re-purposed on the floors of bird cages or recycled through church bazaars. Betty shook her head, and said aloud, “But we are civilized people and don’t do this sort of thing anymore.”
Betty’s voice echoed through the bookcases. Momentarily there was a soft shuffle of books as they looked anxiously towards her.
Her voice faded into the walls, and she listened again.
Some of her books crackled with potential. They pulled her back to them, time and time again, to taste the power swirling within: Snorre Sturlason’s Heimskringla, the Poetic Edda, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (Betty added quietly, with and without Fitzgerald), the Gnostic Gospels, the Institutes of Justinian, Tolkien’s Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, a small collection of T’ang poetry, Antoine De Saint Exupery’s Le Petit Prince, Lord John Julius Norwich’s Byzantium, Mark Twain’s Essays and Bryce Courtenay’s Matthew Flinders’ Cat.
She felt herself grow a little distant from the real world each time she picked up one of those:
“But helpless Pieces of the Game He plays
Upon this Chequer-board of Nights and Days;
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet he lays.” – Khayyam
By and large, these books hold known risks for all librarians. Touching the covers of some of these books can transport you through time and space in the blink of an eye. “Do you wit more, or how?” Betty thought, “Every so often, one of us does not come back. But, if you keep focused, the chances are good.”
To an experienced librarian like Betty, these are not the troublesome books. Librarians are trained to keep order in the midst of chaos and can balance one fearsome book against another. “That one gave you nightmares? Read this to calm your nerves.” But for a moment she felt a touch of fear and shivered.
Within some libraries, there are some books of power: Books that cannot be tamed.
Betty suspected she had a problem. Maybe more than one problem. She took a deep breath and tried to remember how Mabel, the former Chief Librarian, would have dealt with this situation. For a moment she wished she had listened a little more closely. She thought, “Now is the time to concentrate on finding answers, not to ponder past mistakes.”