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The Last Librarian: Or a Short Account of the End of the World

Edoardo Albert is a writer and editor. He's had two other stories published by Daily Science Fiction--search for them if you like this one--as well as pieces in On The Premises, Science in My Fiction and Untied Shoelaces of the Mind, among others. Find out more at www.edoardoalbert.com.

"Which is more important, books or people?"
The question was posed in jest, but over the years I had come increasingly to believe that if the librarian's veins were opened, ink would flow from them rather than blood. Even so, I did not expect him to answer as he did.
"Books." The librarian held out the saucepan. "More cocoa?"
"Yes, please."
We sat in the blessed silence provided by the museum's digital baffles, sipping from our mugs, while I waited to see what he had to show me. I had first met the librarian as an eight-year-old bibliophile whose most vivid childhood memories were of the local public library and the thrill of all those books waiting to be read. That boy had grown into a book collector, a hobby I pursued in the spare moments left over from my everyday duties as a minor government functionary.
Cocoa finished, the librarian led me past the empty desks of the Reading Room, past the silent counters where once librarians had checked out the less valuable books from the collection, to the holy sanctuary: the rare books room. To be precise, the rare books rooms. This was the British Library, after all. It needed more than one room for its rare books.
The librarian indicated a new display cabinet that had been given a place of honour even among the assembled Gutenbergs and Caxtons, Kells and Opticks, and First and Second Folios.
The book lay open at page 1:
Some of the evil of my tale may have been inherent in our circumstances. For years we lived anyhow with one another in the naked desert, under the indifferent heaven…
"It's not," I said.
"It is."
"Yes." The librarian's face creased into the broadest of unexpected smiles.
Of the several holy grails of book collectors this was among the most sacred: the 1922 first edition of T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which he had privately printed at the Oxford University Press. There were only eight copies made; six were accounted for but now, it seemed, that number had gone up to seven.
"Where on earth did you find it?" I asked, when I was finally ready to take a break from inspecting it, gazing at it, and generally drinking in the wonder of it. I suppose a new mother must feel something similar when contemplating her first child.
"It was here all along," said the librarian. "Tucked away in one of the storerooms. It had somehow been labeled as an architectural treatise belonging to the collection of the Keeper of Oriental Antiquities, back in the days when Museum and Library shared premises. I only came across it by chance."
We both gazed at it.
"To think," I said, "you're probably the first person to touch the book after Lawrence himself."
"And the dunderhead who thought it was a book on architecture," said the librarian. "I suspect I know who that might have been…." His face grew thoughtful as he contemplated the appropriate punishment for misfiling a book.
Looking at him, it occurred to me that he had hardly changed at all in the years I had known him: hair greying but remaining on the cusp of actual white, complexion as pale as the artificial light, thin face bisected by the half-moon glasses permanently resting on the tip of his nose. In fact, the librarian might have looked at home in a mortuary, striding between the cold slabs; I confess that I sometimes felt, as we walked the silent halls and corridors of the library, as if we were the pathologists of a lost literary culture.
"Have you uploaded it yet?"
The librarian shook his head.
"Remiss of me, I know, but I wanted to share my discovery first. I shall, as you say, upload it. Presently."
Interested scholars would then be able to inspect perfect three-dimensional copies of the book, while those more concerned to hold up one end of a dinner-party conversation could download neural inputs sufficient to inculcate a comfortable memory of having read the book, without the tiresome necessity of ever having to look at it. After all, with most literature people want to have read the book, not to actually read it. In our rushed and hurried world, neural inputs meant that you could read all the classics of the canon in an afternoon and still have time for dinner.
"Still," I added, on my slow wending out of the library and back into the ordinary world, "I'm sure that with a find like this there will be a few scholars who will want to see the actual book." I paused at the exit. "What do you think?"
The librarian shook his head, the light reflecting on his glasses.
"No, I do not think they will come. Not even for this." He began to close the door, then stopped.
"Come back in a week," he said. "I may have something to show you."
"Is it--"
But the door had closed, cutting off my question. The librarian always showed me in and out of one of the side entrances meant for staff; the high halls of the public entrance remained open, and empty, like some undiscovered cave in a forgotten country.
I turned up my collar, engaged the digital baffles, closed my ears to the babble of information, and set off into the modern world.
A week later I was back, but not alone. A constant stream of people--most of them academics by the cut of their gowns--was going in and out of the main entrance. Where before the Great Hall had stood sepulchral and empty, now excited scholars disputed with each other or sent students off on errands, while what appeared to be a positive scrum was developing around the main information desk, on which was displayed a prominent sign pointing the way to the Lawrence display. Messages flashed up on boards on the walls and ceilings, directing interested parties to the life cycle of the weevil (second floor, row J, shelfmarks DX80130 DSC); the hypostasis of the Archons (third floor, row O, shelfmarks 412.978000 DSC); and kin relations among chavs (sub basement 4, row B, shelfmarks YK.2005.a.10262). The messages constantly changed, until I realized that they were the answers being given to the crowd of importunate scholars clustered around the main desk. And there, in the centre of the circle, surrounded by a team of junior assistants, was the librarian. He nodded towards me, spoke a few words to one of his acolytes, and released himself from the desk.
I gestured, encompassing the people, the bustle, the sheer life.
"It's astonishing," I said. "Extraordinary. What's happened?"
In an unexpected gesture of intimacy, the librarian took my arm. I must confess that this took me by surprise: I didn't so much flinch as stiffen. But as warrant for the degree of his excitement, I do not believe the librarian even noticed. He led me across the Great Hall, shrugging off the frantic enquiries of desperate scholars, and piloted me through one of the doors marked "Staff only." Peace and calm immediately descended.
"Would you mind walking?" asked the librarian. "I do so fear that I shall be immediately accosted if we venture the lifts, but I would like to show you around on this day of all days."
We made our way up the stairs.
"You are not, I believe, a specialist in information theory."
"Not exactly, no. Spreadsheets I understand, what produces them I don't."
"Then I shall have to make use of analogy," said the librarian. "Consider your brain: at its core is the spinal cord and the primitive brain structures that we share with other chordates. These structures are the basis for all the achievements of the human mind, from Shakespeare's sonnets to David's Psalms to Mozart's music. But take away the sub-structure and--no Shakespeare. Now, there are some very primitive parts of the modern, interconnected world, parts that have been there from the beginning but have been all but forgotten as more elaborate networks were built on top. But there is one place where these old things are still recorded." The librarian stopped and turned to look down at me. I must confess I was grateful for the break, as the climb was proving longer than I had anticipated.
"The library." The librarian resumed the climb, speaking over his shoulder. "In fact, some of these texts have never been uploaded." He glanced back at me, smiling. "Can you credit it? It was a relatively straightforward matter to find the information and then remove one of the key substructures. So, for today at least, any scholar attempting to access information will find an error message and a notice advising him to repair to his local public library."
At last we arrived at the top of the staircase and paused at the door.
"Let us quietly inspect the evidence of scholarly activity…."
It was, perhaps, unfortunate that the librarian opened the door at the precise instant a researcher dropped the book he was extracting from the shelf. He dropped the book because he was trying to simultaneously answer his phone while not spilling his cup of coffee.
"Hey, thanks," said the scholar, as the librarian swooped in, a literary falcon, and swept the book from the floor. But his eyes widened as the librarian put the book back on the shelf.
"I need that," he said.
"Give me your library card," said the librarian.
Taking the proffered card, the librarian first scrutinized the embedded picture for resemblance to its subject--since it had only been taken that morning little time had elapsed for variations between image and reality to develop. Then, producing a small pair of scissors from his pocket, the librarian proceeded to cut the membership card in two, taking particular delight in bisecting the picture.
"But…but…" stammered the researcher.
"Your membership is canceled. Kindly leave the building."
After opening and closing his mouth a few times as if to speak--the frown on the librarian's face sufficient each time to stop him--the scholar trudged towards the lifts.
"And switch off your phone."
We didn't move until the lift doors closed. The librarian sent a message down to reception to tell them to escort the erstwhile reader from the premises. Thus, the librarian's previous good mood was blighted and we drank our cocoa in something approaching silence.
I hoped the book abuse we had seen would prove to be a solitary lapse, but sadly that was not the case. Descending the levels we came across multiple cases of unauthorized eating and drinking. We heard many an illicit conversation, both local and by phone. There were a distressing number of cases of ABH (actual biblio harm) such as page corners being turned over and books being returned to the wrong shelves; and a few truly worrying instances of GBH (grievous biblion harm), where poor, innocent volumes had notes written on their margins or were left paralyzed with their spines broken. This last was a particularly sad case. We found The Principles of Lingerie by Reginald Spode lying abandoned on a desk, its spine cracked, its contents exposed, and with numerous marginal marks sullying its virginal purity. Of the malefactor there was no sign beyond a crumpled sweet wrapper.
Faced with this outrage, the librarian then did something truly extraordinary. The Spode, of course, should have been taken for immediate repair but we had other urgent tasks to attend to. So, rather than expose the book to further abuse, the librarian deliberately mis-shelved it.
I was shocked. But then, as realization dawned of the scope of the librarian's sacrifice, surprise turned into admiration.
"Truly, it is a greater thing you do today…"
But the librarian indicated silence. It was a library, after all. Not that you could have told that from the behaviour of most of the readers: everywhere we went there was the constant background noise of conversations, modulated by the mastication of many jaws. It would seem that today's scholar is unable to engage brain without first starting jaw.
Business appointments had claim of me for the rest of the day, so I left the librarian to battle against the waves of human fecklessness he was facing, but I called just before the library closed.
The librarian answered in sound mode. I supposed after such a day I would prefer not to appear on any screens either.
"How has the day gone?"
Even through the phone, the librarian sounded tired.
"It only grows longer. It appears that many books have been replaced wrongly, so I fear I have many hours work ahead rearranging the shelves." Despite the lack of vision I could all but see the librarian shaking his head. "It was never like this in Alexandria."
"Would you like me to help?"
"No, no thank you. I'm sure we can man-- excuse me, sir, that book's not for loan…."
The line went dead.
The next week, after work as was my wont, I went to the library while it was still open. The news had been on little else but the loss of the country's academic data retrieval, so it was little surprise that the queue applying to be readers was even longer than before. Passing the desk area where applications were processed, I realized that it would only get longer. Last week, in the librarian's enthusiasm for these new readers, the desk had been manned by all his brightest and quickest staff. Today, there was just one, rather decrepit, librarian on duty, hard of hearing and long-sighted to boot.
The chief librarian, however, was not in his office, nor could I find him in the still-crowded halls and reading rooms, an exploration much distracted by the evidence before me of rampant book abuse. By the time I returned to the Great Hall I was all but trembling from the dreadful things I had seen.
This was where the librarian's messenger eventually found me. I was taken down through all the levels of the library to its basement. There I found the librarian, and went to him, arms outstretched.
"My dear friend, how can you bear it?"
The librarian paused in his work. "Ah, I am glad for your words. Sometimes I think I am just an old bachelor, grown set in his ways, unable to adjust to modern times. But you agree: this behaviour is outrageous. It cannot go on."
"Are you going to reconnect the library to the network?"
The librarian shook his head, somewhat ruefully. "Would that it were that easy. It appears that no repair is possible. Of course, in the end outside agencies will trace the fault and rectify it, but time is of the essence here. If action is not taken soon, some books will be damaged beyond repair. As an all-but-forgotten writer of the twentieth century said: 'I accept the risk of damnation. The Lord will absolve me, because He knows I acted for His glory. My duty was to protect the library.' Or, as an even more obscure author remarked, if you will pardon the infelicity and paraphrase: I am one of the secret masters of the world. I am a librarian. I control information. Don't ever piss me off."
The librarian stood up.
"Come," he said, "let us go and see."
We emerged from the lift and went out on the roof terrace.
Looking down, far down, I could see a constant stream of librarians loading books into the back of a fleet of lorries.
"Where are they taking the books?" I asked.
"A library is ideal in secure times as a place for scholars to study. But what about in less certain ages? History teaches us that even the greatest collections may fall victim to the ignorant mob, if they are not guarded. We have, far from here, made provisions for the safety of these books. Another library, but one that is safe, secure and, most important of all, secret. And that is where I am taking the books."
I watched as the last of the lorries drove away, disappearing into the twilight. We stood in silence as night drew in over the city. Far below, the library had closed its doors. The librarian was waiting for something, although I did not know what that might be.
And then, one by one, without any fuss, the lights went out. An unnatural quiet began to spread across the city as the darkness spread.
"What's happening?"
"Do you remember asking me which was more important: books or people? Of course, my answer was rather playful, but nonetheless I was becoming increasingly concerned about the divergence between this current civilization and all that books represent: story, knowledge, art, law, science. The events of the last few days have decided me. If even scholars cannot be trusted with books, then this society can no longer be called civilized. Therefore, it is time to start again." He gestured towards the spreading pool of darkness, out of which increasingly feral howls and screams were already spilling. "If you know what to do, a complex mechanism is easy to destroy. Many things can be found in old, forgotten books."
"But, but they'll fix it, they'll find what you've done and repair it."
"It is not that easy, my friend. Processes have been set in motion that cannot be stopped. Come, it's time to depart, although," and at this point the wave of failing power took away the library's own light and electricity, "I fear we will have to use the staircase."
The last I saw of my one-time friend was him climbing into the last lorry to leave the library and driving off into the darkness.
I write this now, by candlelight, some months later (I'm afraid I have lost track of the exact date). I will seal my testimony in a bottle and place it in what remains of the library (the mob destroyed much of the building some weeks ago even though they found there neither food or fuel). If, someday, my old friend emerges from his sanctuary with the books to start a new civilization I hope my record might be found: a short account of the end of the world.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, August 5th, 2011

Author Comments

I still remember the excitement I knew as a child when I visited the library and saw the shelves of books laid out before me, each a door into wonders. I also remember the awe-filled, sepulchral hush of the libaries of my childhood, when even an inadvertent sneeze was enough to attract disapproving stares from stern librarians. This story is a small tribute to those unsung, if somewhat scary, heroes of civilization: the librarians.

- Edoardo Albert
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