Cuneiform crumbles and scatters on the winds of time. Dredged through eras, lost words merge with ghosts and the red brick dust of Victorian buildings. And still we march on, from yellowing pages to shimmering screens, knotted oak shelves to vacant white walls and bright plastic chairs, and the echoes of rhymetime as people chat over their knitting.
Thus is the nature of the library. A shapeshifter. A polymorphic symphony of histories and uses, existing in a state of perpetual flow, ever yielding and growing with its community. So much more than the intoxicating magic of books and the written word, the library’s sorcery is in its multiformity. In its ability to mean so many different things to each of us and the communities we occupy. This multiplicity is what I wanted to explore during my artist residency with Manchester’s inaugural Festival of Libraries – the diverse meaning and potential of libraries, and how this might help us divine the future.
Over the course of several weeks, I was lucky enough to work with a brilliant group of writers from Manchester’s Young Identity. Together, we explored what libraries mean to us – our memories, our experiences, and our hopes and ideas for the future. During these sessions, the young writers also created new work – a mix of poetry and short fiction – responding to our discussions, which they performed live at Urmston Library during the Festival.
“A library is a focal point, a sacred place to a community; and its sacredness is its accessibility, its publicness. It’s everybody’s place.”
During the course of our sessions and the conversations that followed the live event, I found myself – like Ursula K. Le Guin – struck by a sense of the sanctity of libraries. Libraries seem to hold a special status for so many of us. They are sacrosanct and we become, then, custodians of these places – duty bound to protect our libraries from desolation and abandonment. The library is often one of our earliest connections with a world bigger than our own. It can be a portal to another place. A retreat from loneliness. A pathway to our personal history. Or simply a place just to be. Though we often carry this magical feeling with us into adulthood, our later experiences tell another story. One in which the library of our memories – old, dusty, wooden, grand – doesn’t marry up with the libraries of today, with their modernity, technology and bright white walls. We find ourselves struggling to understand our place in this new form.
At the same time, throughout our conversations there was a genuine celebration of the diverse evolution of local libraries, and a commitment to supporting modern libraries in their efforts to better serve the needs of a changing community. And so, there’s a tension. An innate challenge in trying to evolve something so multiform that it can hold equal appeal and meaning for a diverse community, each person with their own memories, wants and needs. Can such a balance be found? Or will one person’s utopia always be someone else’s dystopia?
It’s a strange tension, and one I wanted to explore – albeit in small form – through this short flash fiction piece in which someone returns home to find their library changed...
“Welcome back,” you say, grinning at me over a chipped china mug. “How was London? Must be ages since you’ve been in here.” Your words topple out as we creak in our seats. My bones feel as old as the chairs.
“Too long,” I say. Mostly just to say something, anything at all. The library was once as familiar to me as my teenage bedroom. But today I am unmoored. Cut loose by too many years at sea, away from here. We sit in the reading room, like old times. But the room is a café now; a “new page in the library’s history” according to the posters that mask the areas still under renovation. It feels like a graveyard. A chipboard mausoleum adorned with cheap plastic flowers.
“I love the changes, don’t you?” you say, as if reading my thoughts. You always said I was an open book to you. Even after all this time it’s true. I stab at dry cheesecake with a dessert fork, catching its tips against the plate in a high-pitched squeal of metal on porcelain. Such a sound would’ve once reverberated around this place like a gunshot, ricocheting from angry stares and pursed lips. I cringe instinctively. But no-one looks over.
“I can still feel the old gods,” I say.
You smile. “Sure, if you look hard enough you can even see their footprints on the carpet. Lord knows there’s enough building dust in here.”
I laugh, but the books by the counter look like a hoard of angels, marching through the shaft of light that cuts in through a half boarded window. I can hear them singing, their chorus battling against the low hum of renovation works. It’s like we’re caught between worlds; a library in limbo.
My reverie is broken by the sound of tiny children stomping through the atrium. I must have frowned, because you say to me, “God, you’re a bloody gargoyle”
“What do you mean?”
“Grimacing from the cloisters. Baying at the new blood! Get with it, Bea. The library is for everyone. Time moves on.”
But I was born at the library, I think. Gestated among its pages and pink check-out cards. Pushed out through a canal of Kipling and Keats into the startling light of day, a silent sob in my mouth. I feel the library’s wounds as if they were my own.
“Eat your cake, love, then I’ll show you how to FaceTime Darren on the computer doofers. That’ll be nice won’t it?”
You think I’m homesick for the south, but it’s this place I miss. Over your shoulder the books leave their shelves, their dust covers flapping like wings.
(Above image: Inspired by Borges, I wanted to create a kind of virtual, infinite library of hexagonal galleries. As an experiment, I created a very simple, low-poly 3D model in Blender, then imported into Mozilla Spoke to create a meeting space. My hope was to host a virtual gathering in Mozilla Hubs – but maybe next time!)
“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
― Jorge Luis Borges
During my residency, I also wanted to explore what other people had to say about libraries, from Edward Hirsch’s wistful and nostalgic poem, Branch Library, to In The Stacks, a wonderful anthology of short stories about libraries and librarians, curated by editor Michael Cart. One story that resonated in particular was The Library of Babel, a magical realist short story by author – and, later, director of the National Library of Argentina – Jorge Luis Borges.
In the story, Borges equates the entire universe with a kind of infinite library. One in which there exist infinite texts – every book that has ever been written or could be written. Within this infinite collection there must, then, exist a kind of sacred text, one that could help us unlock some basic truth about the universe and our existence. It is from this story that the notion of the “distant librarians” and “distant libraries” emerged. What if we could mine that infinite library and channel those distant librarians to unearth some truth – or sacred text – about libraries?
As someone with a background in digital storytelling, this got me thinking about artificial intelligence (AI) – specifically generative AI based on language models, such as OpenAI’s GPT-2. These models are built on huge datasets of written text, which they use to build their own systems of language. These datasets are often very diverse, from great literary works in the public domain, to text scraped from internet chat forums. Just like Borges’ Library of Babel, these models are based on a finite number of letters and glyphs, with which they can generate seemingly infinite possibilities. If we convene with AI, might we also get to convene with those distant librarians? And if so, what would they have to say about libraries?
So, I decided to channel the gods!
Inspired by the themes and conversations that emerged during my sessions with Young Identity, I created a series of short text vignettes. I then fed these into an online AI text synthesiser built on GPT-2. Based on the words, style and nuance of my vignettes, the AI responded in a similar tone, offering up the words and sentences it thought might come next. I generated pages and pages of text in this way, much of it gibberish! I then took on the role of clairvoyant, sifting through the white noise to discern hidden messages of poetic quality. Before, finally, in the spirit of the Dada poets, I re-interpreted, re-assembled and, in some cases, re-wrote those selected fragments to create something new: a collection of experimental collage poems about libraries and the people who occupy them. These are those poems...
Verse of the Distant Librarians
We are children in the library
We push through the doors
take our first breath in the sun of childhood
We are like wind passing through
a dark mass of unkempt trees
to lie where dreams used to roam
We fall asleep in those streets,
with their pavement of books
a stone's throw from where we should be
And in this old tomb, we wait
and for a hundred years there is no answer
until one day
we become the ghosts of our time
the poems of our time
and the children of today remember everything.
It rained the library yesterday
drip by drip
from the stacks
of the long since dead
tomes strewn about the floor
in runic puddles.
I built a home
from those stacks
took the books and
pulled them over my head
in a broken tower
lit brighter than a neon sign.
The library is so much larger
than you could believe
The only place where you can still listen to people's thoughts,
still enjoy what they might call "wasted time".
The library is a city without walls
A huge cathedral
A small sanctuary,
dark and full of magic.
The library is ashes on a piano
while the choir sings
And you holding your daughter’s hand,
her skin like lemon and red rose
All of these images seem to combine
to make something
of the library,
to make something of us.
He was a good reader,
wanted to know
not just the words,
but the stories
that filled the pages.
His books lay on the sidewalk,
congregated with the other boys
like new friends,
but he made no move,
the person we most wanted to talk to.
This work was created during my Writer/Artist residency with Manchester City of Literature's inaugural Festival of Libraries. With thanks to Trafford Libraries for hosting the residency, and to writers Lauren, Esther, Louis, Jova, Kayleigh and Louise at Young Identity for being such a source of inspiration.
Additional thanks to Lynda Clark for guidance around AI writing.