Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Sleepless Nights in Libraryland

It's late at night, so very late, and I need some books. I need to go to the library, so I go, but it's closed. It's midnight. It's late, it's really too late. And the library is dark, so very dark. I can't see the books on the shelves through the front door glass. No movement in there, inanimate. I have no key. So I turn and go back home.

Now I've returned home, the light is out, and I can't sleep, I can't stop thinking about things. I can't stop thinking about books I want. Read the books online? No, the books I want are never online. Why do I always need something I can't have? Why do I always need to get somewhere I can't go? And when I do go somewhere, why can I never remember why I needed to be there? Do I really need to go anywhere ever?

Questions invade me, imprison me. Why am I denied what I want? Why am I forbidden what I need? When will everything be immediately available to anybody who wants it? When will the world have no choice but to satisfy me? Where did it all go and how can I get it back?

Surrounded by the unanimous night, defenseless, I think about libraries. Questions pulsate to the surface again. Is the profession dying out? Will the internet destroy us? The management of knowledge. Have we lost control of it all? What did we ever control? Are we headed somewhere we don't want to go? Who's in charge and what is our fate?

The red clock numbers say 3 am. Darkness nods its head. Dreamland denied. Books cover the floor. Too dark to read the symbols. I listen to the radio. Late at night, I turn the radio down so low you can hardly hear it. You have to. If it's late at night, you have to turn it down as low as it will go. But it's no use, even at its lowest. The late-night chatter doesn't penetrate. Rabid talk on sports. The same news bulletins I've heard a hundred times. Electronic voices, backward messages, wingnut authors and their absurd books. I turn it off. The darkness speaks with its low hum, growing louder, angrier, like someone striking two books together on the other side of the library, then like the sound of someone tipping over an entire range of books down onto the floor.

Books again. Libraries again. The deafening darkness enveloping me, suffocating me, closing me page by page, won't be quiet, won't go away, screaming some indecipherable message. Social workers, political agitators. When will librarians wake up? When will I go to sleep? The last page is turned. Then suddenly everything is alright and everything goes away.

Down on the street below, I hear a car horn honk. I forgot. An ancient friend from library school. Didn't expect a ride tonight. I get dressed and go outside. I slip into the back seat of the car. On the floor are a few old books, rare and valuable by their looks. "We'll have to stop for gas before we cross over to D.C.," but we don't.

We cross the Potomac River, racing past the Washington Monument, speeding across the Mall, hurtling toward the Capitol building with the headlights hacking through the dense darkness of the Washington night. We turn onto the next street beyond, and pull into the driveway at the front of the Jefferson building of the Library of Congress. The doors are open. Extremely bright lights stream out into the defeated night. The driver turns to me with a grin and points to a figure appearing in the doorway, now as wide as all the world, who waves the simulacrum of a hand in a benevolent gesture to the new recruit. Welcome aboard.

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