Libraries. Havens of peace and solitude? Islands of serenity in a raging sea of chaos? Like hell they are. Your average library is nothing less than a seething cauldron of violence. A fiery maelstrom of wanton, malignant scum death. A blistering sandwich of pointy, green bastard, filth bucket, picture frame chicken tractor. Oh god, yes. You see, books are vicious swine, as anyone who's ever been roughed up by an early twentieth century socialist satire will tell you.
Don't you be fooled by their apparently peaceful exterior. Walk into your local library and the chances are you won't be set upon by gangs of loutish biographies, or threatened by expensive photographic collections. But that's only because Librarians are trained professionals, who know how to keep dangerous books on a tight leash, and can act quickly and decisively to quell the initial stirrings of literary insurrection. But it wasn't always this way.
Libraries were first invented in the Middle Ages, by a French bloke. The biggest problem these new institutions faced was obtaining their stock of books. Sadly, it wasn't just a case of trolling down to the local WH Smith to pick up the latest Jackie Collins or Ye Olde Wilbur Smith. Oh no, that would be way too easy. Remember, this is the year 1400 and something, and most branches of WH Smiths were closed down for the weekend due to a touch of the Black Death. So, libraries needing to fill their shelves were - to use the vernacular - shafted. The only volumes to be had were wild books, which inhabited the forests and lowlands of Europe, Asia and Northern Africa. Herds of nimble, fast-moving novels; vast, lumbering reference books; wily and agile business directory moles. As most people at the time were illiterate, these books had no natural predators, and so they thrived. It was just a matter of catching them.
'Just' - that's a laugh! It sounds easier than it was, but then you're sitting at home, munching biscuits and sipping coffee, entirely oblivious to the kind of terror that the written word can unleash. Ask yourself, could you round up a vicious, snarling pack of chemistry textbooks? Reckon you could arrest the headlong charge of a road atlas, or bring down a thesaurus? They say that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but anyone who's ever stood in the path of a stampeding herd of illustrated encyclopaedias knows that 12 volumes can be deadly.
So, you've got a problem. It's the fifteenth century, you've just built yourself a brand spanking new library, you open on Monday and your shelves are empty. What you gonna do? 'Cos let's face it, once the punters have read the notice board and recorded their posteriors for posterity on ye olde photocopier, there's going to be bog all for them to do. You need books, and so you turn to the only people who've got the chutzpah to round them up for you - Librarians.
The people of Libraria, high up in the snowy wastes of North Eastern Asia, were a hardy race of individuals, who had been hunting books for over one and a half thousand years, and whose skill in the tracking and trapping of all forms of literary material was legendary. Once a great nation stretching across much of the continent, by the fifteenth century, due to a number of border disputes, Libraria measured an area only six feet by four. Its entire population, some two hundred thousand strong, lived in a tower over five miles high, teetering on the edge of a cliff. Such difficult living conditions had made them a harsh, sturdy and rather irritable people. This pent up rage was channelled into the hunting of books, which frequently swept down the steppes and collided with the tower - threatening, quite literally, to topple their entire civilisation. It was also channelled into making fine mustards, but it's the book thing that we're interested in.
By the middle of the century, severe overcrowding, difficulties of supply and problems with the plumbing prompted many Librarians to leave their tower in search of work. Europe's sudden and irrational craze for public libraries was fortuitous, and many Librarians found themselves employed to round up wild books. Their natural ability to track down the correct volume in seconds, and their almost supernatural skill of moving without making so much as a murmur of noise, meant that they were devastatingly effective. In fact they were so successful that they almost completely eliminated wild books from continental Europe. Today, only a few species of Dictionary still live on the island of Malta, and a small number of poetry anthologies can be found in Gibraltar - although the population has been in decline since the monkeys started wiping their arses on them.
This great purge of books - which came to be known as The Great Book Purge - was not without its casualties. Many Librarians lost their lives after being trampled to death by recipe books, or fictionalised by trashy horror novels. A well known bedtime story, which Librarians still tell their children today, tells of a man called Silas Fugue who was trapped inside the flyleaf of a book of humorous golfing anecdotes. He managed to survive for forty days, so the tale goes, by eating a bookmark.
Nevertheless, the work went on, and soon every major town and city had its library. And the Librarians? Well, since they weren't needed anymore, they were driven out of Europe with long sticks. Eventually they found refuge in a place called 'Tunisia', which is now present-day Finland.
The new Libraries, however were an instant hit, quickly superseding fornication as the number one family leisure activity. People flocked to them like flies round a dead dog, thrilled to be able to see the books up-close in accurately recreated versions of their natural habitats. They could watch them, pet them, feed them - some of the more learned individuals might even read them. It was all very lovely and nice, and no one was getting hurt or killed or anything. Not at first, anyway. Then accidents started to happen. People got bitten. Some were quite badly mauled. Some contracted rabies and had to be put down. Large manuals started climbing up onto bookshelves, and then falling on small children. Works of speculative new science and philosophical essays frequently ran riot in the aisles, frightening old women and challenging their long-held, established worldviews. The library staff, untrained and unfamiliar with the new books, had no idea how to control the situation.
But it was outside the sturdy walls of the library that the real mayhem broke loose. The public were encouraged to take the books home with them, where they used them to stand pots on, wedge doors open and bang nails in. These were still essentially wild books, and they didn't take too kindly to this sort of treatment. Unsurprisingly, they became aggressive and unruly. Many were turned loose and wreaked havoc across Europe. In Milan, a flock of small pamphlets terrorised the city. Perched high up on public buildings, they swooped down en masse to terrify the frightened populace as they went about their business. Paris was besieged by children's fairy stories for three consecutive days. And terrible rumours abounded of a colony of hardback fables, breeding in the sewers beneath Rome. As if all this wasn't disruptive enough, these books were all overdue and the fines that were accruing threatened to cripple the economy.
And all this time, sitting in the blistering snows of Tunisia, the exiled Librarians were waiting for the call. They had warned against the dangers of allowing the public unrestricted access to raw books. They knew the dangers that language could pose; knew what damage could be inflicted by a verb to the throat, or an adjective round the back of the head. Sure enough, when things started to turn nasty they found their services were once more in demand. A plea was issued by the Pope, urging the Librarians to help round up the rampant publications, and take charge of the libraries. However, a papal decree was not enough for the Librarians, who realised that they were in an extremely strong bargaining position. A pile of cash, unlimited parking privileges and free biscuits finally swung it, and to this day each and every Librarian the world over is entitled to his or her own bodyweight in custard creams every year.
With all the books rounded up and safely back on their proper shelves, the Librarians set in place new systems that would ensure such a catastrophe could never happen again. A system of classification was devised - the Dewy Decimal system - which categorised books according to the possible risks they posed to the public. People were allowed to keep the books for limited periods only, and were educated in their proper use and handling. Some of the bigger reference books were considered much too dangerous, and to this day it is forbidden to remove them from the secure environs of the library. Some of the really violent books were removed to special security libraries like the Laurentian Library in Florence, where they are kept chained down to protect visitors.
Thus the modern system of library etiquette was laid down, a system that has survived to this day, through wars, plagues and biscuit shortages. Because of these measures, and the diligence of Librarians, library deaths account for a statistically insignificant 0.3 per cent of the annual land-based mortality figures.
Modern day Librarians are the direct descendants of those original custodians of knowledge, and can trace back their ancestry right back to the tower in Libraria. Some could even tell you which floor. And therein lies a curious thing, since although libraries and Librarians have been with us so long, we still know very little about these curious people. We are all familiar with libraries from our childhood. We are comfortable trawling up and down the shelves, perusing the volumes on offer, since we know that no harm can come to us with the ever-watchful eye of the librarian upon us. In our rebellious teens we may have even experimented with taking out books and not returning them, and although we know that we will be caught in the end we are not too concerned. Such crimes are usually paid for with a token fine, and hardly ever result in dismemberment and death. The Librarian then is an austere but benevolent figure who we are happy to take for granted. Maybe we shouldn't.
The more you delve into the curious culture of the Librarians, the more questions you find unanswered. They have, since first emerging from Libraria, kept themselves apart from other peoples, rarely intermarrying and frequently eschewing any sort of social contact with 'outsiders'. Whether this is a deliberate effort to keep their race pure, or purely an unfortunate consequence of their notoriously poor social skills, is unclear. The net result of this isolation is that whilst they are well versed in the culture and people of the rest of the world, we know very little about them. But then, they've got all the books. This, inevitably, makes many people uncomfortable, and no doubt accounts for the many persistent myths and legends that have sprung up around Librarians over the years.
Who are these strange people and where do they come from? What secrets do they protect?
Are they like us? What are their plans?
One thing is certain, many more things go on in your average library than we are allowed to know. Just you think about it. Libraries are huge places. Many of them are old, sprawling buildings, honeycombed with dark passages, hidden rooms, vast cellars, and secret chambers, most of which are out of bounds to the general public. So what goes on in those hidden places? What unspeakable rituals might be taking place beyond the 'No Admittance' and 'Staff Only' signs? Buggery. Or at least, that's what Professor Jim Spool-Poltergeist thinks. But if we can momentarily turn aside from the rather unreasonable views of Professor Jim Spool-Poltergeist, we might consider several slightly more rational theories.
In 1977 Dan Probe published the book "I Was A Teenage Librarian" in which he detailed the extraordinary goings on in his local library. Probe (a pseudonym to protect his identity) managed to infiltrate the Librarians' inner circle, passing himself off as one of their own kind by dressing appallingly and knowing a lot of stuff about books. The book was a blistering expose of Librarians, a startling description of a powerful group at the heart of society, with the power to topple governments and divert the cause of history. In fact, it was so controversial that Probe withdrew the book before it hit the shelves, apparently after receiving threats that he would be seriously killed if he allowed its publication. Nevertheless, the following year saw the release of a film based on the book. "Whoops! I was a Teenage Librarian" was distributed by Rank and starred Robin Asquith as Dan Probe, with a supporting cast including Beryl Reid, Liz Fraser and Bill Maynard. It was, admittedly, a greatly toned-down treatment of the subject matter, concentrating less on the extraordinary revelations behind the scenes at a small, provincial public library, and more on Probe's attempts to seduce a string of attractive young women. With hilarious consequences.
Probe disappeared in 1985 in a canoe, in Canada, in mysterious circumstances. Since his death, a fragment of his original manuscript has been discovered. It describes how, after working at the library for two months, Probe was finally allowed into what was called 'The Storeroom' - a locked room on the second floor. He was accompanied at all times by the Senior Librarian, but nevertheless managed to recognise one or two curiosities amongst the crates and tarpaulin-draped bundles: the ark of the covenant, a stuffed yeti and a strange device which was labelled 'matter converter from Roswell saucer'. These were all being presided over by a gentleman sitting in the corner, who introduced himself as Lord Lucan before excusing himself - explaining that he had to go and meet Anastasia who would probably be found in the basement, feeding the Loch Ness Monster.
A tall story, according to Probe's critics who have labelled his work 'bollocks'. However, throughout history rumours have persisted that the Librarians are guarding a secret. Writers, both ancient and modern, have repeatedly implied that this secret is nothing less than The Word of God. What, precisely, is meant by 'The Word of God' has been open to many different interpretations. Suggestions have included 'Jehovah', 'Jesus', 'Love' and 'Wheelbarrow'. Another school of thought believes that it is the word uttered by God upon creating the Earth - the main contenders being 'Shazzam!', 'Voila!', 'Wicked!' and 'Cop that!'.
Another intriguing idea is that The Word of God is actually the appointment book of Jesus Himself. After all, the Messiah was a busy man, what with sermons here, miracles there and everybody wanting resurrecting all the time. He would have needed to keep an up-to-date diary to avoid double-bookings - although appearing in two places at the same time may not have been much of a problem for him.
This theory makes sense when you realise that Librarians, as a people, have been around since well before Christ's time. The first recorded reference to them was by Homer, in the 8th century BC. He describes them as a nomadic people, who followed the book herds across the cold, empty plains of North East Asia, occasionally straying into Scandinavia to buy soft furnishings. Homer remarks that they subsisted almost entirely on books, being ingenious enough to utilise the whole carcass for their needs. Not only did they eat the meat, but they could also use the pages to make clothes, and the spines and parts of the cover to provide shelter. Homer also writes of one Librarian, called Mr Sandhurst, who was employed by the Egyptian royal household to look after the Pharaoh's flock of biographies. On one occasion he impressed the court by fashioning a canoe entirely from prefaces.
So, who better to be entrusted with the Messiah's diary?
Whatever their secret, they are indeed a mysterious people. No trace of Libraria remains today, and there is much debate over its possible location. The Tower of Libraria is rightly considered one of the most daring examples of human architecture, but despite countless theories, speculation and a number of well-publicised expeditions, it has never been found. Recent satellite pictures have revealed a shit-load of rubble near the Black Sea, but to date this find has not been thoroughly evaluated. If the Librarians' past is sketchy, their future is equally uncertain. The popularity of libraries has declined sharply in these last few years, and many are now facing closure. One reason is a greater reliance on the Internet, which has proven to be a more convenient and comprehensive source of reference material.
But perhaps we should have reason to be cautious. There is a danger in allowing documents to be piped directly to our homes. Remember, although many modern texts are apparently domesticated, a wild heart still beats within them. Perhaps we still need the skill of the Librarian to master these beasts? After all, if it weren't for the protective barrier of the screen, this very page you are reading now would leap straight out of your monitor and bite your knees.
See the monks in their natural habitat
Quality Beards for the modern gent
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05 December 2013: Dusting Behind the Large Hadron Collider
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