Library Apocalypse!

Calm down, friends—it’s not the end of libraries! BONES & ALL author Camille DeAngelis wrote the following piece about the future of libraries after being inspired by a photo essay of the abandoned Mark Twain branch of the Detroit Public Library:

“Lack of blood spatter notwithstanding, the Mark Twain branch of the Detroit Public Library looks like a set out of The Walking Dead.”

Not so long ago a link went bouncing around my little corner of the Twitterverse, a Flickr set of an abandoned library in Detroit. A photographer named Brandon P. Davis had let himself into the building to document the state of the place—closed in 1996 for renovations, for which the funding obviously never materialized—and now my bookish internet friends were retweeting the link with words like “heartbreaking” and “upsetting.”

I grew up in an affluent community ten minutes down the highway from Camden, New Jersey—a city that, like Detroit, many people seem to regard as a lost cause in every sense of the phrase. In the summer of 2010 Camden came horrifyingly close to shutting its three city library branches, until the county system agreed to take over. Library administrators understand far better than legislators do that a community, any community, needs a library more than it does a police force. Do away with the former, and you ensure that the latter will always have entirely too much work to do.

So heartbreaking is, indeed, the most appropriate choice of adjectives. Years’ worth of water damage has left the old cathedral ceilings of the Detroit library gaping in despair, dropping shower after shower of plaster chips on the books scattered across the floor. The pointed archways above the half-furled blueprints and overturned tables evoke a sort of defunct sacredness, as if this place were a temple dedicated to gods no one believes in anymore. Lack of blood spatter notwithstanding, the Mark Twain branch of the Detroit Public Library looks like a set out of The Walking Dead.

I clicked through Brandon Davis’s photoset and wondered: will anyone use the public library once the apocalypse hits? Or will the libraries of the 20th century be every bit as forlorn and forgotten as the Mark Twain branch? Whether popular end-of-the-world scenarios center around zombies or “ordinary” pandemics, nuclear war or a domino effect of natural catastrophes, the collapse of Western civilization always seems to transpire in a matter of hours. On the other hand, Davis’s photographs seem to imply that an apocalypse happens by imperceptible degrees.

Social justice activists tell us we are civilized only to the extent to which we answer the needs of our most vulnerable citizens. Walk into any public library and the three segments of the population you’ll invariably find are children, the elderly, and those on unemployment or disability. The closure of a library, then, is an incontrovertible sign that our civilization is not quite as civilized as it used to be. A character in one of my novels quips, “Rome didn’t fall in a day, you know,” but in real life there’s not much to laugh about. How else are those living in poverty supposed to apply for jobs? In what safer place can underprivileged children exercise their curiosity and imagine themselves into a brighter future? The library is a refuge from inclement weather, from bullies at school and at home, from boredom and indifference most of all. Libraries ought to be open 24-7, and when the apocalypse hits perhaps they will be.

Andrew Carnegie, titan of the steel industry and builder of more than 2,500 American libraries, started his working life as a bobbin boy in a cotton mill, and it was his experience that the “bootstrap” route to success requires the intellectual resources only a library can provide. As a boy he made use of an informal lending library in Pittsburgh, and those happy memories fueled his philanthropy. “There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library,” Carnegie wrote, “this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.” Someone for whom a Cup o’ Soup constitutes a square meal cannot countenance a $25 ticket to the Museum of Fine Arts, but go to your local library and you’ll see at least one patron who might very well be toting his life in a folding cart. The place belongs as much to him as it does to you.

Ellen Klages’s short story “In the House of the Seven Librarians” is set in a defunct Carnegie library. Men in suits have decided that the venerable old building—with its reading-room fireplace, card catalog and mimeograph machine, among other quaint appointments—should close in favor of an edifice for the modern age. The librarians lock themselves in and sleep in the stacks, going about their jobs as if they still had patrons. This isn’t the apocalypse, but to these old-fashioned guardians of the books it might as well be.

Truth be told, for every person on Twitter who lamented the derelict state of the Mark Twain branch, someone else asserted that he’d happily pass the night there. Several months after I first viewed the abandoned library photos, I dreamed that I was curled up in my REI sleeping bag on the floor of the reference section paging through Cookery & Pastry by Susanna MacIver, who taught “home ec” in old-town Edinburgh long before the phrase was coined. Other people had arranged themselves similarly in adjacent aisles, and there was a strangely festive air in the room, a Blitz-like we’re-in-this-together sort of mood, even though we all knew there was an emergency going on outside and that life would never be the same again after tonight. But I didn’t mind that the world might be ending, because I was surrounded by more good books than I could ever hope to read in my lifetime—however long or short it might turn out to be.

It’s in the library that, book by serendipitous book, we determine the shape of that lifespan. With its troves of mysteries, DIY and travel guides, the library serves as a gateway to adventure, a point China Mieville makes with his stack-scaling librarians—the “bookaneers”—in Un Lun Dun. His heroine climbs the shelves in a quiet corner of her school library, crossing into a parallel universe, and you certainly don’t have to be living inside a fantasy novel to have that experience. The library offers a breadcrumb trail leading you to all the things you need to know to become the person you’re meant to be.

The apocalypse, of course, will revise the contours of that future—yours, mine, and ours—and should we find ourselves in the thick of an unpleasant real-life adventure, we’ll need the library more than ever. Maybe there won’t be any Youtube how-to videos because there won’t be any more Internet. Maybe we’ll be able to power our Kindles with solar energy, but we’ll need the nameplates, the paper cuts, the marginalia in a dead person’s hand to prove to ourselves that we’re still here, still human, still eating green things we’ve dug up out of the earth. The success of our new-world gardens might very well depend on the 635 section; and again, as before, the libraries will serve as our best evidence that the world isn’t better off without us in it.

The Mark Twain branch was demolished soon after Brandon Davis’s visit in 2011, and it is, of course, only one of the most recent of a long line of vanished libraries. Likely no one who worked or studied at Pergamum, Rhodes, or Alexandria ever imagined a future in which their halls of learning were reduced to stone layouts in the dusty strata. But I prefer to look at it this way: philosophers make way for archaeologists, and the discovery continues. We can gather what we know of those lost civilizations and extrapolate that at the end of the world—or the beginning of a new one—there will always be something waiting for us, even among the ruins.

Camille DeAngelis, January 2015

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