Nature Future Conditional

The story behind the story: The librarian

In this week’s Futures, Robert Dawson returns with a slightly nostalgic feeling in The librarian. Robert has appeared in Futures twice before, once lamenting the rise of Pop-ups and once experiencing Sparrowfall. Here, he reveals the inspiration behind his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing The librarian

When I was a student, in those lost days between the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Internet, if you wanted to find me the library was one of the first places to look. Most likely you’d find me in the math and physics stacks, but the whole library was a wonderful playground of the mind. Over the course of a week I’d spend many hours there.

Today, the Internet has vastly increased not only the amount of material available, but the ease of finding it — especially for anybody lucky enough to be searching from a university, or any other site that subscribes to paywalled journals electronically. The time that I would once have spent going between the card catalogue and the stacks, or between the printed Math Reviews and the bound volumes of journals, is now spent at my desk: and the range of journals that I can access from the small teaching-oriented university where I work rivals (it seems to me) what I had access to as a graduate student at Cambridge.

As a result of this, fewer books are being bought. Subscriptions to physical magazines have plummeted (though we still subscribe to Nature) and back issues are often stored off campus, available in a day or so if anybody really needs them. Stack space is slowly being diverted to other purposes.  In many ways, the feel and the smell of books and journals is leaving our lives; this change is likely to continue for some time. Downtown and in the shopping malls, many bookstores have closed.  In homes around the world, the shelves where the family encyclopedia used to stand are empty, the books’ place taken by Google and the Internet. And this makes me sad, though I know that sorrow to be illogical. There are scenarios, I suppose, where a supervirus or EMP weapon could wipe out the Internet and leave us with nothing; but my feelings are based on nostalgia, not (I hope) on any real risk to the enormous virtual library that we all share today.

And yet nostalgia is a real and a powerful emotion. And so I wrote this story of a library closing down; and, in it, I gave a tip of the hat to Ray Bradbury, of all science-fiction writers perhaps the one who evoked nostalgia and simpler days most powerfully.


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