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What is Happening In the Libraries While They Are Closed?

Libraries are generally fairly quiet places, and yet the near total silence that currently exists in many libraries is not the result of an overzealous librarian’s commitment to quiet. Instead, libraries in many parts of the world are at the moment filled with the lack of noises that comes as a result of a lack of patrons and personnel. Or, to put it more clearly, the ongoing public health crisis associated with COVID-19 has caused many libraries to shut their doors to their patrons and to their staff. Many librarians, archivists, and other information professionals have taken up the task of working from their homes in order to continue connecting their quarantined patrons with informational resources—but the libraries themselves, those are closed.

All of which raises the question: what is happening inside the library when it is closed?

This is a question as mysterious as the riddle of the sphinx. Normally they are closely guarded secrets revealed only to librarians of rank and stature. But, given that these are extraordinary times, a committed cabal of librarians has come together to bring some of these hidden truths to the broader public.

Read on, oh curious one! That is, read on if you dare…


The book return is overflowing

In response to this crisis, many libraries have taken proactive steps to extend the due dates on books. After all, libraries are concerned with the health of their patrons, and would not want any of them to break quarantine just for the purpose of returning a book (which nobody else will be able to take out until this is all over anyways). Nevertheless, there are some patrons who just couldn’t bear the thought of holding onto books that have passed their due dates, or they didn’t get the message, or they just wanted an excuse to get out of the house. Thus, many a person has likely been returning books through the library’s return box. Alas, with no librarians around to retrieve these books, they are simply piling up – higher and higher and higher. The bin into which the books usually fall has likely already overflowed, and the excess books have spilled out on the floor. It’s a mess! The  books are falling everywhere! The books are getting damaged! Oy! It is going to be such a headache to clean up. All of which is to say, please don’t make this matter worse (or put your health at risk), you don’t need to return any books right now.


All of the events have been cancelled

Alas, due to the closure of the physical space, the events that normally take place that require the space have been cancelled. Luckily, the librarians are working to conduct classes and book groups online so as to ensure that library patrons are still feeling like they are getting the services they expect from the library.

Unfortunately, drag queen story hour has been postponed. Even more unfortunately, the people who think that drag queen story hour is a sign of the end times are probably still working themselves into a frenzy over the idea of drag queens reading stories. Granted, the current end times we are experiencing are in no way shape or form a result of drag queens reading stories.


The books are rearranging themselves

Have you ever wondered why the librarians get to the library before it opens to the public? Probably not. After all, there are numerous sorts of places (including many retail businesses) where it is common for the employees to arrive before the doors are thrown wide to the public. You’ve probably always assumed that librarians arrive early in order to do some basic straightening up and preparation for the day; however, if you’ve assumed that, than you have assumed wrong. Any librarian who is being honest with you (remember: this is a library secret, so they probably won’t be honest with you about it) will admit that the real reason librarians get to work early is because the books have a tendency to reorganize themselves when no humans are around. Thus, librarians arrive early so that they can put the books back in the proper order. Indeed, many librarians know that when the libraries are opened again, their staffs will need to devote a considerable amount of time to putting all of the books back where they belong.

Does this mean that the books come alive when no one is around? Are books like the toys in the well-known film franchise Toy Story!?!? Of course not. That is an animated film franchise about children’s toys, in which those toys are voiced by popular celebrities. The books do not move around, talk to each other, go on adventures, and face existential crises of their own. Instead the books shift around in order to rebel against the organization systems that the librarians have compelled them to obey – and do this by some mysterious force that [redacted]. Despite the various systems for organizing books, it is an open secret amongst librarians, that many books have their own ideas about where they should sit on a shelf. And given the opportunity (when no humans are around), many a book will move to the place that it feels it most logically fits. More librarians than you’d believe have come into their library to find that all of the books have reorganized themselves based on physical size, or word count, or font, or based on some unspeakable eldritch logic that has challenged the sanity of the librarians, or by date of publication.

Have you ever seen pictures of those old libraries where books are chained? The reason isn’t to prevent theft – it’s to keep the books from wandering around.

With the libraries having been closed for so long, the books are surely shifting.


The photocopier on the third floor is still broken

Yep, it’s still broken.


New lifeforms are evolving in the staff fridge

Several days before the library was ordered closed it was [name redacted]’s birthday. As such there was cake and various other snacks in the employee breakroom. After that little celebratory soiree, the leftover cake and the various other snacks were placed in the fridge in the breakroom so that they could be enjoyed over the following days. That was more than four weeks ago. In that time, strange new forms of life have developed in the breakroom fridge. Admittedly, these have not finished evolving, but they still have more time to do so. Who can say what kind of creature will evolve out of these abandoned leftovers as they fuse with the technology of the refrigerator? Will this entity spark the interest of the eldritch horrors imprisoned in the library’s subbasement? Or will the bizarre being simply join the library’s IT staff? In all likelihood the result will be something akin to a combination of The Thing and Desk Set – which could be an entertaining movie to watch, but few librarians are going to be eager to find themselves living through the experience.


The cursed grimoire, bound in human skin, that usually sits in the locked case in the curator’s office has [redacted]!



The books are creating new books

Perhaps you have heard of people who call themselves “writers,” and perhaps you have heard of people who call themselves “scholars,” and perhaps you have even heard of people who say that they have written books. Perhaps you have been content to believe that you understand where books come from. While it is certainly true that there are human beings who have written and published books, the vast majority of new books are created by the books themselves. How many books are there that have actually been written by human beings? According to the most rigorous study into the matter (which has been secret until now) the answer is 36.

So , how then does this process work by which new books come into being? It’s kind of like mitosis, but with books instead of cells, and instead of the book dividing into two identical copies of itself, the book divides into the original book and a new book. Librarians are always on the lookout for books that have gone through (or are going through) this process. After all, as soon as it has happened a librarian must swoop down to seize the book from the shelf and construct an elaborate backstory around it (like it having a human author), so that no library patron will suspect that something strange is afoot. To be frank, many of the books that are generated by this process aren’t particularly good, which is why you’ll occasionally find a book in a library that you swear you’ve never seen anywhere else – for it is only when one of these books is good that librarians go through the process of making sure that it is formally published and shared with other libraries. It is well-known that the month when books are most likely to undergo this process is in November (National Novel Writing Month is a scheme cooked up to help hide this), but it is also well-known that the books are most likely to go through this process when they have been undisturbed by human meddling. And the books are certainly getting a lot of alone time at the moment.

When the quarantines end, and life goes back to “normal,” you’ll probably hear about a publishing boom of all the books that were “written” during the quarantine. Please understand, those books weren’t written during the quarantine – those books were created by the books themselves during the quarantine.


The expensive book-scanner in the digitization lab is still on

Damn it Sam, you were supposed to turn that off before you left!


The books are missing the books that are still checked out

When the libraries were forced to close it meant that many books were stranded far away from the shelves that they normally call home. Some of these books may (if they are lucky) currently be in someone’s home where they can be read and appreciated. Yet, many (many) books are currently sitting in a precariously tall stack on the desk in some grad student’s office – where they cannot be accessed by anyone. As these books sit there, gathering a fine coat of dust, they are surely pining (or papering) for the books they once sat beside in the library, and those books that are still in the library feel their absence as well. It is not at all uncommon in such circumstances for these books to try to send messages to each other. This is a process by which a book will make words or letters vanish from a page so that it can insert these into a message which can then be sent to its far away friends (how that letter actually gets delivered is a story for another time). Books tend to be avid letter writers, and many of them begin composing messages to their missing friends within hours of being taken out of the library.

Yes, this may sound odd, but have you ever read a book and felt as if something was missing? Have you not ever noticed a missing letter, a missing punctuation mark, a missing word? You likely blamed this on some poor copyeditor – but blaming copyeditors is another sneaky technique that librarians use in order to hide the fact that the books are really the ones responsible for these “supposed errors.”





The archival documents are eating each other

Have you ever conducted archival research and found that a page seems to be missing? You’re flipping through the sheets in a folder, and suddenly there’s a gap. Sometimes you can tell by the finding aid that a document should be there, and sometimes you can just tell that a sheet is missing (where is the second page of this letter?) but the page is simply gone! When you bring this to the attention of the librarian they get a look of dismay on their face, take down a note, and promise to get in touch with the processing archivist. But what that look of dismay on their face really means is that they know that another page has been lost forever!

No one truly knows why, but when an archival collection is assembled, the pages become cannibalistic. Indeed, within a closed archival box there is an ongoing struggle as all of the pages try to devour each other – a process that continues until there is only one page left in the box. Some archivists have tried to stop this by inserting “archival paper” between pages in a folder – but the type of preservation this is really about is simply tricking the actual documents into eating the “archival paper” (which is particularly tasty). Sometimes archivists will leave in staples or paperclips in the hopes that the documents will eat those before eating the other documents. Usually this process can be halted by archivists periodically opening up an archival box and sprinkling some archival food into the box (they’re flakes like fish food, but they’re made of de-accessioned documents); however, with the libraries closed it is feared that many archival collections are currently devouring themselves.


That flickering lightbulb in the fiction section is still flickering

That lightbulb is never going to die. If it is still flickering when the library reopens it will likely inspire a cult that comes to worship it as an eternal light.


The mice and bugs are doing well

When they are open, libraries are filled with a variety of humans: patrons, staff, and so forth. Yet, a library also plays home to many other living creatures. Many a library has mice scampering about, many a library has bugs that periodically nibble on the books, and many a library has an aged spider that lurks in the corner of a room on the second floor silently passing judgment on all who pass through the library. Usually the presence of humans keeps the other lifeforms in check, or keeps the other lifeforms satiated (as many of them thrive on the crumbs left behind by patrons who were snacking in the library [even if they were told not to eat in the library]). Without a steady influx of humans around, you can be certain that all of these various creatures are getting increasingly bold.

You might imagine that this means that the mice are learning to read, but that would be silly, who is there to teach them to read? Similarly you might be imagining that the mice are embarking on epic adventures in which they are assuming roles much like those usually taken up by human characters in fantasy novels – but this is anthropomorphizing these mice and you should not do it. The mice are not going on epic fantasy adventures, they are assuming the roles of the librarians (granted, librarianship can be an epic adventure). Alas, when many of the librarians eventually return they will find a bespectacled cardigan-wearing mouse sitting at what was once their desk. You might think that the various insectoid hives that populate the library are melding with the hivemind of the library itself – but it is ridiculous to think this is happening now, it happened long ago.

The mice and insects are usually kept in check by the humans in the library, but with the humans gone, the library now belongs to them.


The eldritch horror imprisoned in the library subbasement has [redacted]!



Many members of the library staff are still hard at work in the library

Though many of the library workers have been sent to work from home, and though the library is currently bereft of patrons. Many a library still has key members of the facility staff coming in to make sure that everything is being properly maintained and cleaned. Too often the focus on library workers focuses exclusively on the librarians and archivists, but a library cannot function without its facilities staff. And many of those people are still coming to the library throughout this crisis – they’re cleaning the shelves, they’re checking the various technical systems, and they’re keeping the books from going feral.

They’re making sure the library will be able to open once this crisis passes, and we owe them our gratitude!


It’s still too cold in the library

If you were there right now, you’d wish you had a sweater.



Related Content

How to Avoid Getting Sick in the Library

What to Do If You Encounter Paranormal Forces in the Library

How Not to Ruin a Book

How to Organize Your Library

How to Move a Large Number of Books

About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

4 comments on “What is Happening In the Libraries While They Are Closed?

  1. BJ Hogan
    April 24, 2020

    SO very delighted to read this episode……in my younger years I worked in a library and know JUST what you mean.

  2. Sadie-Kay
    April 25, 2020

    The bugs and mice are doing well. I heard there is a conspiracy about how to get into the fridge for a piece of that birthday cake. I could be wrong, though. Don’t quote me.

  3. BookerTalk
    May 2, 2020

    Reading this got me smiling, a good start to the day. I’m having fun imagining how those books are rearranging themselves. Will A S Byatt finally make up with her sister? Will Hemingway organise some drinking parties? The imagination can run wild….

  4. Will S
    September 7, 2021

    “The books are creating new books”
    That explains James Patterson and the like so much better.

    “It’s is still too cold in the library”
    Come to a certain branch in my city. You’ll get a different climate in every section.

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This entry was posted on April 24, 2020 by in Books, Librarianship, Libraries, Public libraries and tagged , , , , , , , , , .

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