For most of the year the hours of midnight to six in the morning meant darkness and silence in the library. While some might maintain that a library should always be silent, those spending time in one know this is not the case. Chairs scrape on the floors, feet pad softly down the aisles, book covers slide against each other with a whisper of buckram on buckram. Occasionally something is dropped, a muffled conversation is held in a corner, the click of keys sounds from a carrel. Then, at midnight, the people are gone, the lights are off, and only the hum of exit signs is heard by the books and computers and carts and shelves and desks and boxes. Until finals.
Twice a year, for two weeks, the library never closes. The sounds continue through the night and sometimes there is crying and sometimes the laughter of the exhausted and sometimes there are sleeping bags rustling under desks and less-hushed-than-usual conversations. The books grow restless, moved from their shelves, opened, closed, opened again, left out, put back in places they have never been before.
Sociology texts share the news from their students, works of literature tell stories to the bound biology periodicals, huge broadsheet collections from decades past drop in on their descendants to catch up. When all is said and done and the tests are over and the papers are finished and the students are gone the library closes. The librarians come to tidy and inspect, returning each item to its home or taking it for a visit to mending. New items are brought to the shelves, replacing the old, updating, bringing new life. Books are donated or bought, then catalogued and given a home. Such a busy time. Of course, sometimes mistakes are made.
It was summer when she arrived in the library. Mid-June and not too hot out, though the library was cool inside. A handful of summer term students were inhabiting the carrels on the third floor where she was taken by a pair of hands and a book cart and given a home on the fourth shelf up on the end of the fifth bookcase from the staircase with the orange walls. The hands picked her up and made a space on the shelf, three away from the bookend. It was a good space, high up enough to be seen but not so high as to be hard to reach. No pinching from the bookend, no press against the metal end of the shelf. Very nice indeed.
The books around her made themselves comfortable in their slightly shifted positions, inspecting her from cover to cover.
"Used," the one to her right said. She knew immediately that her neighbor was her sibling. A clone. A twin. A triplet! The one to her left was the same. The books pressed together. One more, so four all told. The other three settled on the shelf, spreading their disinterest to the rest. "Definitely used."
"Aren't you used?" she asked them. Her cover was a little worn, of course. But the librarians had given her a brand new sleeve to keep it protected. Her pages had been wrinkled in places, but she could feel the creases in the corners of her siblings too.
"We were used here," they told her.
The one to her right was almost new. Its cover was brighter, its pages clean of fingerprints or writing. Her youngest sibling, then.
"Some of us have barely been used at all yet," it said. Some of the other books on the shelf shushed it but it ignored them. "We didn't really need another copy."
She tried to slink to the back of the shelf, hiding between her siblings, out of sight, but they wouldn't let her move.
"We can always use another copy," another sibling chided, off by one to her left. "We are read every year by the same class."
"If they were going to bring us another, it should have been another new one," the youngest sibling said. "Used books are replaced. Once you're written in, it's only a matter of time. Pencil is one thing, but pen? Pen is impossible. And so much of it too."
The rest of the books murmured amongst themselves in agreement. So much pen. So many notes. An elderly volume on the shelf above tried to comfort her, pointing out that someone had loved her very much, to write all of those words in her pages. Her third sibling, the eldest of the other three and shelved to her left, pressed its cover to hers, comforting in its experience. Still, when the lights went out and the library was silent, she asked the Catalog.
The Catalog knew all the books and all the periodicals and even all the members of the Archive. The Catalog knew when everything came and went. The Catalog could help her. She was sure of it.
Late in the night, with her siblings and shelfmates closed and dreaming their words around her, she carefully looked to the Catalog. She had never had a Catalog before. Meeting it, being interviewed and introduced, she had wondered at how it could possibly know so much.
"Catalog?" she whispered across the shelves and into the floor and over to the desk where one of the Catalog's faces lived.
"Yes?" came the Catalog's response as it located and identified her. "Ah yes. You were shelved today. Good."
She felt the Catalog's satisfaction. It made her sit straighter on the shelf, where she was told she should be. Where she was expected.
"Catalog, the other books here, they say I'm used. I won't be able to stay."
"Used books are in the same record as new books," the Catalog noted. "All the same, you and the others, so all in the same place."
"But we're not," she told it. "I have so much written. I didn't know it before but I feel it now. All through my pages. Inside my cover. Under my jacket."
"I see nothing about it," the Catalog insisted. "You are the same. All the same. Four copies, the same, checked in, shelved on the third floor, literature."
"But Catalog, what happens to books when they're written in too much?"
It was several moments before the Catalog responded. She could feel it searching for answers, collecting data before answering.
"Deaccession," it said, and while it was the barest whisper of a response she could feel the books on the shelves between herself and the Catalog's face shift nervously. Even asleep they knew what it meant. Removed, disposed of, discarded.
"Thank you, Catalog," she whispered as she felt it pull away, scanning the other books and humming call numbers to itself.
Early in the morning the lights came on. Then came the custodians, then the librarians, then students. They shuffled through the aisles, removing an item here, shelving an item there. Books sighed or grumbled as they were left at the ends of shelves, prone and stacked atop each other. A few gossipped quietly from carrels where students left them to be used later. In the background the Catalog chattered out its answers to the queries of librarians and students alike.
All around her she could hear her new neighbors rustle to each other, rehashing old arguments and discussing new items brought to the shelves. Around her the other three recited passages and compared opinions from the class they were used for. She had nothing to contribute. No one had read her for a class recently. Her last reader had been so very long ago. She tried to remember her reader. It had been a woman, with gentle hands and grey hair and a pen with smooth liquid ink that had flowed in curling letters. She drew into her pages, seeking the words that had been added by that reader, hoping for something to add to her siblings' conversations.
Somehow she had never really spent much time exploring the writing that her reader had added. It had been so easy to sleep on the shelf in her reader's home, tucked in neatly between other long-silent volumes. Now she went page by page inside her covers, reading her reader.
Hours passed and students and librarians came and went. No one was taking their class in the summer term so no one touched her or her siblings. Their aisle was quiet. The aisle behind them, however, was a little more lively. In between chapters she would pause and listen to the books on the other side of the bookcase. They were being used for a special summer elective course that had not been offered for the past five years. It was all very exciting for the books involved and while a few grumbled at cracked spines that would need repairing, most reveled in their new popularity.
As her siblings discussed their class with two related books on the shelf above she sank back into her pages, growing so immersed that it came as a shock when a large book pushed in from the other side of the bookcase. Anything that might have divided the front and back simply wasn't there, possibly removed recently, or possibly long gone. And so, when that large book was pushed in by a shelver, in a hurry and not looking to see what effect their actions had, she was pushed forward.
Perhaps had the new cover on her jacket not been quite so slick. Perhaps if she had tried harder to hold on. Perhaps if the other book had been just the tiniest bit smaller. Perhaps she would not have tipped off the shelf, falling from her siblings' grasp and landing with a soft thud.
The entire aisle hushed in anticipation, waiting for the shelver to come and return her to her place. But no one came. No steps rounded the end of the aisle, no hands picked her up, no one was there. The sound of the shelver's cart, the one with the loose wheel that was always given to the newest student worker, moved off towards the other end of the floor.
"Someone will come," the bottom shelf books assured her. "Someone always comes. You will return."
She had fallen front cover up. Her shelf was not all that far away. She could feel it there, with her siblings silent in shock. She could feel the empty space where she had been. And with a sudden certainty she knew that it was not where she belonged, despite the Catalog's insistence. She could not possibly belong there, discussing the same classes over and over. Her reader's words were about so much more than that one class. They wove throughout her lines, carrying thoughts from dozens of topics into what were blank spaces in her siblings. There was ink in her spine. She could feel it now.
When the day ended and most people had left, a single student worker remained on the floor, picking up stray books and placing them on a cart to be returned in the morning. This cart was one of the good ones. It was old and wooden and its wheels were silent on the linoleum floor of the library. She almost didn't realize it was even there until careful hands picked her up and inspected her, then put her on the middle shelf of the cart.
The lights went out and she was still on the cart along with several others, an assortment of books from all over the floor. They sighed but settled in for the night, introducing themselves and sharing news. They had been organized somewhat, but the cart was so small that they could chat just as easily as they would have with their usual shelfmates and those on the shelves nearby.
"Hello!" said a voice from her side. It echoed a little as several other voices sounded. "This is very exciting, isn't it? It's the first time we've been taken off the shelf. Well, since we were bound. We used to get read all the time, back when we were separate. But it's our first time being read together."
The book to her side felt different than the ones she had known. It was several books at once, little skinny books pressed together into one cover with heavy paper separating them within.
"We're journals," the book said in its several voices. "Volume sixty-four, issues one through eight. We'd hoped to all be bound together, but issue six was so large." One voice amongst the several - eight she could now tell - chuckled and pointed out that it was a special issue with three extra papers published inside. "Issues nine through twelve are still on our shelf."
"I'm just a book," she told the volume. "And written in too. I fell off the shelf."
A few of the other books perked up at that, pausing their own conversations to turn their attention to her.
"Oh? Written in?" the journals asked together. "That's a shame. We aren't written in. We do have errata but that was put in by the bindery. They were very good and it's nothing to be ashamed of."
"Written in," a few of the others sighed. She could tell that they too had writing, though not nearly so much as her and not all from the same reader. As they checked on each other one large old book that took up the entire bottom shelf rumbled into the conversation.
"And who wrote in you?" it asked from below. The rest of the books quieted at its voice.
"My reader," she told it. "She wrote so much in my pages. My siblings said I would be gotten rid of soon. They said I should not have been brought to the shelf in the first place because I wasn't new. But she wrote such wonderful things."
"One reader?" the elderly book asked. "Hmm." And then it was quiet again. They all waited for it to say something else but it seemed it had gone back to sleep.
Carefully, she felt down for the book. It was very old, its cover cracked leather and its pages both heavy and glossy and delicate and thin.
"That one belongs to the Archive," one of the other books told her. "A student is using it near my shelf. She brought it to her carrel even though it's not usually allowed. She had special permission. She should have brought it back herself. There'll be trouble."
There was so much yet to know about library life. She sighed and rested on the cart, enjoying the company of new books before something occurred to her. Some of the others were still awake and she softly inquired as to some of her old friends. If she had been brought to the library it stood to reason that others from her old home would be there too. She named as many as she could remember, all of those who had been in her bookcase. But somehow none of the books had met any of them. She was alone from her old home, it seemed. The only one left from her reader.
As morning came and the library woke, the books on the cart began to say their farewells. Soon enough their shelver would come and bring them back to their places. The old book on the bottom shelf stayed silent, though the other books assured her it wasn't out of disgust with her but merely age. The older books stayed quiet much of the time, saving their words for their readers.
One by one the other books on the cart were brought back to their places, tucked neatly onto their shelves. Eventually she was the only one left aside from the book on the bottom shelf. She waited, nervous as the cart wheeled past her old aisle and down the outer passage to the elevator. Why the elevator?
"Deaccession," she whispered to herself. The shelver must have seen her writing and known she had to be removed.
From the bottom shelf she heard the old book laugh softly. She pressed herself closed, trying to take up less space on the cart as the shelver maneuvered it onto the elevator. As the elevator dropped down the shelver picked her up again, very carefully opening her and looking at her endpapers. The elevator doors opened and soon they were leaving it behind, moving towards a metal mesh gate. The shelver knocked gently on the frame of the gate and was soon admitted with the cart in tow. Once through the gate she could feel everything around her - books, yes, but also so much more. There were boxes with sheaves of paper that had no covers to bind them. There were albums full of photographs and brittle pieces of newsprint. Somewhere inside she could feel metal and glass lanterns, dried flowers, a box full of small toys, neatly folded fabric, and several carved pieces of wood. Beyond that was more. So much more. And it all spoke together in what should have been impossible to understand but which came together in a single voice: The Archive.
First the old book from the bottom shelf was removed. The shelver left it on a table with a note. Next the cart was parked by the gate and she was picked up and carried past shelves full of things she could never have imagined.
"Hello! Welcome!" they called to her in little peeps from the toys and deep booms from two drums on a shelf and soft chimes from the lanterns. A set of handwritten diaries in a plain box whispered it in an accent she had never heard. From a hatbox on a high shelf she heard a muffled welcome through a paper wrapping.
When she was finally set down a new pair of hands inspected her, opening her cover and noting the writing. Page by page she was looked at and read and notes were taken on fresh new paper off to the side. Her jacket was removed, its slick plastic cover taken off before she was clothed again. The archivist left and a voice echoed softly through the room, insistent, annoyed, then satisfied.
The archivist returned, picking her up and carrying her to a shelf and as she was placed there she felt something familiar, the touch of old friends.
"Welcome," they told her. "We missed you. We thought we had lost you. We thought we were less." All of her friends from the bookcase in her reader's home. Above and below her they sat in state, some in boxes and some not. She pressed her covers to theirs and felt the rest of the Archive through them. Below them, on a bottom shelf, the large old book from the cart was being placed in its own box. She could feel it now, better than before.
"You knew," she whispered down to it as it settled in where it belonged.
"Of course," it told her, and she could hear the rest of the Archive say the same thing with it in all of the voices together, though its voice was loudest.
"How?" she asked. "I was placed on that shelf with my siblings. I met the Catalog."
"The Catalog only knows what it is told," the Archive said together. "The Catalog was not told about your reader, so the Catalog did not know."
"But you did?" she asked the old book.
"She was my reader too, once," the book told her. "When she was young, she studied here. She used me for her writing. She worked in the Archive. She wrote a note in my cover and gave me to the Archive when she left. Her writing fills me, though it is only two lines."
The rest of the Archive's voices quieted a bit at that, then returned.
"Your reader, we all knew her," the Archive said together. "She cared for us. She organized us. She kept us safe and whole."
She felt her shelfmates' satisfaction at that. Their reader had cared for them too, in her home for so many years.
"Our reader is gone now," she told the rest of her new fellows.
The whole of the Archive went silent as each item recalled the reader, an archivist, a caretaker. Their memories filled her from cover to cover and she shared her reader's writing with them all.
"Our reader is gone," she said with her friends from home. "And now we are where she wanted us."