It had come to the attention of Rufus T. Fairborn, MLS, that a change was about to take place in his library, the Clara B. Witherspoon Memorial Library at Ashleyville College in Ashleyville, Ohio. He was not certain it was a good change and hesitated to tell his staff what was about to happen.
The proposed innovation had originated in the English Department. Rufus T. Fairborn was not surprised. The Department of Mathematics rarely bothered him, but the same could not be said of the Department of History or, especially, the Department of English. Troublemakers, that’s what they were, always ordering books on soon-to-be obsolete literary theories that no one would read and imposing their will on his territory, which is what they were doing right now.
On that fateful afternoon in May, Fairborn had received a phone call from Emmaline Neugathorn, Ph.D., the Chair of the Department of English.
“Rufus, how are you, dear boy?”
“Fine, Emmaline. Yourself?”
“Dandy. Just dandy. Listen, Rufus. Our department had a meeting last week, and we decided that we need to move our reading lab to a new location. Each year we get more and more first-year students who are deficient, so we need more space to accommodate them.”
“And you are calling me to ask for more remedial reading books?”
“Well, not exactly. What we need is more space, as I said. I thought that perhaps the library might be the perfect place for an expanded reading lab.”
“Why not the English Department?”
“We’ve run out of room, due to the expanded Writing Center, our new Faculty Lounge, and the recently renovated editorial office for the Ashleyville Review.”
“Emmaline, the library is filled with books. We have no room for a reading lab.”
“Yes, you do. All you have to do is get rid of some books.”
“Some books? How many?”
“Well, enough to accommodate our new reading lab. We could name it the Rufus T. Fairborn Memorial Reading Lab, if you like.”
“I’m not dead yet!”
Emmaline seemed not to notice Rufus’s affirmation of life. “I’m thinking that we could use the entire second floor for the reading lab. We’ll need tables for tutoring sessions, computers, a coffee shop, lounge chairs, and an office for staff.”
“How about some books? Do you think books might brighten up the atmosphere of a reading lab?”
“Of course, but we won’t need too many books, since so much material is available online.”
Rufus’s mind suddenly recalled four important words in Emmaline’s litany of reading-lab equipment. “The entire second floor?” He was trying not to yell. “The library only has two floors. Ashleyville is not a big college, so it doesn’t have a big library. But what it does have is a very good collection of books plus periodicals that go back to the nineteenth century.”
“And I’ll wager that lots of those books haven’t been looked at for decades. And who wants to read periodicals from the nineteenth century anyway? Well, perhaps some of my stuffy colleagues—the old guys who should have retired already and who are essentially not living in the twenty-first century.”
Rufus thought he was probably one of those old guys, even if he wasn’t part of the esteemed Department of English. Then he suddenly thought of a possible roadblock to Dr. Neugathorn’s bulldozer. “Wait, Emmaline, what gives the English Department the authority to take over a significant part of my library?”
“It’s not your library, Rufus; it’s our library! What gives us the right is the fact that our president has put his stamp of approval on our little project.”
Rufus had never been a great friend of the president, Arnold F. Throgbottom, Ph.D., and had often amused himself with devising nicknames for Arnold: Fogbottom; Troglodytom; and his favorite, Bottombottom. The president had virtually no interest in the library, but he seemed to have great interest in annoying those who served underneath him, which amounted to everyone at the college with the exception of its esteemed provost, Leonora Di Primavera, Ph.D. And perhaps the Board of Trustees, but Rufus wasn’t sure; in fact, he suspected that Bottombottom knew where the bodies were buried, so to speak, and therefore had those people exactly where he wanted them.
“Rufus? Rufus? Are you still there?”
“Yes, Emmaline, I’m still here. I’m thinking. Yes, I’m thinking.”
“It’s May, Rufus, in case you haven’t noticed. The reading lab must be ready by the beginning of the fall semester. You have approximately four months. I suggest you start getting rid of some useless books starting today. Bye now!”
The next day Rufus T. Fairborn, MLS assembled his staff for an important meeting. He felt as though he was about to tell them about the death of a loved one.
He took a red handkerchief from his jacket pocket (he liked using it as a decoration) and mopped his brow. And then he told the assistant director, the reference librarian, and the acquisitions librarian the bad news.
“I have some disturbing news, unfortunately. We’ve been asked to dispose of the books and periodicals on the library’s second floor in order to make way for the new reading lab.”
“What reading lab?” Francine Kenosha, MLS, Assistant Director, wanted to know. “I thought that was in the English Department.”
“Right, but they tell me they need more space, and the president has approved this caper, so we are going to have to get rid of thousands of books and periodicals.”
It was now the turn of Mortimer Flouffe, MLS, Reference Librarian, to complain. “But those periodicals are rare, and many of the books go back many years. And some of those materials are all about Ashleyville and local history. Are you planning to just toss it all?”
Rufus T. Fairborn turned down his mouth. “Unless we can come up with another idea.”
Hildegard Vortemeyer, MLS, Acquisitions Librarian, looked up. “We could become guerrilla librarians!”
Mortimer understood immediately. “As in San Francisco!”
“Tell me more. Why don’t I know about this?” Rufus seemed disappointed in himself.
“You know how computers and online data are taking over. In San Francisco librarians started hiding books to prevent their being thrown out. This was reported in The New Yorker in 1996. I think that’s when the term ‘guerrilla librarians’ first appeared in print. I’m not quite sure how they did it, though I think they stamped the books with incorrect due dates. And they hid books in their lockers. They did what they could to prevent the books and periodicals from being destroyed and lost forever. We could do something similar.” One by one they all nodded, and then they smiled. Being a college librarian was about to become more exciting.
And so it began. Rufus procured a new email address to facilitate his save-the-books project. To protect his anonymity he came up with email@example.com, deriving his name from Laozi, the first known librarian in China, and Alexandria, Egypt, the city that housed the greatest library in the ancient world. Then he set about contacting libraries all over the world to see if they wanted any part of the Ashleyville College Library collection, second floor division. He wasn’t asking for money. Rufus was happy to donate books to those who promised not to discard or destroy them. All he wanted was reimbursement for postage and, he figured, if that wasn’t forthcoming, he wouldn’t worry too much about it.
Francine Kenosha, who lived alone, started taking novels and short-story collections home, a few at a time, so no one would notice. Her basement was spacious and finished and dry, so she started erecting tall bookshelves on each wall to house her new collection. What would happen to these books when she died? That morbid thought crossed her mind, and she brushed it aside. It came back, and she decided to make out a will in the near future. Maybe she would find an understanding bookseller willing to inherit her new collection.
Hildegard Vortemeyer, a widow, decided to specialize in biography. She already had bookshelves in her den and her living room, filled mainly with best sellers that she no longer had an interest in. To make room, she donated her best sellers to the Friends of the Ashleyville Public Library—they had book sales from time to time—and then began to secretly take biographies and autobiographies home in her book bag (an apt name, considering her project). Hildegard knew that when she passed away, her son Victor would conscientiously dispose of her books, especially when she informed him of her guerrilla tactics.
Francine and Hildegard had not discussed their plans for keeping their books alive after they themselves were dead, because the book-saving project was so secret that each was afraid to bring up the subject. Yet each vowed to tell the other at some distant point in time and at a secret location.
Mortimer Flouffe, who had expressed concern for Ashleyville College’s periodical collection, spent time at the computer searching for libraries that lacked certain years of well-known as well as obscure magazines. He was pleased when he discovered that a library in Saskatchewan or Niger or anywhere was missing two or three years of, say, the Dublin Review, and even more pleased if they wanted those gaps filled. And he was most exuberant when a library in a far-off state or country wanted all the volumes of a periodical that had ceased publication over one hundred years ago. It was like placing foundlings in homes that would nurture the babies and keep them safe. Mortimer himself was a proud father of three, and now he considered himself the foster-father of hundreds.
Three weeks went by. Then the president called.
“Rufus? Arnie Throgbottom here. I’m concerned about your progress, or lack of same, re: getting rid of those books on the second floor. The English Department will need to get in there pretty soon. Can’t have a reading lab loaded with old books and magazines.”
Rufus didn’t like the word “magazines” applied to his rare and old periodicals. “We’re working on it. Give us a little time.”
“I checked with the trash collectors and have been informed that no books or magazines have appeared in the library’s dumpsters in the last three weeks. What’s going on?”
Rufus wanted to reach through the phone and hit President Bottombottom with a very large volume of pornography, though the Ashleyville College library didn’t have any of that. Well, a large volume of something. Aristotle, perhaps.
“You’ve been spying on me? You’ve had people looking into the library dumpsters? You’re violating our privacy!”
“Rufus, the library’s dumpsters have nothing to do with your privacy. They are college property, as are those books and magazines.”
“As am I,” Rufus thought to himself. And then he had one of those brilliant moments with which he prided himself. “Not to worry, Arnie, those dumpsters will be filled soon.”
Rufus T. Fairborn sat back in his chair. He now knew how to fill the dumpsters. He and the rest of the staff could go—in disguise, if necessary—to second-hand stores that help the needy. Those places always had books, usually best-sellers that people didn’t want, and lots of paperbacks. Then they could come back and surreptitiously fill the dumpsters with books. Rufus, a bachelor who lived alone, had no dependents, and as the director made more money than the rest of the staff, he could fund these acts of guerrilla librarianship. “I’ll give each staff member $100,” he said out loud. “That should do it.”
And so within the next week more and more books went to the librarians’ homes and to needy libraries around the world. Books from the second-hand store went into the dumpsters, paperbacks on the bottom to fill up space and then important-looking but valueless hardbound books on top, to impress the janitors and the president. In the end no precious books met an untimely death, the reading lab opened, and the librarians learned to access more and more books online. As for Rufus T. Fairborn, he was pleased and considered his bachelor existence to be in some small way like the existence of the Irish monks who saved western civilization all those centuries ago by copying books and preserving them from the onslaught of the barbarians.