What would you do with a room full of magic?

Trinity College Library, Dublin (photo by Diliff)

47 B.C., North Africa. A young girl wiggled away from the stern grip of her father and sprinted with the untouchable vigor of youth towards the great harbor, to the library by the sea. The night before, during their secret reading lesson, Grandpa had told her all about it — the beautiful gardens in front, the big open rooms with long wooden tables, the endless shelves of scrolls, and all the ancient secrets they held. By now far from her family, she leaned against a wall to catch her breath. Peering through a small crack, she saw rows of date palms lining a long, shallow reflection pool. This was the garden! She turned the corner and rushed through the gates. She raced along the edge of the pool, up the long flight of steps, and into the entrance way. She paused briefly between the cold marble columns, letting the building’s presence wash over her, and then disappeared inside. It wasn’t until the next morning that she reemerged from the library, her eyes wide, wild with wonder, curiosity, and disbelief. She would never see the world in the same way again.

795 A.D., Ireland. The night was steadily marching towards morning. One monk was still awake, refusing to leave the papers scattered across his desk. His inky fingers were raw, his wrist throbbing, and his one candle flickering on its last bit of melted wax. There were just a few more pages to go, and he had to finish. He had to finish tonight. There was no time… The loud men with orange hair and orange cats were slithering up the river in their long, skinny boats. The rider had described in vivid detail the pillaging and burning of the lesser monastery down the river. There were rumors brother Patrick had somehow escaped with Homer’s Margites — it had been their only copy. But he couldn’t worry about that now. There was only one book left that didn’t have a duplicate, and they couldn’t afford any more losses. He had to finish. He had to finish now.

1665 A.D., England. “Oh dear, what did I just do…” he murmured to himself as Henry happily walked away with his precious notes. The papers contained detailed descriptions, clues, and possible new leads on the most remarkable discovery, a wonderful peculiarity on his favorite, warmly colored planet Jupiter. He had discovered a giant red spot, a belly button right in the midst of its strange orange stripes. But rather than waiting to formally publish the work in a book, the society had convinced him to share his notes publicly (with everyone!) in the first installment of their new scientific periodical. It had made sense just a moment ago, but now… what was stopping his nemesis Isaac, the prodigal boy-wonder, from taking his results and claiming credit for them in his next book? Slumping back into his armchair, he nibbled on a crumpet and broodingly sipped his tea. As the hot water filled his belly, he reminded himself that he was a person of principle and passion. He had seized the moment, ventured into the new, the bold, the crazy! It was settled then. Let the world now move at the speed of science. Your move, Sir Isaac. Your move.

1996 A.D., California. “Is daddy going to be ok?” the boy said in a barely audible voice, staring down at his feet. “Of course he is! Look. You see all these doctors running around? We’re all going to make sure you and your dad get to go home together really soon.” She squeezed his shoulders gently. Looking up at her skeptically, with tears running down his cheeks, he asked, “How?” She crouched down so they could talk eye to eye. “Well, you do know that we’re all secretly wizards, right?” His eyes widened. “Really? So, you guys have, like, magic?” She grabbed his hand and led him next door where she plopped him in front of the computer. “We have the best magic. Your dad has a rare — ” the door burst open and one of the doctors rushed in to clarify which labs she wanted them to run, and then rushed back out to the team. Turning back to the computer, she navigated to the new NIH web portal, and started typing. “See, we can type in whatever is going on with your dad and find out exactly how to fix him. Cool, huh?” Unimpressed, he looked back over at her. “But what if you can’t figure out what’s wrong?” Holding his little shoulders in her hands again, she smiled and whispered “I always figure out what’s wrong.” Two books, five reviews, and twenty two research articles later, she had her answer. And, like magic, the very next day daddy finally woke up from being asleep.

1998 A.D., Netherlands. In the corner office on the 40th floor, eight men stood in their pristine suits and crisp hair cuts, looking at the speaker phone at the center of the desk. There was some static, a loud beep, and then “Hey everyone, can you hear me? OK, so good news, the deal just officially went through. We got Cell press.” The room filled with smirks, head nods, and smug pats on the back. “Get to it boys, now’s the fun part.” Chuckling to himself, one of the men reached over and ended the call, and then said bluntly “Now we really have them by the balls.” There was a prolonged silence, as each man in the room contemplated how aggressively they could now push the ransom strategy that had already outperformed all expectations. The demand for these journals was unflappable, as reliable as the sun setting in the west. A short, stalky man elbowed his way to the front of the group holding a stack of folders. “Alright everyone. These are the new targets. Let’s run the numbers again and get the new contracts written up.”

2020 A.D., Chile. “Oh dear, what did I just do…” she murmured to herself as she looked at the screen: Congratulations, your discovery is now live! With a single click, she had just shared (with everyone!) the culmination of three years of intense work, first in the jungle with those sneaky geckos and then in lab recreating their foot pad biomechanics with carbon nanotubes. She had even been invited to publish the work in a high profile journal, but she just couldn’t do it. She didn’t want the fast-track, she wanted the whole community to pick through the findings. She wanted to know if it was real. She closed her laptop and hugged it nervously. All this had made sense just a moment ago, but now… what was stopping her competitor in New York from claiming credit for the discovery in his next publication? Slumping back onto the sofa, she nibbled on a cookie and broodingly sipped her hot cocoa. As the chocolatey goodness filled her belly, she remembered that she was a person of principle and passion. She had seized the moment, ventured into the new, the bold, the crazy! It was settled then. Let science now move at the speed of the world.

47 B.C., North Africa. The merchant’s boat rocked in the harbor as an officer in full Ptolemaic regalia raised his towering frame up onto the bow. Startled, the merchant looked up, then sheepishly averted his gaze to out beyond the docks. There were rows of date palms framing a long, sparkling mirror pond, and an immaculate marble building with tall Greek columns. At the building’s entrance, he could see a small figure step out into the morning sunlight, twirl around, and then stare up into the sky as if expecting something miraculous to happen. Growing impatient, the officer coughed loudly to get the merchant’s attention. “Don’t move. We’re going to search the boat for books. Anything we find will be taken for duplication and returned shortly.” The merchant raised his hand slightly as if to protest, but realized the futility of resisting. The cold stare of the oversized officer made it crystal clear this was not a negotiation — it was an unwavering demand from a passionate society intent on amassing the largest, publicly accessible collection of knowledge in the world.

This is part one of a three part series on libraries, what they mean to me, and my hopes for their future. ( part one | part two | part three )