In this last week or so of January 2017 there has been much talk of dystopia. Living through these bleak days in the opposite of a world any of us would want to live in. Waking up in a science fiction novel you never thought you’d actually have to live through.
All of which has reminded me of a science fiction story I wrote a few months ago about libraries and their future in a world where we are free to have opinions, travel freely and generally be a planet of cultured and tolerant human beings.
It’s a story that starts and ends in Liverpool, where else? But as of this week it could be pretty much anywhere. Unlike most of my blog posts it contains no new photographs. Being, as it is, a radio broadcast back to those left at home from the not that fictionally distant Planet Zogg, some time in the imaginable future.
“The Libraries of a Different World”
It was like this, we knew things were going to change for us in a big way and a few of us got together to discuss it all before we left. Before we left for the new planet.
You’ve probably heard this basic background a thousand times before, but just in case this story ever gets picked up, say in a library somewhere because, hey, this part of the story is going to be mainly about libraries, here it is. Maybe for someone who’s never heard of Earth, never mind Zogg, here’s the background once again.
Our Planet Earth, the third one out from Sol in the Solar System had become an unwelcoming home for many many thousands of us. The TransLibs, the big global corporations, had taken over everything that mattered to us all. First off they’d bought sport. Started out by taking the minority sports like motor racing and cricket, just for a tryout. These went well in their terms so then they took the big one, football. Made them all about money and asset stripping and returns to their shareholders. Next was entertainment and its first cousin, the media. All bought and parcelled up and telling us only what the TransLibs wanted us to know.
After that and the austerity they made up and the slide to the right they were able to stage manage they bought the governments. And suddenly we were living in a TransLib world. Tills on every hospital ward and supermarkets running the schools. We didn’t like it and we said so, these many thousands of us. Loudly and I still like to think, intelligently, before they blocked us from all the ways we used to have to communicate with everyone in those days. And from even getting into the few libraries still left by then to use the communications in there.
After that we expected the worst. The arrests, the show trials, the banishments and the murders that have always accompanied totalitarianism. And they never came, Or well maybe one of them did? Banishment.
All of us across Earth who didn’t like them were offered free passage by the TransLibs to the several planets in the Universe that science, before that was bought, had identified as capable of supporting human life.
We who are the ‘we’ in this story were offered the Planet Zogg. I’ll tell you more about Zogg when our story gets there, but first let’s talk about the libraries.
The TransLib scientists had let us all have a little information about Zogg, which we’ll come to in a while. So we knew there would be hard work to do once we got there. Still a group of a dozen or so of us were still sentimental or maybe plain crazy enough to want the ‘more in our lives than work’ that libraries had always symbolised in our time on Earth.
So, not knowing yet how we’d actually make the Libraries of Zogg or whether anyone else there would care enough to bother, we got together in a gathering place, a Story Barn one of of us was lucky enough to be still running and asked ourselves the deep but simple question “What is it that libraries are for?” Yes, I know, we’re about to be herded off to an unknown planet, years of travel away and we’re basically having a committee meeting about libraries? But we did.
And our “What they’re for thoughts” tumbled out quickly and in a great jumble. Which I’ll try to remember in a kind of sense order rather than the no order at all of that particular early evening all those Solar years ago. Because, it turned out, this would really matter.
These are the core words we came up with:
“The libraries are for reading, information, access to information, help and technology, learning, learning from everyone – even the dead, collections, imagination, serendipity, chance discovery, time, peace, company, community, other humans, safe places, transport to other worlds. Oh and also for the tourism and the architecture.”
The words that would go on to guide our dreaming as we left Earth to travel to the Planet Zogg.
On the Starship Liverpool
Yes, one of the last freedoms the TransLibs granted us as we got ready to go was to decide the name of our Starship. Given where most of us were living or camped out when the order to leave came through this didn’t take too long to decide. The Starship Liverpool getting most of the votes over the more divisive Shankly or Kendall contenders.
So we left and years passed.
And do you know what? As we sailed quietly through the Universe on our way to Zogg our little ‘committee meeting’ back on Earth became quite a talking point. With lots of others wanting to join in with the original group of us and dream up the Libraries of Zogg. By now we knew more about what lay ahead of us, the years of hard physical work I’ll tell you about in a while. So I think people all felt they had to have something beautiful to look forward to in all that, and it turned out to be the libraries.
We even took to calling the canteen where we’d all meet to dream things up ‘The Library.’ And as so many of us on the ship were from around Liverpool we pretty soon named our library ‘Kensington’ and tried out a lot of the ideas I’m about to tell you about in there. Amazing days, especially the one where we tried out the ‘parrots’ idea!
Anyway, here’s the vision our early gathering place discussion grew into:
“All of the libraries are different, ‘Oh it’s that kind of library’ people will say. All have their identity shaped by the people and the place where they are, no imposed ‘standard practice’ identities. Our new libraries will be places to build a better society from, engine houses to generate the culture, the places where we make up our possible futures. They will exist in virtual reality, as well as ‘real’ spaces. Each of us self-creating a mixture of virtual and real as ‘our’ library. Real space, virtual space and somewhere to go. We’ll also create library pods too – attached to other things yet in touch with everywhere.
In all of the libraries you will always able to get a drink, and good food to eat. Relaxing places for playing, socialising differently with film nights, dance nights and What is it you’d like nights? Big adaptable spaces we can play with. Attracting in working people and everyone else, not about being middle class and professional – though they’ll be that too. Open all hours and truly welcoming to all. The centres of our education system, our justice system, our caring for each other systems, for all of our lives.
The libraries will take people on journeys in formats of their choice through the great & the awful (like Auschwitz) things we’ve done. Creating endless experiences, learning from our history & experience back on Earth and on Zogg as we get going. We will have themed events. Improvised events. Risky events. And make plans for voracious documentaries. Our curation will be for recommendations – not merely records and storage. Part of sorting out digital serendipity – the chance findings you weren’t even looking for, suggestions and accidental discoveries cleverer than algorithms, things we’ve found out from each other, humans and technology working together. Libraries will be more exciting on Zogg.
Us first arrivals will write new books for the new libraries, writing down what we’re learning as we learn it. The libraries will be writing places. We have the stories in us, us as the story tellers. So we will download, write and tell all we know – to pass it all on. Write the stories ourselves as writers in residence so others will see it being done and begin to write their own stories of Zogg.
We are the accessorizers – the ‘Have you thought of people…Maybe you could try?’ suggesters. We are the human signposts, to ‘What do you need? What’s next for you?’ Organising human and multi- format education to find the work you will love through all of your life. In all the libraries the ‘Try it out’ work sessions are endlessly popular. On Zogg we believe everyone has the right to work they love, and the libraries help you find it.
We will encourage everyone to say ‘Teach me differently in the way I like to learn.’ So there are TED talks, people learning from games, many formats and conduits – even books!. Different formats for everything. For example cookery books are books of course, but also online films, recipes and recommendations, for making good food from whatever you happen to have. But also real chefs in the libraries, communal meals, parties, wine tastings? Always having a choice of how to access and do everything,
Libraries on Zogg will be about understanding past languages and dialects, the not forgetting. And working in the languages of the people of their place. Something for all, bringing in colour and art always. A constant sense of renewal from artists in residence, the community in residence. Building everyone’s technical confidence too. How To guides – ‘Dummies for everything.’ Then using our developing technologies imaginatively. When new capabilities arrive we’ll always ask ‘What could we do with that?
And above all the new libraries will be huge fun for children, they have to be or they won’t use them. We will draw ideas from children and give the children and young people a voice. Ask the children and try the things they ask for, go with what the children ask for with their wondrous imaginations (like ‘A robot with really long arms?’ Certainly, like in the Story Barn) There will be children and young people working with adults on ideas, events making things and making stories. The libraries of Zogg will be about more than just reading, but they’re also where everyone can learn to read. So we’ll excite, do the unexpected, like bring in animals and parrots – as they do in some US care homes back on Earth? Children and old people mentoring and caring for each other. In the libraries which are the energy centres where they are creating the planet’s possible futures.”
There you are then. That’s the big dream that got our libraries built, libraries like the one I’m sitting in now writing this. Thinking back now it was that ‘serendipity’ thing we had the most trouble with. Particularly us older ones.
So it was the young people who worked out what we couldn’t, of course they did. Back at the gathering place we’d not been able to work out how any algorithm would come up with the serendipity of discovery of a mis-filed book in a ‘real’ library. That magic of accidentally finding something wonderful you’d never have looked for. But they cracked it, with what became the continual ‘visual tagging’ of thousands of the young. For them it’s something they just ‘get’ through their handhelds or implants, don’t ask me. For us older ones they were kind enough to make us a coding variant where we can ‘walk’ into the library of our choice with our VR ‘hats’ on, as they call them (they’re really tiny now and just plug in temporarily to our earports). So we can pick up ‘accidental’ books in our new libraries, which look, feel and, even now, smell like the books of the lost libraries of Planet Earth.
The Libraries of Planet Zogg
Arriving at Zogg shouldn’t have been such a shock to us all, but it was. Reality’s like that isn’t it? All the visualizations and graphics we’d seen by then simply hadn’t prepared us for the scale of the work we realised we were going to have to do as we touched down on our new planet. Whole books will be and are being written around me about that time. Building the biomes we’d be sheltering in for years while we filled the thin atmosphere with new oxygen from the plants we began experimentally growing. Beginning the drilling works to get to the deep aquifers for the water for the plants and the humans. Breaking up the Starship Liverpool, as designed, into thousands of the prefabs we all lived in those first few years.
There was trouble and fall-outs of course. Even though we’re on Zogg now we’re still humans. So in those other books I’m not writing you’ll read of important stuff like the birth of the co-ops, the culture clashes and developing the sharing economy. You’ll also read more that I have space for here about the libraries.
As we’d always intended from our Starship discussions we started the libraries straightaway, in a few of the prefabs. They weren’t much to look at at first but they were sacred. And we continued our ‘Kensington’ tradition and gave them sacred names. Like Norris Green, Breck Road, Sefton Park, Spellow and Wallasey Central, we’re not all from Liverpool after all.
And over time they did indeed grow into the beautiful, colourful energy centres where we developed the futures of our own lives and our common planet, our beloved Zogg. Clearly there’s a full book to be written about all that, from an inside the Libraries of Zogg sort of perspective. And I’d always thought I might be a part of writing it. But instead of that I’ve got work to do. Back on Planet Earth.
Back to Earth
As we developed our own technologies on Zogg we eventually managed to decode the digital shield the TransLibs had wrapped round the world they’d stolen. So we saw with sorrow the rising of the oceans and the vast fracking damage done to the lands still above sea level. We saw that the Oil Wars of our own late days there had become the Water Wars and then the Food Wars.
Then, though, we heard that the TransLibs had left, all of them. Forced out partly by the continuous resistance of the good people of the Earth and partly, of course, by their greed for another planet to exploit to oblivion. So we don’t know where they’ve gone and we don’t care for now. Because the Earth people need our help.
You see it turns out our libraries and the cultures we’ve grown from them have produced one of the fairest and finest human civilisations in the known universe. So a whole team of engineers, scientists and imagineers from Zogg are now going back to help fix Earth. And I’m one of them, part of the team that will get the libraries going again. The libraries that were completely wiped out by the TransLibs politics of greed and acquisition.
So, where to start? Naturally I’ve asked the people of Zogg, and their collective advice about what’s worked best here is this list:
‘The new libraries of Planet Earth should be:
• Fun for children
• Where we give children a voice
• Real and virtual spaces
• Many formats and conduits
• About more than just reading
• Where people are taken on journeys
• All libraries different, reflecting the people and place where they are
• Places to build technical confidence
• Something for all
• To attract working people and everyone
• Big adaptable beautiful and inspiring spaces
• Where we do the exciting and the unexpected
• Bringing in constant colour and art
• Where the people are the storytellers
• Libraries as energy centres to make up and drive the future of the recovering Earth’
I will love this work, of course I will. And to see Liverpool again, because that’s where I’ll mainly be working. I know I’ll find it much changed but I’m also certain the essence of Liverpool will still be there, gently held and cared for in the hands and the hearts of its dreaming people.
I also know now that when I’ve done my work I will be too old to return to Zogg. I’m just young and fit enough to make the journey to Earth that I’ll be starting tomorrow. But by the time our work together is done, I’ll be old and my body probably wouldn’t be able withstand the EPEV (the Extra Plus Extreme Velocity), time travel in essence, that cuts the journey time down so much now from all those years ago, when we first came to Zogg.
Written on this my final day on the planet.
With deep and obvious thanks, if you’ve read the Mars, Antarctica and Aurora books, to Kim Stanley Robinson. You always make me think.