“Where do you see yourself in 15 years?” someone asks.
Cynically, I reply: “a post-apocalypse librarian.”
So, little known fact about me: I love post-apocalypse fiction. From the incredibly bleak and extremely haunting hopelessness of Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’, to the hopeful and extremely fun antics of humans post-Earth in sci-fi stories like Becky Chambers’s ‘The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet’, I love reading about human ingenuity and resourcefulness in the face of the end of the world. I’m a sucker for all the tropes; crumbling famous landmarks, scary messages on walls scrawled by the long-dead, and… the post-apocalypse librarian?
While not a staple feature of most post-apocalypse/dystopian stories, the post-apocalypse librarian is one of my absolute favourite character tropes. I’m talking about the wizened old women and men holed up in bunkers with odd filing cabinets, who ‘remember the Internet’ and hoard Shakespeare plays instead of cans of food. As far as I can tell, there isn’t a specific name for this character. TVTropes, that wonderful encyclopedia of fictional plots and stereotypes, has a few entries that touch on the subject. There’s the ‘Wasteland Elder’, someone old enough to remember Earth-that-was, who occasionally enlightens the hero with stories and warnings. There’s ‘Lost Common Knowledge’ and ‘Lost Technology’, the rosy misremberance of ‘The Beforetimes’, and alien researchers who discover an Earth long-dead, which is also fun, but not quite what I’m on about.
The title of post-apocalypse librarian refers to any character whose first priority in a post-Earth-as-we-know-it situation is to try and document the world around them. People who are driven, like all of us in the field of LIS, to make some kind of sense out of chaotic information. Whether they’re recording events as they happen, preserving records of the past, or even just doing their best to find out anything about the world that once was, the post-apocalypse librarian values information above all else. I’m going to lay out these aforementioned examples of said librarians using some of my favourite books, and then talk about how I relate this to the world of LIS today and my personal experience with it.
A quick note on the terms apocalypse and post-apocalypse: many books mentioned here deal with a post-Earth narrative, rather than a post-apocalypse one. For ‘apocalypse’, read ‘end of an Earthen era’, as Megan Hunter explains below:
“Etymologically, the word apocalypse contains the meanings to uncover, to transform, and to reveal, rather than simply denoting the end of things. Its origins in Judeo-Christian religious traditions mean that the endings it originally described always contained a beginning: the destruction of the world heralded the arrival of a new—holy—era. Even in its modern usage, the term post-apocalyptic contains within it an implication that even in the worst of circumstances, some form of life continues. There is, perhaps surprisingly, an afterwards, a world for humans to inhabit, and books to be written about them.”
– Hunter, “Seeing the Hopeful Side of Post-Apocalyptic Fiction.”, 2017
First of all:
- Why does the apocalypse need a librarian?
(The Road, Cormac McCarthy)
Maybe he understood for the first time that to the boy he was himself an alien. A being from a planet that no longer existed. The tales of which were suspect. He could not construct for the child’s pleasure the world he’d lost without constructing the loss as well and he thought perhaps the child had known this better than he.
– Cormac McCarthy, The Road, (London: Picador, 2009), 163.
The world of the post-apocalypse is typically one that exists without written records. Most technology, even the most basic, is rendered obsolete by a: nuclear fallout, b: deadly pathogens, c: zombies, d: all of the above. When you can’t find dog-eared children’s books in ransacked homes, the only writing you tend to see are old road signs and messages from the long dead – sometimes not even written in the kind of alphabet you’d expect.
They began to come upon from time to time small cairns of rock by the roadside. They were signs in gypsy language, lost patterans. The first he’d seen in some while, common in the north, leading out of the looted and exhausted cities, hopeless messages to loved ones lost and dead. (192)
Part of The Road’s appeal, unlike other post-apocalyptic narratives, is how little we are told about the world. There are almost no named characters in the story, hardly any punctuation, and only two main characters who we follow throughout the book: a man and a boy. The man, (the boy’s father), narrates most of the time. He gives us one vague, fascinating tidbit about how the end of the world came about:
The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. He got up and went to the window. What is it? she said. He didn’t answer. He went into the bathroom and threw the lightswitch but the power was already gone. A dull rose glow in the windowglass. He dropped to one knee and raised the lever to stop the tub and then turned on both taps as far as they would go. She was standing in the doorway in her nightwear, clutching the jamb, cradling her belly in one hand. What is it? she said. What’s happening?
I don’t know.
Why are you taking a bath?
I’m not. (54)
The boy in the story is entirely a child of the post-apocalypse world. He learns (haltingly) to read through the man’s insistence, but he lacks basic knowledge of so many pre-apocalypse things, demonstrated towards his fascination with trains, the ocean, and even a can of Coca-Cola which he cannot understand how to open. He is ‘carrying the fire’, as the man says, without really knowing where the fire came from. The apocalypse needs a librarian if you don’t want your world to be like the one in The Road. There needs to be someone preserving language, culture – hope, even.
2. The apocalypse journalist
(Ghostwritten, David Mitchell)
“Uh… Is anyone listening to this? If you’re not busy setting cars ablaze or looting Tiffany’s then you’re probably wired to the television, watching the greatest drama mankind has ever staged. With Apocalypse Right Now, You Can Feel Your Eyeballs Melt As You Watch The Boom! But hey, remember, phone-in radio invented interactive. Night Train FM rolls on! Even by broadcasting we may be defying last week’s Emergency Media Advisory Act – cute name, huh? (…) Maybe the info police are too busy to kick our door down, or maybe some giant jamming signal is blanketing all frequencies, or maybe some plug has been pulled from some socket somewhere and I’m just talking to myself.
– David Mitchell, Ghostwritten, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1999), 404.
The apocalypse journalist is a character in the middle of these three examples; someone determined to make some kind of recorded sense out of the chaos, but without the long term goal of building a knowledge source. The journalist records events as they happen, and this could be for a multitude of reasons; for the benefit of others, for their own comfort, or simply to make sure that there’s some kind of voice out there in the dark. The example above is from David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, an episodic novel in ten parts that follows narrative threads through several different, seemingly unrelated characters and locations. The chapter the above quote is taking from, Night Train FM, features a character called Bat Segundo, a DJ for a late-night radio station. The threat of nuclear war looms heavy one night, and the world (shown through New York) is plunged into traditional pre-apocalypse looting and chaos. Segundo continues his radio show despite airwaves censorship, and unintentionally becomes the only ‘voice of the people’ still recording events as they happen. I like this example especially, because the apocalypse journalist is not simply creating a room full of nostalgic objects, but actively using their powers of documentation to bring people together.
“Where you calling from, Jolene?”
“Lower Manhattan. Bat, could I say a message?””
“Sure you could.”
“It’s to Alfonso, I ain’t seen him for three days now. He went out to get some supplies… Alfonso, if you’re listening, you just get yourself on home, y’hear? And Bat?”
“When the next song’s playing, will you make yourself a coffee and start sobering up some?”
“… Uh-huh. I’ll do that, Jolene.”
“And I’d sure be obliged if you’d stop talking ‘bout the end of the world, Bat. It don’t help none. Other than army buttheads telling us to stay calm, you’re the only voice on the dial, and most probably you’re propping up more people than you think.”
– p. 406
(I’ve made a playlist of all the songs that appear in this chapter – find it on Spotify.) This might be one of my very favourite settings in a novel. Bat Segundo is an apocalypse journalist without even particularly trying to or wanting to be: it just feels natural to him to try and make some sense out of his world by recording everything he witnesses. It’s a kind of labour of love that’s even better represented in our next trope, the apocalypse archivist.
3. The apocalypse archivist
(The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Becky Chambers)
“Rosemary was impressed. Archivists were passionate people, some of whom dedicated their whole lives to the pursuit of unbiased truth. Given the wealth of information that needed sorting through, professional archivists relied heavily on volunteers to help keep public files current. Rosemary had always imagined them like guardians from some fantasy vid, defending the galaxy from inaccuracies and questionable data.”
– Becky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2015), 196-197.)
(By the way, if you read just one book from this blog post? Read this one. Trust me. And then read its sequel.)
Reference archivists in a post-Earth world have the duty of remembering Earth-that-was. The bit I particularly like from this quote is “the pursuit of unbiased truth”. In a post-Earth narrative, it’s usual for Earth and its former inhabitants to be mythologised. In TLWTASAP (henceforth referred to as Wayfarers, book 1), volunteer archivists make it their mission to make the records of their home planet as truthful and helpful as possible.
“You would not believe the amount of bogus, speciest submissions we have to deal with.”
“Examples,” Kizzy said.
Nib sighed and scratched his beard. “The best one I’ve seen in a while claimed that the Exodus Fleet could never have sustained that many people for so long, ergo, the Human race did not originate on Earth at all.”
Jenks raised his head. “So where are we from, then?”
Nib grinned. “We’re a genetweaked species the (aliens) cooked up.”
“That’s so dumb,” said Ember. “What about all the Earthen ruins and stuff? All those old cities?”
“I know, I know,” Nib said with a shrug. “But we still have to go through the process of objectively disproving the claim. That’s our job.” (196-197)
While the scenario in Wayfarers 1 is far more enjoyable and hopeful than that of The Road, (humans left Earth and can be found throughout the galaxy, making friends and flying spaceships,) the effects of an apocalypse on Earth can be keenly felt throughout the book. On the opposite end of the spectrum to reference file archivists, there are Gaiists – a kind of fundamentalist sect of humanity, who are only concerned with spreading the gospel of Earth-that-was and inticing as many (pure) humans as possible to return and help to make it habitable again.
The Gaiist turned to Rosemary and Kizzy, the edge leaving his voice, a bit of desperation creeping in. “If you should have some time to yourselves during your stay here” – in other words, away from the alien – “please come see us again. We have many more Earthen wonders to share, and even more in the habitat tanks aboard our ship.” He switched the terrarium into his left hand and reached into his satchel. “Here,” he said, handing them each an info chip. “Take these as a gift. They contain videos of some of the magical places that await you on your homeworld. Just stick them in your scrib and enjoy.” (103)
The Gaiists are apocalypse archivists to a fault – concerned only with preserving their particular narrative, and not learning or adapting in the process. If the reference file archivists pursue unbiased truth above all things, the Gaiists do the exact opposite: their archives are rose-tinted misrememberances of an Earth that clearly fell into chaos.
4. The apocalypse librarian
(Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel)
There seemed to be a limitless number of objects in the world that had no practical use but that people wanted to preserve: cell phones with their delicate buttons, iPads, Tyler’s Nintendo console, a selection of laptops. There were a number of impractical shoes, stilettos mostly, beautiful and strange. There were three car engines in a row, cleaned and polished, a motorcycle composed mostly of gleaming chrome. Traders brought things for Clark sometimes, objects of no real value that they knew he would like: magazines and newspapers, a stamp collection, coins. There were the passports or drivers licenses or sometimes the credit cards of people who had lived at the airport and then died. Clark kept impeccable records.
– Emily St John Mandel, Station Eleven, (London: Picador, 2014), 259.
Our last example comes from Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, an Earth in which a swine flu pandemic decimated the population. A company of musicians and actors travel the wastelands performing concerts and Shakespeare plays to the small towns of survivors, with their motto, “because survival is insufficient.” It’s one of my absolute favourite post-apocalypse stories because it focuses on not just post-apocalypse survival, but also hope. What is the point of preserving Earth culture if you can’t still enjoy it? However, the best part of the book, for me, is the story of one character who found himself stranded at an airport the day the virus broke out. The airport citizens form a kind of village in the years that follow, and Clark, out of a desire to find both something to keep him occupied, and to preserve the memories of the airport village, creates a library.
The characters in the novel have conflicting opinions on the usefulness of the library. One character asks,
“Does it still make sense to teach kids about the way things were?” (269)
While another, more cynical character, poses this thought:
“Artifacts from the old world,” he said. “Here’s the thing, kids, the entire world is a place where artifacts from the old world are preserved. When was the last time you saw a new car?” (146)
It’s a question that helps bring together this entire exploration of the trope – why bother? If the Earth as we know it in a post-apocalypse world is simply a silo of ancient artifacts, why bother putting a few of them in a room and calling it a library? It’s a concept I’ve struggled with when thinking about the end of the world, and also about the world I live in now. The Earth generates more information than we could possibly record, and this task gets more monumentous every minute. If the world does end in my lifetime (and frankly, it’s looking likely), do I think I’ll be able to muster up the energy to preserve what little of our previous lives that I can? Why would I bother?
In Year Fifteen people came to the museum to look at the past after their long days of work. A few of the original First-Class lounge armchairs were still here, and it was possible to sit and read the final newspapers, fifteen years old, turning brittle pages in gloves that Clark had sewn inexpertly from a hotel sheet. What happened here was something like prayer. (261 – 262)
I think that’s why.
Those of you who have made it this far may be concerned about how much time I devote to thinking about the end of the world. I say it’s practical! But on a less cynical note, researching for this blog post has made me think about why I like these kinds of stories so much. At first I thought it was a simple reaction to information anxiety. There is so much to record, and so little space – wouldn’t it be nice if we had a clean slate, and we got to start again? While I’ve written this, however, I’ve come to a different conclusion. These stories are comforting to me. My generation is possibly the most anxious in history, and for good reasons – we live our lives surrounded by uncertainty and a kind of despair. We may never be able to pay off our debts, or own a house. We’re getting married less, and having less children. We’ve grown up in the midst of rapid technological change, and even more rapid environmental decline. We’re the post-9/11 generation. Right now we live in fear of an orange idiot with access to nuclear codes. We accepted a long time ago that our world is on shaky foundations, which is why we record absolutely everything about our lives. Every blog post, every selfie, every Tweet, is also a way of saying, “we are here”. We were here.
So there’s something about these stories, and these characters, that is comforting. The idea that of course things may get worse, but there will always be a voice on the radio to get us through it. There will always be volunteers sifting through archives to make sure our story is told. And at the end of a long day, there will always be a library to sit in.
Chambers, B. (2015). The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Hunter, M. (2017, November). Seeing the Hopeful Side of Post-Apocalyptic Fiction. LitHub (via Grove Atlantic). Retrieved from https://lithub.com/seeing-the-hopeful-side-of-post-apocalyptic-fiction/
McCarthy, C. (2006). The Road. London: Picador.
Mitchell, D. (1999). Ghostwritten. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
St. John Mandel, E. (2014). Station Eleven. London: Picador.