In the House of the Seven Librarians first appeared in the 2006 anthology Firebirds Rising, edited by Sharyn November. Now this short story by Ellen Klages can be read on its own, in a paperback from Aqueduct Press.
It's a little book. The illustrations help to give it a bit of weight: they're black and white reproductions of Carnegie libraries, libraries built by the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Since the story takes place in such a library, the illustrations are more than padding: they cast a shadow of the world we know into the enchanted realm of the rather special Carnegie Library in the tale. Even with the illustrations, however, the book is small. You could put it into the envelope of a birthday card. It feels like a gift, and it would make a good one, because the story is delightful. Like other magical small spaces—the wardrobes and rabbit holes of fantastic literature—Klages's House is bigger on the inside.
The Carnegie Library in the story is obsolete, replaced by a new town library. The new library has "fluorescent lights, much better for the children's eyes"; it's equipped with "automated systems" and "ergonomic plastic chairs" (p. 2). The seven librarians at the Carnegie Library are having none of this spotless, soulless future. They've locked themselves into the old building, allowed a forest to hide them from the world, and built a cozy paradise of tea, biscuits, and rubber stamps. Their life is set to continue in an endless round of pleasant, orderly tasks, until a person unknown returns a very overdue copy of Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, and pays the normal fairytale fine: a first-born child.
That child, Dinsy, grows up in the library, cared for by seven quirky librarian mothers. Her story revisits a familiar dilemma of utopian tales, which is that perfect worlds become boring pretty quickly. As a little girl, Dinsy loves exploring the Library, and even gets it to work some magic for her; as an adolescent, she finds that she wants more than this limited setting, wonderful as it is. What's outside the Library? "Chaos," replies Edith, the librarian in charge of mending the books. "It's noisy. It's crowded. Everything's always changing, and not in any way you can predict." Klages's librarians are about order and preservation, but that's not enough for Dinsy, who thinks chaos sounds "kind of exciting" (pp. 56-7).
This doesn't mean the Library is dull. There's magic and mystery in the stacks, and Dinsy's mothers have their own secrets. These seven librarians are characterized briefly, often in just a couple of sentences, but each emerges as a distinct character. Among the most memorable are Dorothy, who looks like the Wicked Witch of the West and is fond of horrible puns, and the formidable Marian, who runs the front desk, wears trouser suits and silk shirts, and used to be blond. Ruth and Harriet, the reference librarians, are "like a set of salt-and-pepper shakers from two different yard sales" (p. 43), and in a sense, that's what the whole Library family is like: an odd assortment of leftover bits and pieces that somehow fit together, or, in other words, a successful intentional community.
Olive, the children's librarian, is a tiny woman, shrunken by design rather than old age: "She had been a grown-up for so long that when the library closed, she had decided it was time to grow down again, and was finding that much more comfortable" (p. 14). In the House of the Seven Librarians grows up and down at the same time: nostalgia for a fading past pulls one way, and Dinsy pulls the other. This combination of "up" and "down" gives the story much of its sweetness. Dinsy draws with crayons in special library colors: "World Book Red, Card Catalog Cream, Date Stamp Purple" (p. 36). Card catalogs have passed away as surely as Dinsy's childhood will, but that doesn't affect the charm of Dinsy's crayons, or keep them from serving as tools for her expanding imagination. Throughout the story, a passion for the gloomy stacks of old libraries is balanced by Dinsy's desire to experience the world, and to find the future her librarian mothers have rejected.
In the House of the Seven Librarians has the feel of a secret, or maybe a talisman—something you'd take with you to college to remind you that home is still there. It's unfortunate that the cover design is so cluttered; something more muted and evocative of the past would have suited the story better. Cover art aside, In the House of the Seven Librarians is a charming little book, full of the simple magic real librarians work every day. It's not quite small enough for your wallet, but like the library card Dinsy receives from her seven mothers, "It will always get you in" (p. 70).
Sofia Samatar is a PhD student in African Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she specializes in twentieth century Egyptian and Sudanese literatures. Her poetry has appeared in Stone Telling, and her debut novel, A Stranger in Olondria, is forthcoming from Small Beer Press in 2012. She blogs about books and other wonders at sofiasamatar.blogspot.com.
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