Why don’t I retire?, thought Mrs. Johnson, as she rubbed the worry lines that creased her mahogany face. Who needs a librarian when I’m not even sure why anyone still needs a library?
Mrs. Johnson, the head⎯and only⎯librarian, storyteller, computer technician and whatever else was needed to run the Greenwood branch library, was about to convene her reading group. She said, “Let’s begin,” and the handful of mostly elderly patrons took a seat around the oak table in the small reading room. Mrs. Johnson read because, except for Mrs. Gilman’s almost grown-up granddaughter, Octavia, her patrons’ failing eyesight had robbed them of the pleasure of reading.
Mrs. Johnson sighed. If a library’s existence is justified by the number of its clientele, then her reading room should vanish like a magician’s rabbit.
“I thought I’d read a few chapters of a popular romance, a best seller, and the classic Arabian Nights,” said Mrs. Johnson. The crowd murmured approvingly, but Octavia ignored her. Octavia willingly walked her grandmother to the library, but once they arrived the girl sat silently detached; pawing her personal electronics like a mouse fondling its cheese.
Never-ending budget cuts had whittled away library staff until only Mrs. Johnson was left at Greenwood. She wanted to retire, but this was her library and she hated abandoning it. She could recommend her replacement⎯the library system would even hire a non-employee⎯but who wanted to be a librarian? For that matter, what was a library nowadays?
Except for Greenwood’s private collection, there hadn’t been book stacks in the branch since it was rebuilt for the third time, on the same site, in 2065. The branch was now a six story data center that served the mid-north region of Seattle. Instead of rows of books like Treasure Island, The Hero’s Journey, and War of the Worlds, there were racks of computer modules that twinkled in their darkened galleries like Christmas lights.
People still read, but usually from personal electronics instead of books that smelled of ink and time. Physical books meant little to people who worked, learned, played, and socialized wirelessly from home.
Mrs. Johnson was about to tell one of the 1,001 tales from a faded volume when her tablet computer wailed an alarm. A computer module was failing and the chief technician⎯that is, Mrs. Johnson⎯had to drop everything and intervene.
The librarian considered her audience. The only person with good enough eyesight to read in her stead was Octavia Gilman, but could Mrs. Johnson trust her? That girl is as inscrutable as Beverly Cleary’s mouse, Ralph, she thought, but what choice do I have? The librarian said a silent prayer, shoved the book in the girl’s hands before she could object, and then rushed out the door.
By the time Mrs. Johnson finished her task and returned to the reading room, she was imagining a disaster inside. But as she opened the door she heard Octavia’s voice boom like a genie, persuade like a princess, and decree like a caliph. The audience roared its approval.
Over the next year, Octavia read often and proved herself to be curious, funny, helpful, and whip smart. One day, old Mrs. Gilman pulled the librarian aside and thanked her profusely for letting her granddaughter read.
“Thank you, Mrs. Gilman, but Octavia helps me run the library,” Mrs. Johnson said. “Besides, she’s become a wonderful storyteller.”
Mrs. Gilman’s face was like a sheet of paper that had been crumpled into a ball and then smoothed flat. “That’s why I’m so grateful,” she said. “Octavia used to be so withdrawn I was afraid for her. But after you let her read, she blossomed.”
Mrs. Johnson was gratified, but sad nevertheless. She still hadn’t found her replacement. I should just give up, she thought. After all⎯
“⎯What is a library?” Mrs. Johnson startled herself. She hadn’t meant to speak aloud. Had anyone heard?
“Us,” said Octavia, without looking up from the tablet where she was researching next week’s reading list.
“What did you say?” said Mrs. Johnson.
“I said a library’s what it’s always been. It isn’t where you store books or computer modules. It’s where people share knowledge and community. A library is us.” Then Octavia requisitioned the books she wanted, collected her grandmother, said goodnight, and scurried home.
When Mrs. Johnson stroked her face, no worry lines were beneath her fingertips. She knew who to recommend.
Well, my little ‘mouse’, she thought, I think you put your ‘paw’ right on the answer.
— The End —
Afterword for “Mouse”
How did I do in the contest? I didn’t win of course, otherwise I’d have crowed about it by now! What’s worse, the young staff person who telephoned to give me the bad news seemed to giggle with delight at crushing my hopes. Writers, if you’re ever in the same position as that young staff person, never do anything like that!
In some of my incarnations, I’ve been a reader for other writers, as well as a few contests. I think it’s unconscionable for any reviewer, or the support staff for a contest, to be so inconsiderate of an author. No writer I know of tries to submit anything less than their best work if they can help it. Odds are, every writer puts a bit of their heart and their soul into their work. If an author’s work isn’t good enough this time to win the contest or get a good review, then the reviewer or contest support staff is only being cruel if they don’t treat the author with the appropriate respect when they give the writer the bad news.