Go Check the Library

Phyllis Cormack stepped off the bus just as the valve on the air-brakes released, emitting a sudden harsh snort. Startled, a gulp from the coke bottle she was drinking shot up her nose, bubbles exploding like pinpricks in her brain. She sneezed a spray of cherry-zero over the pavement. Before her head cleared, a cop car suddenly screamed by the bus, sirens wailing, too close, an involuntary reflex kicking in causing her to duck down, as if dodging some low-flying aircraft screaming down the sidewalk.

Phyllis hated downtown as much she loathed homework assignments, meaning even more than Saturday morning chores, tidying her room or, worse still, cleaning the cat dishes. Biology assignments were always the same: write an essay on some obscure topic none of the high school books had any useful information on. Only this time it was her fault - she’d chosen the topic.

It was her mother’s suggestion to visit the university campus library and ask for help there. Phyllis found her way through bustling students to the building, whose appearance was nothing like a library, just a huge glass dome. As she entered the noises of the street suddenly hushed, to be gradually replaced, temporary shift in auditory threshold subsiding, by the muted click-clack of fingers on keyboards, shoe heels on synthetic wood floor-tiles.

The students were years older than Phyllis; she couldn’t tell if they were freshman or senior years but they looked so cool and self-assured. It was intimidating; her first experience of the college world she hoped to one day join suddenly left her envisaging a future of nothing but rejection, for too much acne, for wearing the wrong shoes, for not listening to the right music.

Shoving those negative thoughts aside she focused on the task at hand: finding information about why whales get stranded on beaches. There were no shelves to be seen, only rows of long desks and computer terminals. Not a single book in sight; was this a library, or a greenhouse for growing desks and students? She went to over to what she guessed was a librarian’s counter in the center of the room.

A short bespectacled old lady, Ms. Odontoceti declaimed the name badge, stood at the desk, rolls of fat protruding from the arms, waist and shoulders of a much-too-tight grey dress, rustling faintly against layers of nylon undergarments as she moved. Around the neck further rolls of fat wobbled like a walrus’s blubber, resonating with a gentle bobbling sound.

“Please Ma’am - I’ve got an assignment on marine environment and whales. I thought maybe there’d be like… er… um... a book? Or something, that would help me here...”
Peering over her glasses the woman snorted, asking, “Are you enrolled in the university?”

“Well, no... But I don’t need to take anything out on loan, I’ve got a notebook and pen with me. I was hoping to check the shelves. Only there are no shelves. This is the library? It said library in big letters on the wall outside...”

“Listen young lady, there are millions of publications right beneath your feet, books, journals, conference proceedings. A basement with six floors, shelving totaling over 50ft in height. To bring something up from below we use an Automated Storage System. A hidden army of robots scurrying around like autonomous submersibles. But this isn’t a latte bookshop for idle browsing. You’ll need a search term first - what’s your assignment?”

“I need to discuss why whales wash up on beaches? I saw one on vacation in Cape Cod. Then I read about a load of beaked whales in the Canary Islands, 200 melon-headed whales in Madagascar, sperm whales in Oregon, then Florida...”

“Well now, miss, I’ve worked for some relevant organizations in my time. Some questions don’t get easy answers. Like I said, we’ve got millions of publications here, yet the literature beneath your feet is white literature, indexed, searchable, but only containing the facts they think it’s safe for the world to see. What they want you to find. You’re searching for facts buried deeper. Pay attention, I’ll tell you this much for free: Ahab’s silent deep went down with the Pequod. Nowadays the oceans drown in a cacophony of sound. Moby Dick is being bludgeoned daily by propagating waves, from sonars dropped from helicopters or planes, dragged behind destroyers, squawking out from the bottom of oil and gas survey vessels, wind farm pylons hammered into the bedrock, smack, smack, smack, the thud of diesel engine pistons echoing out from the cavitating wash of massive tankers. Powerful interests do all they can to conceal environmental impacts from white literature.”

As she spoke the woman leaned closer and closer, her voice gradually rising in volume in order to be heard over the roar of a jumbo jet departing from the airport nearby. Flying unusually low, the plane’s engines thundered in Phyllis’s chest.

“Yet sometimes, miss, answers to questions like yours leak out elsewhere. In information uncaptured by conventional publications, writings not cataloged or indexed. Grey literature. Draft technical reports, notes from scientific groups, working papers, or informal memos, memoirs, letters from seamen, writings not subjugated by government, Pentagon or industry. Searching the grey literature would get you closer, a scratch below the surface. But if you want to know the truth you’d have to dive deeper still. Into the black, to the samizdat as a Russian would say, where the perilous facts they want to suppress can be found. Classified information so protected that to be caught with a written copy is to risk your life. ” Ms. Odontoceti whispering directly in Phyllis’ ear, the plane now passed.

“Really, this all sounds so frightening… I was just looking to do an assignment... Look, forget it. I’ll go home and ask Grandpa.” Phyllis, beginning to feel dizzy, nausea rising.

Immediately behind Phyllis came a crash of snare and bass drums, a guitar riff building like a machine gun. Fragments of lyric cut through the noise, something about a sea of fear and the CIA. Turning, her path was blocked by a student in a Radiohead t-shirt standing right behind her, headphones around his neck pumping music, it must be deafening. Startled, she stopped and stared at his face.

“Baby’s got the bends.” He drawled, like that explained anything. Phyllis rushed away.

Photo: Ragettho (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons