On the Differentiation of Libraries

Do you want a way of explaining where characters acquired or could acquire knowledge without having to worry about where they keep the books? A point of contact for academics, with each other or possibly even with everyone else? A way to make sure that knowledge in your setting, be it facts or stories or even potentially dangerous secrets, is not forgotten?

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You may need a library.

But before you fall into the standard model found in public libraries everywhere, think about the overall purpose and feel of your library, and how that would make it different.

First, consider the purpose—and please, be a bit more specific than “that place with books everyone can look at.” Where reproducing manuscripts is expensive, libraries are likelier to be a source of information than a source of books; materials are perused within the building itself, and borrowing might even require special circumstances and proof of trustworthiness. Some might be about finding information quickly and efficiently: in these cases as well, borrowing is likely to be limited, and the emphasis will be on making sure the materials are all well-organized in their places and that the staff know the organization system perfectly. Often, these sorts will be in a specialized field of study, like medicine. On the other hand, you have situations like today’s public libraries, in which the idea is to give people a source of books, fiction is as prevalent as (if not more so than) nonfiction, and a particular book might spend all but about a day or two of its first month in the collection checked out.

Now consider the library’s patrons, both what it’s likely to attract and how the people who come are going to shape the library’s holdings. Purpose will often create patronage: a specialist library draws specialists, logically enough, and a children’s library draws children. If it’s one of those libraries where the books have to be read on the premises, the average patron by necessity will have more time to spare than the average patron in a public library, who can sneak chapters of books between meetings or listen to an audio in a traffic jam on the way home. But the people in the area around the library have an effect as well. For instance, the Oakland Public Library system has a few branches that are the go-to spot for materials in different languages, since they’re in areas with high concentrations of people who speak those tongues. On the other hand, my Marine library (largest demographic enlisted personnel, then retirees, then dependents of the above two groups) not only has the expected slanting towards military history in the nonfiction section, but also features a shelf dedicated specifically to required reading for enlistees and a Western section larger than either its science fiction section or its young adult section.

Here’s a fun question: are the materials it holds necessarily books? Using something else can give a library an exotic feel and necessitate some long-reaching differences in how it’s built and how it’s organized. And even modern public libraries are as likely to have electronic materials as not.

What sorts of services does it offer besides the storage of information? A library can serve as a meeting place or a place to post events; it might host classes or hook mentors up with students. Most public libraries have copy machines and provisions for their patrons to get online. And what more can be done in a fantasy context?

Any of these factors can characterize a library, setting it apart from others of its kind and giving it its own personality. Give it a try!


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  1. MCRDSD: A Portrait of a Military Library | Exchange of Realities

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