Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Libraries

A page from the Dresden Codex, from the remaining Mayan codices.

The Library of Alexandria. The House of Wisdom. The codices of the Mayans. Nalanda. Jaffna Public Library.

What do all of these have in common?

All were collections of books or places that housed enormous collections of books that were destroyed.

Survivors of the Mongol invasion of Baghdad said the Tigris River ran black with the ink of the books and red with the blood of scientists and philosophers. The thousands of codices by the Mayans were burned by Spanish conquistadors. Over 95,000 texts were destroyed at Jaffna. The library of Nalanda was reported to have burned for 3 months after Turkish invaders set fire to it. The Library of Alexandria was accidentally burned down.

If knowledge is power, what is a library? What is a book?

Books and libraries started out as being available only to the privileged few. The price of parchment, vellum and/or paper kept the cost of books prohibitive to many and the first libraries in Sumer and Zhou Dynasty China archived inventories and trade information. Later, religious stories, scientific texts and philosophical works began to be recorded. The Classical world saw private libraries full of scrolls, public libraries being established in Rome. Paper was invented in China and then transformed in the Middle East to produce a thicker product which could be written on on both sides. Libraries in the Arab world recorded their own religion and then earnestly took on the task of translating ancient Greek and Roman texts, archiving not only the spiritual works known in that day but the secular. Buddhism saw the building of centers of learning and libraries in order to preserve the many teachings. In most of the ancient world libraries were spacious, comfortable buildings where people could relax and read or discuss with others. They were places of learning, of sharing information, not just housing it.

In some cases books could not be removed from libraries. In other times or locations books could be taken if a monetary deposit was given or if a book of equal value was given in exchange for it. Before the printing press, a lot more energy went into each and every book produced so the preservation of the work was of great importance. In Thailand libraries were built on stilt houses over bodies of water to keep the books from being eaten by bugs. In some ancient libraries, books were chained down so they could not be removed! Libraries employed not only librarians but copyists and translators, often housing books from many cultures. At some points in history having a large library was a status symbol and through the centuries many important individuals have collected impressive numbers of important works. When the humanities, science and philosophy flourished, the libraries were often one of the places people congregated.

Books today are still a bit of a luxury item. Libraries hold many kinds of media today but at their root are books. Public libraries are one of the few places where everyone is on equal footing, with the deciding factor behind what is available to you or not: your own literacy. Across class and culture, as long as you can get into the building, you have access to what is there.

Why were those libraries above destroyed? Well, in all but one case, to destroy the culture propagated by the books within and the space itself, as part of a larger military movement. The culture that built the library was sought to be weakened and/or the books themselves were thought to be problematic. In the case of the Mesoamerican codices, the Spanish conquistadors even banned the indigenous papermaking process in favor of their own paper.

What is a library again?

For GMs

  • What kinds of books are kept in libraries? Utilitarian? Religious works? Secular books? What kind of information is kept there?
  • Who pays for the upkeep of the libraries? Religious organizations? The local government? Individual sponsors? The people?
  • Who is employed by the libraries? Librarians? Translators? Scribes? How are they trained?
  • Who has access to the books? What kind of verification process is used to make sure only those who are supposed to get to the books get into the libraries? Who can take out books?
  • What is library culture like? How does the population at large feel about them? How long have they been around? Who frequents the library? What happens there?
  • What do libraries look like? Are they meandering cave systems with tight corridors, books and scrolls stacked everywhere? Or spacious buildings with open air gardens, fountains, lavish rugs and couches? Someone’s house?
  • What are books written on?
  • Are the books only from that region? Or are the libraries cross cultural?

Plot Hooks

  • The PCs must accompany an important individual who is bringing a highly valuable book to a faroff library in order to temporarily exchange it for access to another book. The PCs must protect the book at all costs, with their employer insisting they protect the book before themselves. Who is their employer afraid will attack them? What book are they hoping to read at the end of their journey? Is the book valuable only monetarily or does it hold a larger significance? Is the book their employer wants to read from the same culture they’re from?
  • The PCs are all members of a sect whose library was destroyed. Before it was destroyed, a mentor took apart one of the important tomes and distributed the pages among members of the congregation, in the hopes some of them may escape and the work be preserved. Now things are more peaceful and the PCs are hoping to find the remaining pages and reassemble the book. Why have they decided now is the time to do so? What tools/information do they have at their disposal to help them track down the other pages? What would it mean for their sect if they reassemble the book? Who is willing to help them? Who would rather they didn’t get their sacred book back?
  • When a notable member of the community dies, they leave their entire private collection of books to their servants, the PCs. The PCs now have hundreds to thousands of books to deal with and must figure out the best way to deal with their new found literary riches while respecting the deceased’s wishes. Does their old boss leave them every, single last book in the house? Are they also left with the building that houses the collection? What kinds of books are in the library? Is everyone fine with this arrangement? Who else is interested in the collection?
  • While traveling through the forest, the PCs come across a dead body. The individual seems to have collapsed after a dangerous escape, smoke stains and wounds covering the corpse. On the body are several books in a strange language and a scrap of paper on which is scrawled the name of one of the cities in their region. What do the PCs do with the body? What do they do with the books? Do they know from what region the body is from and why the person died? Can they tell what kinds of books they are?
  • When a religious sect begins to spread strange ideas throughout the land, the PCs are sent to burn all the religious books the sect possesses. Other groups are being sent to scout the books out and destroy them and they are encouraged to burn the books publically. What is in these books the local government wants destroyed? Does the sect only have religious books in their libraries? How are the PCs ordered to treat the members of the sect? How does the rest of the population feel about the burnings? How do they react when they hear the sect is being persecuted?
  • A rich merchant wants to start a public library but lacks the technology to create paper in a feasible way to encourage the production of more books. The PCs are sent to a foreign land to observe the libraries there and to learn how paper is made. Do the PCs make their agenda clear in the foreign land? What do they discover about libraries? Why does the merchant want to start a public library? How do the PCs go about investigating the unknown technology?

For PCs

  • Are you literate?
  • Do you own any books?
  • Have you ever touched a book?
  • What’s the largest amount of books you’ve seen at one time?
  • Do you enjoy reading? Are you a slow reader or a fast reader?
  • What kinds of books do you think should be in libraries?
  • Do you go to the library? What kinds of books do you read there?
  • How do you feel about the destruction of books?
  • Do you enjoy fiction or non-fiction?
  • Do you think there is one form of relaying information that is better than another (scrolls are better than books, etc.)?
  • When gathering information do you ask the librarian for help or do you wander around, trying to sort out how it’s organized yourself?

Here’s some more cool links about libraries:

The Man Who Turned His Home into a Library
Ho Trai
Pitaka Taik
House of Wisdom

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