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Libraries and refuge

In SyFy’s Alice, a reimagining of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Alice falls through the Looking Glass and lands in Wonderland, where she’s befriended of sorts by Hatter. He’s a rather shady but likeable member of the resistance against the Queen of Hearts, who is malevolently harvesting the emotions of humans—a kind of opium for the residents of Wonderland—which she uses to control her subjects. When Hatter takes Alice to meet the resistance’s leader, they enter a library.

Alice: What is this place?

Hatter: The Great Library. There’s 5,000 years of history hidden here. Art, literature, law—rescued when the Queen of Hearts seized power. She’d like nothing more than to see this burned to nothing.

Alice looks down at the people below them, some dressed in tattered clothing and others lying on cots.

Alice: Who are those poor people?

Hatter: Refugees. Those who don’t want to be a part of the Queen’s world of instant gratification. We give them shelter and try to feed them the best we can but—it’s dangerous. If the queen found out they wouldn’t stand a chance.

Alice: Why does she want to destroy all of this?

Hatter: Wisdom is the biggest threat. She controls people with a quick fix.
I’ve always loved libraries. Some of my strongest and clearest childhood memories are of being in them. The scent of all those books walking in the door. Shelf after shelf of bound paper. The weight of a book and the feel of the paper. The power of knowing how to use the card catalog and the giddy (and admittedly geeky) excitement walking down row after row—each spine a potential doorway to an expanse and depth of new and undiscovered lands of story, information, and wisdom. Everything outside that building dropped away when I walked through those glass doors and the only things left were the books on the shelves.

And to this day, I still feel that way every time I walk into a library—which is one of the reasons I loved the above scene in SyFy's Alice. But that scene also got me thinking: Exactly what is it about libraries that make them a resonating image or symbol of refuge?

When I thought about it, I realized that libraries as refuge periodically makes its appearance as such in films and literature. In The Day After Tomorrow, a group of people take refuge in the New York Public Library to avoid a massive killer storm that instantly freezes everything in its path. The iconic Breakfast Club takes place in a library, in which the whole world (even, for the most part, adult intervention) is shut out as a diverse group of teenagers in Saturday detention learn to appreciate and empathize with each other in a way they never would have outside those doors.

When I twittered out asking for other examples, Joseph McBee noted that libraries are havens of sorts in the eclectic Thursday Next novels by Jasper Fford, and Elizabeth Rambo pointed out that in Fahrenheit 451 people take refuge by becoming a library. Ken Morefield brought up the With Honors, in which Joe Pesci stars as a homeless man living in the Harvard university library. There’s also some great lists of films that take place in or have scenes in libraries (including the classic scene in The Mummy which illustrates the way not to set up your shelves in a library, heh).

So, what about libraries draws storytellers to use them as places of refuge where safety can be found? At The Free Library, an article entitled “Libraries in times of war, revolution, and social change” touches on this:

The collections and services of libraries and related agencies, such as museums and archives, are important components of social and institutional memory. They are both physical places of intellectual work and highly symbolic places. They represent national and cultural identity and aspirations. They are venues for individualized access to educational and cultural resources. They are also part of an infrastructural continuum for disseminating information, forming opinion, and providing literate recreation. At one end of the infrastructural continuum lie telecommunications, mass media, and more recently the Internet and the World Wide Web. Libraries have traditionally been situated at the other end of this continuum as places of access to the historical diversity of opinion represented in cumulating collections of printed materials, though in the digital era they are clearly moving to a more central position on this continuum….
Most of the films and stories mentioned get at this at some level. But what intrigues me about Alice is that it overtly uses the library as a physical refuge not only for the history, opinion, stories, philosophy, and art it contains but also people.

The Day After Tomorrow is the only other film I can remember treating a library like this. As a group of people physically seek refuge from a threatening nature, they also acknowledge the value of and need to protect or preserve the works contained within it. At one point, several people gather books to burn in a fireplace as fuel in order to ward off the killer cold that is advancing on them and two of them argue over whether or not to burn a work by Freedrich Nietzche (via Wikipedia):
Jeremy: Friedrich Nietzsche? We cannot burn Friedrich Nietzsche! He was the most important thinker of the 19th century!

Elsa: Oh, please! Nietzsche was a chauvinist pig who was in love with his sister.

Jeremy: He was not a chauvinist pig!

Elsa: But he was in love with his sister.

On the floor below them, another young man interrupts them.

Brian: Uh, excuse me, you guys? Yeah. There's a whole section on tax law down here that we can burn.
At another point, a man who’s declared himself an atheist clutches the Gutenberg Bible:
Elsa: What have you got there?

Jeremy: A Gutenberg Bible. It was in the rare books room.

Elsa: You think God's gonna save you?

Jeremy: No, I don't believe in God.

Elsa: You're holding onto that bible pretty tight.

Jeremy: I'm protecting it. This Bible is the first book ever printed. It represents the dawn of the Age of Reason. As far as I'm concerned, the written word is mankind's greatest achievement. You can laugh. But if Western civilization is finished, I'm gonna save at least one little piece of it.
(This latter conversation is an interesting choice for the writers, in my opinion, but that’s a conversation for another time, heh).

Alice also acknowledges the value of and need to preserve or protect the contents of the Great Library (particularly in the conversation above). Interestingly, however, when it comes to the people, they are not simply seeking refuge from an arbitrary nature as in The Day After Tomorrow but a political system and cultural threat that seeks to manipulate and control the emotions of its people. And that got me thinking a little more deeply about the value of the contents of libraries, why they are a threat to some powers that be and ultimately why libraries work as a symbol of refuge—both for the works it contains and for people.

History, art, stories, law, philosophy—they all explore and reflect something about what it means to be human and live in this world. In some way, they all get at who we are and why we do the things we do. They tell us something about ourselves, the world we live in, the people we walk with and those with whom we cross paths. They vary in accuracy and how much truth they reflect; the best of them reflect human nature and the way the world works in reality, but even the worst of them teach us something about ourselves and the world. They invite us to reflect on our lives and consider our strengths, gifts and flaws. They provoke us to examine what we believe and why. They help us think through the issues facing us in our own lives and, if we are intentional, they can even change the way we approach life, people and the world.

In a sense, they all tell a part of and contribute to a larger story—our human story. And there is a deep value in knowing that story because it reveals what it means to be human and gives us wisdom and context in which to examine and explore our own experience, how and why we relate to each the way we do, and the decisions and choices we make that will affect the future. In The Day After Tomorrow Jack Hall is asked what he thinks is going to happen to humanity after the disaster. Jack responds, “Mankind survived the last Ice Age. We're certainly capable of surviving this one. All it depends on is whether or not we're able to learn from our mistakes.” Or, as Winston Churchill put it, “The further backward you look, the further forward you are likely to see.” Much of the wisdom to make good and right choices is grown in our individual and collective experience or “stories”—and a library is a vast collection of these stories.

A library, then, can be understood as both a physical and symbolic collection of the bigger, human story—and there is power, value and wisdom in knowing that larger story. And while that kind of power, value and wisdom may not be a physical sanctuary, it is a refuge of a deeper sort. Films and stories that use a library as a physical refuge accentuate that.

I can’t help but think, however, how all this reflects the value of knowing the Story. It is the context in which all the stories of our experience reside. Perhaps in some ways, the Story is an ultimate symbolic Library, and by its light we discover the truth as well as the darkness within each of our own stories. Ultimately, in that Library we discover who God is and what he can and will do, and that gives us the truest wisdom and refuge.

Alice gets at the threat of some negative and harmful aspects of our current culture that distract us from remembering our larger stories—be they stories of history and philosophy, literature and art, or the Story itself. And the Queen of Hearts’ desire to destroy Wonderland’s Great Library is not without connections to our own world. Storehouses of opinion, stories, history and philosophy can be threatening to some people and powers that be—including religion. I don’t have enough time or energy to research the history of religion and libraries, but the brief research I did do showed a mixed relationship, perhaps best encapsulated in The Library of Constantinople and the Monastery of Stoudios in which those of faith both advocated and sought to destroy libraries.

But I digress. What resonates with me in stories like Alice and The Day After Tomorrow is the theme of the power in knowing our stories—be it history, fiction, art, philosophy, law or the Story itself. And when those stories are collected and shared, that power grows. It gives us the ability to examine ourselves and our choices together. It helps us examine, evaluate and react to the culture and powers that be. And stories that use libraries as physical refuge invite us to recall the larger stories in which we reside.

And, again, all this reminds me of the power and sanctuary of knowing the Story—the ultimate Story in which we each live our lives and make our choices. Yes, libraries—those vast storage houses and congresses of all that we have been and of all the stories of who we are and what we’ve explored—are amazing and wonderful symbols of our human experience and shared stories. But how much more is the power and peace of knowing the Library in which all those stories are contained.

(Images: Alice, SyFy Channel; Day After Tomorrow, 20th Century Fox)


Joseph said…
What a thoughtful and rich post. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

I have said this to you before, but you have a depth of insight into popular culture, literature, film, etc. that not many possess. It's a gift and a skill, and one I am thankful you share with us here.
Carmen Andres said…
joe--you are too kind, thank you. i enjoy your blog too!