Open Secrets

“Welcome to the walking tour of Historic Downtown Portsmouth. Our first stop is one of the most precious buildings in the city’s history. Millions of citizens have crossed Portsmouth Public Library’s Main Branch doors since it opened in Earth Year 1914.”

As the group stood in front of the two-story red-brick building, my eyes roved over the smooth columns, wide stone steps, and arched glass windows staring out at Court Street like they were guarding a precious vault.

Indeed, libraries were a vault. A vault of thousands of books spanning the literary history of this world. I’d spent years of my life within its walls, hiding in the safety of stories written by authors across the racial, religious, and gender spectrum. It was safe in the same way that my own home wasn’t.

“If you’ll follow me inside, we can get started,” the tour guide Davine spoke, looking out over our group with shining eyes. I wondered if she’d spent as much time in this place as I had.

The two sets of double glass doors opened automatically, a change from the manual doors I’d pulled open day after day, year after year. I hadn’t been to Earth in three decades, my birth town twice as long. I found myself nervous to see how this treasured haven had evolved.

When we stepped onto the main floor, I stumbled to a halt. I heard vague grumbling as people moved around me, but I was shocked at the open space before me.

“Our Main Branch has undergone several renovations over the past fifty years. The city council voted in Earth Year 2131 to expand to the empty lot next door,” Davine said, her voice lowered. “This gave us an additional 3,000 square feet of space. That’s enough to hold roughly 15,000 new books.

“The different sections were given larger, digital signage so patrons could spot what they were looking for no matter where they were on the main floor. The reference section is to your right and is solely dedicated to different branches of history. None can be removed from the building.”

I’d loved exploring the world history books. It was my way of learning about cultures from outside of the United States. The books provided my earliest exposure to Earth history, which eventually led me to diving into the impact of the planet on the wider solar system.

“To our left are printed copies of both the Virginian-Pilot, which is Hampton Road’s primary newspaper, six major national newspapers, and a few others from across Canada and even Mexico. We’re still working on gaining permission from a few countries in Europe and Africa to import their biggest newspapers.”

No one spoke as we moved further into the library, but I couldn’t stop gazing at the floor-to-ceiling windows. The entire back wall showed the Elizabeth River that crossed between Portsmouth and Norfolk. I remember sneaking out of the library to take the ferry over to Norfolk’s Waterfront Park. Looking back, it wasn’t my most responsible decision, but hey, it was a free ride, and I was back at the library before my mom was due to pick me up anyway, so…

“The children’s section is in the basement, but it also houses our expanded computer lab. The library initially only had 120 computers available to the public once the Internet finally became cost-efficient for cities to invest in. Now the computer lab has nearly 500 computers set up for use, 100 of which are set aside for online schooling for children who can’t attend traditional school buildings.”

The checkout counter was the same as far as I could see: a U-shaped, walnut-colored, chest-high desk set up in the middle of the floor. There were five stations set up for patrons, four more than I’d had, but they were all being used, and each station had several people waiting. I wish I could tell you my eyes didn’t feel unbearably warm at the sight.

Each table set up behind the checkout counter had at least two people, books spread out across the laminate surfaces. The soft click of fingers smashing across keyboards, paper turning, and voices mumbling echoed off the high ceilings, all of which held hanging halogen lights at three-foot intervals. Even with the natural light coming from outside, the lights added an ambiance that made the environment seem like a seventeenth-century space where scribes penned out scrolls for the elite.

“Elevators at each corner of the library provide open-air access to the second floor,” Davine said, pointing to the closest elevator. “If you’re feeling funky, you can also take the stairs. The entire floor holds our fiction collection and is broken down by subgenre.”

The group let out soft chuckles. My lips barely twitched. As much as I loved the steps leading into the library, I was even more obsessed with the staircases inside. These now winded up in large circles, with wooden bannisters shining like the Milky Way on a clear night.

“Before we move on with the tour, you should know you no longer have to be an Earth resident to get a library card here. All citizens, no matter your planet of origin, can get an online subscription to the entire Portsmouth Library system,” Davine added before leading us back to the double glass doors. “An informed citizenry is a powerful citizenry. This is Portsmouth’s way of contributing to the solar system’s efforts to universalize all knowledge.”

This time, the tears flowed freely. Neptune was still working on building out its collection of books from across the Milky Way. I’d have a chance to bring new knowledge to my people.

The first thing I’d do when I got home was write a thank-you note to the Council for sending me on this mission. Earth had no idea what trouble it had just walked into.

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