Flora realises she is lost not when the canopy begins to obscure the sunlight, but when the roots of the buildings begin to seemingly purposefully trip and obstruct her path. She withdraws further into her hood, and on looking down to check her footsteps, notices breadcrumbs. They have evidently been there for some time, sodden from rain, blackened with mould; but they are definitely there, and appear to be leading the way along a track. Looking up, Flora can just see through the buildings to a warm glow in the darkness, some way down the trail. The paper in her hand suggests that she need not go hunting for help as it will find her, but so far she’s not had much luck in getting any. She may as well follow the crumbs, so she shuffles down the trail, hoping that the level of deterioration of crumbs does not equate to false leads. She realises she is hungry: she isn’t sure how long she has been lost, but it seems long enough to develop hopes that the fresh version of the crumb source is available at the end of the trail.
With some difficulty, she navigates to the source of the glow. It’s a building, but different to the ones she’s already passed. It appears to be huddling itself into a nook between the roots of the others, but is nevertheless daunting in its presentation thanks in part to the way it contrasts so much with its surroundings. She’s read about places like this before: they beckon you in with promises of warmth and comfort, you let your guard down, and then next thing you know, you are fighting off surprisingly hairy sweet old ladies whose brooms turn out to not just be a tool for sweeping. However, the temptation is too great, and this isn’t a story told to small children to ward them away from strangers or those whose eyebrows meet in the middle, so she moves closer. The front of the building is broad, and the glow she saw at the start of the track is still the same soft warm light, filtering through small windows. The door is wide, bright, and open, with smells of cinnamon and coffee, and something bitter she can’t quite identify, snaking their way into her nostrils. She pauses, glances around, and gives in. What other option does she have, really?
On entering the building, Flora is surprised to find it filled with bright colours. Considering the external view, the inside is a high contrast. Six-foot-high sofas, giant chairs, stools you would need a stepladder to reach, throw cushions and for some reason, tiny low tables (that couldn’t possibly be reached from the seating) populate the room. But no inhabitants: Flora feels very alone and conspicuous here. The smell of coffee is stronger, but there is a marked lack of cups, and yet some … staining … on the furnishings. It looks sticky and uninviting.
Flora turns with a start to see a tiny figure on one of the cushions. What she initially thought a button is a small bear.
“You need something?” the bear asks.
“I’m lost, but I think I’ve found where I was told to go.”
The bear tilts its head to one side, and presents what can be assumed to be a furry perplexed expression. “Why did you come here?”
“I was told it was the place to go for help?”
“What kind of help?”
“I don’t know, just … help.”
“Who told you to come here?”
“They said I could find things out here.”
“Do you often follow instructions from others without knowing what you want?”
Flora is both irritated and confused. Maybe she made a mistake.
“Do you ever respond with anything other than a question, Mr … ?”
The bear sighs. “I am The Bear. I provide guidance. To provide guidance I need to know what is required as an answer.”
“But I don’t know the answer! That’s why I came here!”
The Bear suddenly appears to increase in size and stature, shows his teeth, and growls “Then I cannot help you if you cannot answer me.” He turns, returns to his original size, and snuggles into the cushion with a snort.
Flora isn’t quite sure what to do next, but it’s warm in here, and so she concludes that she can probably do considerably worse than progress deeper into the building. She turns down what she assumes is a corridor, and finds a large rusty metal gate. Through the gate, she can see about ten metres away that there is a bright area, with lots of movement and what she interprets to be light-hearted noise. She decides it would be a good place to get to. However, the gate is somewhat off-putting. Why is it there? Is she not meant to go that way? The Bear didn’t suggest that she couldn’t go anywhere, but then to be fair The Bear wasn’t really very helpful. So maybe it won’t do any harm to just try pushing the gate a little bit … Flora leans gently against the metal. It seems to give a little. She pushes a little harder. Its resistance appears to be more based on rust than a lock, so she puts all her weight behind it, and it swings open with a loud squeal.
“You could have asked to come in, you know!” the gate exclaims.
The movement and noise further into the building has noticeably reduced. Flora feels momentarily guilty, until she realises that there is nothing to suggest she should ask. “I would have asked had I known that was all I needed to do! I’m sorry!”
“Hmmmm,” the gate ponders. “I’m not sure that it is necessary to know to ask, given that a gate implies entry, and more so a gated entry implies a requirement to request to enter. However, this place is for anyone who may enter, and entry is allowed to those who require it, and if you require entry, then that is what is the important matter in this case.”
Flora begins to wish that she had never bothered leaving home, given that those she has met have so far been rather confusing, and only very partially helpful. But Flora is not one to give up, whatever she might feel might be there to give up on, which in this case, she isn’t quite certain about. She thanks the gate for opening, and tries to be as nonchalant as possible as she strolls towards the source of the noise.
She enters a large, open, brightly lit and colourful area, with very little furniture compared to the other side of the gate, which is good as it would get in the way: there’s lots of movement here. People! At last, people! Lots of people are running around looking very busy indeed. They move around the area flocking from multiple doors to space to corridor, in what appears initially to be randomly, but as she observes more, it begins to strike her as highly organised and purposeful. She dare not stop them to ask what they are doing in case she ruins things. A few metres ahead of her is a desk covered with papers, with a bear seated at it, in front of a set of shelves containing heavily handled textbooks, some dirty cups (one of which has a picture of the bear with a paw around the shoulder of someone vaguely recognisable on it), and a large bushy plant. The Bear! Flora can tell she is clutching at familiarity when she finds she wants to go to speak to someone as unhelpful as The Bear again, but this place has so far been very overwhelming, and a known entity, no matter how problematic, is better than nothing. She runs across to The Bear and greets him.
The Bear smiles at Flora. “Hello! How may I assist you?”
Flora is surprised. This is quite different behaviour to what she saw earlier. “I’m not sure, to be honest. I’ve not really got any further than when I saw you ten minutes ago.”
“Excuse me? I don’t think we’ve met before?”
“But we were just talking on the other side of the gate?!”
“Ahhh! That would be my colleague, The Bear. I’m The Other Bear, but feel free to just call me The Bear if that’s any easier for you.”
Flora feels she really ought to try and get used to feeling totally confused by this place and its inhabitants.
“OK … Oh, but then maybe you can help me! I’ve been sent here, and I’m not really sure what I’m looking for, but I was told that this was the place where I’d find help.”
The Other Bear smiles. “Of course! However, I can’t give you the answer, as that would be telling.”
“Oh … But I don’t even know what I’m asking really, so how do you know?”
“I know. Trust me, I know. But to give you the answer would be inappropriate, so you’ll have to find it out yourself. I can tell you how to find the answer though, or where. Is that OK?”
Flora ponders. This is probably the best she’ll get for now. “OK then. Either or both of those would be good, thank you.”
“In that case, you find the answer through that door over there. How you get it is up to you, but I’d recommend you use the steps outlined on the wall once you get through the door. Thank you, come again!”
“But what if …”
“Thank you, come again!”
“But how do I …”
“Thank you, come again!”
Flora sighs. This is definitely the best she is going to get. She looks towards where The Other Bear is pointing. Lots of the busy looking people keep running in and out of the door there. She looks back towards The Other Bear. He is very busy brushing his ears, and obviously doing his best to ignore her. He peeps up from behind his brush at where Flora still stands, starts, and quickly goes back to grooming himself. The door is not getting any quieter, so Flora looks for a gap in the flock, and makes a run for it.
Behind the door feels like an entirely new place. While people seemed to be rushing in and out of the door on the other side, this area is hushed, and there is very little movement around the area. Rows and rows of wooden tables and benches run the length of the large, softly lit room. The walls are covered in dark wooden panels, with no windows. Anyone visible is sat on a bench with their head bent onto the table, their arms folded beneath their forehead. Flora has a barely controllable urge to start jumping up and down on the tables, or drumming on them. She looks around for the instructions The Other Bear referred her to. On the wall next to her is a piece of glass and above it embossed gold lettering providing ‘instructions’:
Think a third time.
Write a query based on a combination of base 6 numbering and binary, with appropriate written interjections as suits the query (ensure interjections are in Assyrian cuneiform or C++).
Input query using screen below.
Oh. Flora feels quite put out. She can’t even see any way of ‘inputting’ her query on the screen, but at least she’s thinking more about that rather than the query itself, which she has absolutely no idea how to write. And knows no C++ or cuneiform (Assyrian or otherwise). And has a poor grasp of different methods and bases of counting. Flora looks around. Everyone at the tables appears to be motionless, and she dares not ask them any questions. She takes a step towards the screen, creating a thunderous boom with her (soft-soled) shoes. The room’s inhabitants look up at her with disgust and agitation, stare at her indignantly for a few moments, and as one lay their heads back on the tables, tutting like clocks as they do so. This is not good. She begins to crouch down so that she might crawl across the floor on hands and knees to avoid noise, and gets knocked backwards by an oddly silent runner heading towards the door. She just manages to see a flash of him rushing out of the room, hair flaring out behind him as he runs. How did he manage not to disturb anyone? And he’s the first person she’s seen even moving around in this room – where did he come from?! She carefully rotates herself from her rear to her knees, and notices one of her pockets seems to have something in it. There is some kind of calculator type device there now, with a note.
Puzzled, Flora looks at the device. It is like a calculator or a small computer, but with images on the keys instead of letters or numbers. Several of them look quite reassuring and friendly, so she tries pressing a picture of a helpful-looking dog, a mouse pointing at some cheese with a happy face while rubbing its tummy, and a door with an exit sign above it. The device’s screen flickers on, shows some kind of calculation process, then flashes with a collection of numbers, symbols and letters. Flora slides across to the glass. As she approaches it lights up with a panel that - thankfully - has a set of keys including what is displayed on the device screen. She types them in, the glass glows blue, and a small piece of paper comes out of the bottom of it. It says
With some relief, Flora crawls carefully towards the door, and moves out as fast as she can.
She feels oddly glad to be back in the fast, busy movement of the entry area. At least here she doesn’t feel like she is being disruptive. Or not much anyway. So where is the room she needs to visit? What makes it safe? Should she go back to The Other Bear? She decides she doesn’t really have much option but to try and ask.
“Excuse me, please could you direct me to a room I need to find?”
The Other Bear looks up, and evidently decides this is an appropriate question. “Of course! Where is it that you want to go?”
“The safe room?”
The Other Bear looks briefly shocked, but quickly recomposes himself. “I would not advise you to visit The Safe Room. Contrary to its name, it is not safe. Additionally, visiting The Safe Room may result in charges.”
“But isn’t that my choice to make?”
“Perhaps, but I cannot be held responsible for your actions, and will not do anything to advocate such actions, and therefore will not tell you where it is.” The Other Bear spins around on his chair, the plant rustling as he does so. “No! I will not tell!”
Flora is not surprised by the lack of help, but is surprised by the vehemence of the response. So what to do now? Is there anyone else to ask? Lots of people, but all carefully ignoring the conversation she has just had. She wanders towards a corridor.
“Not that one!” someone whispers. “Go through that red door over there.”
She looks towards the whisper, and sees a young woman making busy by the wall next to the corridor, looking at her from the corner of her eyes.
“Thank you!” she whispers back, and heads towards the door. It is marked with lots of signs:
(Editors’ note: The maze graphic is © Nevit Dilmen, from Wikimedia Commons)
Clearly someone does not want people to use this door, but there is nothing to say anybody cannot actually enter it: just that they would prefer it wasn’t used. The decision takes little consideration: Flora tries the handle, and the door swings open freely.
Through the door is a long, blandly painted corridor. Flora follows it. It seems to continue round corner after corner with no other doors leading from it. Flora continues along it for some time. Then reaches an abrupt end. Still no other doors. Was the girl who told her to come this way wrong, and the signs right? But there doesn’t appear to be anywhere to go! She starts to head back the way she came, but as she turns, she notices something odd with the wall to her left. It looks wrong, but she can’t quite say why. It looks kind of wobbly, like heat rising from concrete. Slowly, she reaches forwards and tries to touch the wall, but there is no wall there to touch. There is an alcove masked by the paintwork and something else Flora can’t identify. The simple fact of it being meant to be hidden or disguised by someone makes her want to investigate further, so she tries walking into the alcove, and spies the corridor continues a few metres to a door. As she reaches the door, she can see there are letters on it, painted the same colour as the door, as if to hide them. They say
Well, that wasn’t too bad really, but she would never have found it if the girl in the entry area hadn’t told her to go this way. She tries the handle. It turns, and the door easily swings open away from her.
What is behind the door is both wonderful and terrifying. This is what she had been hoping for. The room is large, with filing cabinets, desks, a coffee machine next to a cake stand, and potted ferns dotted around the area. It feels immediately like this place is useful, or rather more useful than everything else Flora has encountered so far, but she isn’t sure what she needs to do now she is here. Flora wanders around the room, a little overwhelmed, takes a piece of cake, absentmindedly brushing the leaves of a small potted beech tree as she passes it, and browses cabinets as she munches. Then hears a voice.
“You made it! I’m so glad!”
Flora turns to see who she assumes to be the young man who gave her the note. He is slim but broad-shouldered, with a head of long thick spiky green hair. She finds herself smiling for the first time in a while.
“Thank you for the ... thing that helped me do the search.”
“You are welcome. I don’t like to see people go through what I had to. I’ve been here too long to want to see that anymore.”
“How long have you been here?”
“You look tired. Are you OK?”
“I am tired, but I can’t leave now. I’ve set down too many roots here to just go and lose all the progress I’ve made. There’s a small group of us who are working from here, and one of them makes very good cake, so I’ll keep going as long as there’s food and drink here!”
“Mmmm, it is good!” although Flora thinks that cake isn’t really enough to make her want to stay here any longer than she has to. “So I have to find something now. I have information on where this thing is, but I don’t really know where to find it now.”
The man sighs. “I’m afraid all I can do now is point you in the right direction of where the materials are kept.”
“You mean it isn’t in here?”
“Nope. This is just information we’ve been collecting about where things might be. We don’t actually know a lot, but we know how to make the device I passed you. Can I have that back by the way? We don’t have many of them, but there are lots of people who need help with that terminal as much as you did.”
Flora passes the device back to him. “Thanks for lending it to me. I’m not sure I used it right, I just punched in what felt like I wanted.”
He smiles “That’s just what you should have done! It was designed by the lady who brews the coffee for us. She wanted it to be as intuitive as possible without having to think about it, and she’ll be glad it seems to be working.”
“I’ll let you know if it is, when I find what the numbers are pointing me towards! So where do I go to find this?”
He looks at the piece of paper. “Hmmm. That’s one of the smaller warehouses, luckily. I think ...” He opens a filing cabinet, flicks through the tabs in the drawer, and checks it against Flora’s paper. “Mmmm. Not quite the warehouse I was thinking of, but it is still one of the smaller ones. You’ll need to head back down the corridor, through the yellow door, and all the way to the end. There’s a door marked ‘Items for retrieval 6’ there. That’s the one you want.”
“Thank you, I really appreciate it! So why is this room so hidden? Why does it seem to have so many signs telling people to turn back?”
The man sighs. “It helps protect us from the bears, but also the bears are more likely to let us stay around if we aren’t too … overt in our work.” He looks down, and Flora senses this is not a conversation to continue. She thanks him for his help again, and takes the long trip back down the corridor to the yellow door.
Flora, not without trepidation, enters the room the green-haired boy directed her to. Shock. Fear. Confusion. Flora assumes this is a room, but she cannot see a wall at the far end, or even a far end to the room, nor a ceiling. Before her are piles of books. Many piles of books. They climb as high as she can see, the bases of them many metres wide. What happened to the shelves? There is light from somewhere, which allows there to be some visibility, but where to start? The numbers on the paper appear to be meaningless; she crumples it up into a ball and plays with it anxiously in her hand. Where to start?! What to do?! She wanders towards the nearest pile. There must be thousands of books in it. Even if she finds the right pile, what if the book is at the bottom of it, underneath all the others, hidden? Exasperated, Flora folds into a heap, and leans her head against the books behind her.
What was that she saw moving in the corner of her vision just then? There is it again! And there’s a noise, a whirring sound. Trundling around the corner, there appears a large robot on wheels. On its head is a bulb flashing on and off, its face covered by a mask of a ‘smiling’ bear. The robot halts in front of Flora, spins around surprisingly agilely, and beeps. Flora waits a little. It beeps again. Then it waves a metal arm a little irritably, and presses a button on its chest.
“Sorry about that, I forgot I was still set to my own language,” the robot says apologetically. “Do you need anything?”
“Yes!” Flora leaps up excitedly. “I need to find this!” She smooths the paper out in the hope it is still readable, passing it to the robot. The robot examines it carefully, presumably through eyes hidden behind the bear mask.
“Hmmmm. This is a little damaged, you know. I might have to charge you.”
“That’s OK, I’m getting a bit desperate now. Can you help me?”
The robot stares at the paper.
“Yes, I believe I can. I can certainly at the very least assist you with locating where this item is placed. You have come to the correct room, but this will take a little travelling to reach.” The robot twists round, revealing a plate protruding from its back. “Please seat yourself behind me, and fasten the seatbelt. Secure all loose items and or belongings. Should a crash occur, place your head between your knees and pray to ZZZZ INSERT APPROPRIATE DEITY HERE ZZZYYP for forgiveness.”
Flora climbs on, and almost immediately the robot speeds away, light flashing. Several times it abruptly turns at a ninety degree angle and continues in a different direction, to the point that Flora wonders if she’ll be able to find her way back to the entrance. After a few minutes, the robot jolts to a halt and announces “We have arrived. Thank you for travelling with ‘Bearfaced Flights’. Please consider our services for your next travel needs.”
Flora unbuckles the seatbelt and collapses in a bundle to the floor, somewhat relieved. Looking around, she sees they have actually barely moved from where she entered the room. She decides not to bother asking about that.
“So where do I look for ‘my’ item? How do I find it now I’m in the right place?”
The robot raises an antenna from behind its mask, and points it towards the top of one of the piles. “For your convenience, the item you require is placed on top of this selection. You will need to retrieve it from there.”
“How do I know which is the one I’m looking for though?”
“It is the large orange book. I am sure you will manage to locate it.”
And with that, the robot zooms off, light flashing.
Flora takes a deep breath. It appears she will need to do some climbing to reach the item. She isn’t sure how to do this, but clearly there aren’t many other options. She tentatively places her right foot on what appears to be a stable section of the pile of books. It seems sturdy enough. She moves her left foot to join it. Nothing bad happens. She repeats the process. She gains a little confidence. She climbs a little higher, and a little higher. It is at the midpoint of the pile that she realises something is wrong. While the pile is still standing, she seems to be moving away from the top of it. She looks down and sees that the base is expanding as books rapidly move downwards and somewhere at the bottom there must be some kind of liquid as the books are turning into what looks like soggy papier-mâché and it is effectively becoming the information equivalent of quicksand, so the only way Flora can go is up. She pushes upwards and climbs and climbs and her shoes slip off but she doesn’t care, and she uses her toes to push further up but she can’t push any more as there is nothing but papery sludge to push against and she is sliding down and she can’t move as the slurry of paper is sucking her in and she doesn’t know what to do and now she is up to her waist and she can’t feel any floor even though she is nearly that far down again now but wait. The boy from the Safe Room is here. He is moving towards her and he takes her hand and heaves but the slurry doesn’t want to let her go and he heaves on her arms again and she wonders how he can manage to stand on the mush and she sees that his feet are much broader and more wooden? than they should be but that doesn’t matter now as she is moving and he’s pulling her OUT of the mess and she is FREE, and he lifts her up, and places a book on her and she sees it must be the one she needs and he carries her out of the room. And the people and The Other Bear all stare at them as he walks by the desk area, and the people cheer and The Other Bear looks irritated and Flora notices rather oddly that there seems to be a plant missing from behind the desk now, but that doesn’t matter as they have beaten it, whatever it is, and they have the answer, and he carries her out of the building with the answer to use as they see fit and
STOP. Wait. Is that right? TRY AGAIN.
Flora takes a deep breath. It appears she will need to do some climbing to reach the item. She isn’t sure how to do this, but clearly there aren’t many other options. She tentatively places her right foot on what appears to be a stable section of the pile of books. It seems sturdy enough. She moves her left foot to join it. Nothing bad happens. She repeats the process. She gains a little confidence. She climbs a little higher, and a little higher. It is at the midpoint of the pile that she realises something is wrong. While the pile is still standing, she seems to be moving away from the top of it. She looks down and sees that the base is expanding as books rapidly move downwards and somewhere at the bottom there must be some kind of liquid as the books are turning into what looks like soggy papier-mâché and it is effectively becoming the information equivalent of quicksand, so the only way Flora can go is up. She pushes upwards and climbs and climbs and her shoes slip off but she doesn’t care, and she uses her toes to push further up but she somehow feels her toes getting longer and her hands seem to be able to grasp the ledges better as her fingers seem longer and she climbs and she climbs and pushes ahead and she’s at the top and she grabs the book that is probably the one and she leaps. She leaps, and lands on solid ground with the book in her hand. Or what was a hand, but now seems to be developing into a set of twigs. Her feet are acting in the same way, her toes lengthening into little root-like tubers. Oddly, Flora doesn’t feel that this is a surprise, or a bad thing. She strides into the entry room and passes the desk and The Other Bear stares at her agog and the people all stare at her in awe and she strides by them and lets them see that she HAS THE BOOK and they clap and nod or bow to her as she passes them and she leaves as she can now that she has the answer and she has found out what she needed to.
STOP. Hold on a moment. That still isn’t quite right.
She pushes upwards and climbs and climbs and her shoes slip off but she doesn’t care, and she uses her toes to push further up but she somehow feels her toes getting longer and her hands seem to be able to grasp the ledges better as her fingers seem longer and she climbs and she climbs and pushes ahead and she’s at the top and she grabs the book that is probably the one and she leaps. She leaps, and lands on solid ground with the book in her hand. Or what was a hand, but now seems to be developing into a set of twigs. Her feet are acting in the same way, her toes lengthening into little root-like tubers. Oddly, Flora doesn’t feel that this is a surprise, or a bad thing. She strides into the entry room and passes the desk and The Other Bear stares at her agog and the people all stare at her in awe and she strides by them and lets them see that she HAS THE BOOK and they clap and nod or bow to her as she passes them and she leaves as she can now that she has the answer and she has found out what she needed to.
But she doesn’t leave. She stops, and goes back. She knows what she needs to do. She places the book gently on the desk, and The Other Bear shrinks away from her, looking down hiding his eyes. She notices the plant from behind the desk is missing, but the pot is still there. She runs her ‘hand’ through her hair, and finds it to be sprouting leaves. This seems like the right place, but it isn’t her place, and she needs to move quickly now. She leaves the area, and heads to the Safe Room again. There’s no problem reaching it now. It is clear she no longer has anything to be afraid of. She lifts her now bulky feet into the room, and finds a corner. The corner. An empty pot. She finds herself a comfortable position, and waits. She knows she won’t need to wait too long.
Flora’s experiences are inspired by personal observations as librarian and as student, drawn from experience of many institutions, and from sharing experiences with peers who have often observed and dealt with similar behaviour and interactions. The students, the bears and the setting are not directly attributable to any specific individuals/institutions, and should not be interpreted as representations as such. I should also emphasise that this isn’t necessarily representative of what librarians do, or how they behave, but how students can perceive their experiences of using a library and their interactions with any library staff, not just librarians (all library staff are librarians in the eyes of many who visit them).
This story would not have existed were it not for the help of many people, but in particular, Becky Gregson-Flynn who reminded me that fairy tales are good, and Helen Walker and Shannon Robalino who helped provide obscure or difficult languages for the search method.