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Shadows and Time
Bar Harbor
The Librarian paged through my day’s writing with one of his tentacles. Coming to the end, he turned his eye stalks back to me. “Very good, Nathaniel, this is exactly what we wanted. Now, as is traditional, I will spend a time interval answering some questions for you. What would you like to know?”

Previous times of answering had told me much about the strange situation I found myself in, but I still felt far from understanding. “I know that your race can travel through time. And I know that you have collected all the knowledge of the ages into this library. But I do not understand why. What is all this knowledge for? <lj-cut>

“Your question contains many unexamined assumptions which make it difficult to answer. I doubt we can conclude within one time interval. However, we can at least begin.

“You say that we “collect all knowledge”. This is not so. “Knowledge” is, like most words, imprecise. Let us first address the meaning “data; facts”. To collect all data would be impossible, redundant, and worthless. Your philosopher Lewis Carroll has a story about a map which is exactly the same size as the territory it depicts. Such a map saves no space, nor can it be unfolded without covering up the very territory that it describes.

“To the people of my own race, who can move our perceptions through space and time, there is no need to collect data. All the data is accessible at once. It does not need to be collected, it is merely necessary to look when we need a piece of data.

“What matters is not raw data, but summaries. Everything that matters is a summary. A scientific equation summarizes many pieces of raw data. A book summarizes some of the accumulated wisdom of the author. Even your sense data is not a direct reflection of the universe, but a processed summary presented by your sense organs to your brain. And a library summarizes a culture.

“What makes a summary valuable is the very fact that it leaves out things, that it is more concise than the raw data that went into its making.

“A human writer approached this idea a few decades after your home time in a story called “The Library of Babel”. He conceived of a library which contained every possible book, formed of every possible combination of letters. This library, however, was useless. The vast majority of possible books are mere gibberish. Of those which have any degree of sense, there is no way to easily tell which are true, which are false, or even which are indeterminate.

“We, the Great Librarians, enact the construction of libraries which are, to the best of our ability, true and useful summaries.

“You and I are part of The Library of Sol, which summarizes the history of this solar system and all the varied planets and cultures which have been (or will be) a part of it. But we are just a small branch library. We primarily exist to answer questions submitted by researchers of the Milky Way Library. And they, in their turn, exist to answer questions submitted by Librarians of a yet higher order, and so on.

“There are rumors and myths among us about the nature of the Universal Library, and what questions it serves to answer, but I doubt that any of them are true.”

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I like this short fic, or meta reflection, whichever you'd call it.

... huh. Very neat ideas here, and they actually have some bearing on stuff I'm working on. (Can talk about it when next we get together.) Must ponder...

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