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The Rolling Library

Written by Mitch Townsend

June 1636, near Saalfeld

“You know, I think these beasts would make better food than transportation,” said Gerhardt Schaeffer. “They are as slow as possible without standing still.” The oxen were oblivious or indifferent to the insult. The road had been graded and graveled. It still had some bumps, but not bad ones at their speed. Maybe it would be paved soon.

“I agree,” said Johann Semler. “But if we ate them, their work would fall to us, and I doubt you would like that any better.”

TRL-cws“Good point,” said Gerhardt. “Patience, I suppose. And we would need four horses for this wagon instead of two oxen. The extra speed would not make much difference with the short distances between stops. Are we still on schedule?”

“I think so. We should be in the next village well before nightfall. That will give us plenty of time to take returns and sign out new borrowings tomorrow morning, and then be on our way. We should be able visit the next village tomorrow afternoon and still reach Saalfeld tomorrow night, then a couple of stops on the way back to Grantville.”

“What do we have coming in and going out? I mean, besides the romance novels and the science fiction.”

TRL-mm“Let’s see. Gone With the Wind. An introductory accounting textbook. Goethe and Schiller. They asked for an up-time world atlas, but we have none to lend. We have a few atlases they can look at while we’re there. They’re getting two copies of the Grantville newspapers, so don’t forget to collect for that. They will also be getting the current Grange newsletter and a few back issues. Some things from the Committees of Correspondence; no charge.”

“No science books?”

“Just two coming back, an introduction to astronomy and a child’s engineering book, The Way Things Work.”

“Amazing, isn’t it, that there could be such a thing as a child’s engineering book? A few years ago, I would have thought Latin for Cattle to be more likely. My brother thought I was crazy for suggesting it, but it has been a bestseller for us.”

It was not an unpleasant trip, to Johann’s thinking. It was more like July or August, really. It had rained two days ago after they had sheltered for the night, and the roads had dried quickly in the warmth. And Gerhardt wasn’t really a bad sort. His complaints seemed to be more making conversation than whining, and a good mood was never long in coming. It was unusual that Gerhardt had asked to be the second driver on the Rolling Library. The Schaeffer brothers certainly had enough business that they didn’t need to pass the time looking at the backsides of oxen. Gerhardt and his brother Thomas had been very generous in donating the first books for the Rolling Library. Extra copies for libraries had been part of their standard agreement with the bookbinders. At fifty Grantville dollars a copy for the better-illustrated books, that amounted to, well, a lot of money. At those prices, though, poor farmers were not going to be buying them anyway, so the booksellers were not losing sales. The villagers had pooled their money for the wagon and oxen, and had begun to buy more books, usually cheaper. Romance novels, history, and science fiction were always in demand.


This village had prospered, it seemed. The war might have been a hundred years ago, in a faraway country. The children were well clothed, some of the houses had been freshly whitewashed, and there were plenty of cattle and sheep. Johann and Gerhardt were staying with an older couple whose children had married. Johann noticed that the wife had a treadle-powered drum carder for wool, although the spinning wheel was the old-fashioned kind. They owned and displayed two modern hurricane oil lamps and a crystal radio. Supper was lamb stew with potatoes, carrots, and early peas, left simmering for them until they arrived. Potatoes were coming to signify modernity among farmers. Their host couple did not seem the chatty type, and after setting out pallets and bran pillows near the fire, climbed up to the loft. Johann thought this was a little unusual—most people liked hearing the news from other places on their route.

The next morning, people began lining up at the table outside the library wagon. Calling it a line was an exaggeration. There were five children with mothers and fathers and three men by themselves. Usually most of the village would turn up when he drove into town, whether or not they intended to borrow a book.

The headman came up and cleared his throat. “I am deeply sorry, Herr Schaeffer,” the headman began, “but I must ask if you can wait while we resolve this unfortunate issue.”

“And what issue is that, Herr Fuchs?” asked Gerhardt. It was a sharper tone than Johann had been used to hearing.

“Well, it’s about the book, the illustrated one,” said the headman. “Rest assured, sir, they will soon have the truth out of them. We’ve had them taken to Saalfeld to see the magistrate. We will have the book returned and the thieves punished. I hope you will accept my most profound apologies, sir.”


When the Schaeffer brothers had approached Marietta Fielder with the idea of a Rolling Library, she had approved it with the proviso that the Grantville library would lend only what could be spared. As it turned out, the Grantville library contributed only a small portion of the Rolling Library’s books. The point was to make books available to ordinary Germans, so they had to be in the German language. That meant that only down-time translations and copies would be circulated. The prestige of Grantville’s library was more important to the program. Now it looked like the library’s name was being dragged into a down-time dispute.

“They think a lost book is a hanging matter? That seems a little extreme to me,” she said.

“I think so, too,” said Gerhardt, “especially since it’s a twelve-year-old boy and his father. They were taken to Saalfeld for investigation. It would be better for them if the book had been ruined, since that would have ruled out theft, but they would still be required to pay for it.”

“Why can’t they just pay for it then?”

“I don’t think they could,” said Gerhardt. “It was an expensive book, and if the borrower cannot replace it, the village will have to. To make matters worse, there seems to be some bad blood between the family that borrowed the book and the headman. From what I know of Grantville, this was not unusual in your own small towns. The book is one we translated, illustrated, and printed. It is a down-time German version of The Way Things Work that we contributed to the Grantville library. It would be a much smaller matter if it had been a romance novel, but that is one of the most expensive books we sell. Children’s books are much harder to make, with all the illustrations, and you must have much shorter print runs. Engravings, etchings, woodcuts, whatever, they all wear out quickly, and most are still hand-colored if not black and white. Anyway, we are not officially involved. Even though we helped start the Rolling Library, we do not own any part of it, so the debt is not owed to us. The villages on the route own the whole thing.”

“So where do I fit in?” asked Marietta. “Can’t the library just write it off as a loss, tell them all is forgiven, drop the investigation?”

“Perhaps it may come to that, but I would rather avoid it. What happens when the next book is lost? And the one after that? If we cannot be sure of having them returned, we should not lend them. No, I want to avoid setting a bad example. All I need from you is the Grantville library’s stamp. I’m donating my personal copy, but it has to look like it came from the Grantville library. I am going to substitute this one for the missing book and claim it was a paperwork error, a clerical mistake, or something like that. It was there all along, as far as anyone will know.”

Marietta knew that this book was one of Gerhardt’s personal favorites. It was not so much a translation as a re-creation in seventeenth-century German terms. The mammoths and angels in the original had to go; no one down-time knew anything about mammoths, and angels were a religious complication. Instead, Gerhardt had asked the artists to use dragons as heat sources, elephants to push, zebras to pull, griffins for aerial work, and dwarves for skilled labor. Most of the devices had been changed as well, but they still showed the evolution from simple machines to up-time magic. This version, though, showed branches into technologies that had existed long before the Ring of Fire. The television section showed flip-card cartoons, then magic lantern and cyclorama shows from the nineteenth century, movies from cartoon stills, and live action movies. The intermediate steps for inventions were meant to show what could be done now.

“Sure, if that’s all it takes. Here, give it to me.” She pasted a card pocket inside the back cover, put a sticker on the spine, made up a catalog sticker, and stamped the title page with the Grantville library’s name. It always hurt her a little, defacing the beautiful calfskin bindings.


Thomas Schaeffer felt guilty about it, but what else could he do? The authorities could not torture the boy or his father under SoTF law, thanks to the up-timers, but German standards of justice still permitted flogging, branding, and hanging for theft. Holding them in prison was bad enough, maybe enough to kill them before the magistrate could do so. Anyway, it was partly his and his brother’s fault for asking the library to circulate such a costly book. Maybe they should take the expensive volumes out of circulation, but children needed the picture books. They would need to find a way to make them cheaper and more plentiful. That was a problem for another day.

And so he found himself in the German language children’s section, feeling as conspicuous as whore in church, as the up-timers said. As a library donor, he was not likely to be questioned, or so he told himself, and he was probably not being watched as closely as he feared. After four or five trips to the row in the children’s section where it was shelved, he slipped a copy of The Way Things Work (as interpreted by down-time Germans, namely himself, his brother, and their associates) under his shirt, wishing they had printed it in something smaller than quarto. He wondered why no one noticed an unusually squarish German walking stiff-legged toward the exit, but somehow they missed it. Thank God he had always found enough work to feed himself, for he would have had a very short career as a thief. The young woman at the front desk recognized him, smiled, and waved.

“Hello, Thomas. How’s little Jerry doing?” It was Maria Muellerin, one of Lena’s friends.

“Oh, uh, just fine. Teething, you know, but fine.” He fervently wished he was anywhere else, that Fraulein Muellerin would develop a very fast-acting case of laryngitis, or that the building would catch fire. The corners of the book were sticking into him.

“He is?” said Maria. “Already? He is growing so fast, he will be a grown man soon!” Thomas was sure his son was a remarkable little fellow, but right now, he had no urge to expound upon the subject.

“Yes, well, then I had better get back before that happens.” He somehow managed not to sprint for the exit, and the guard did not even draw his pistol.

The next part was easier. He came back with his own unmarked copy in a satchel. He opened it for inspection and passed inside. He went back to the children’s section and left it in the empty space on the shelf. It wasn’t exactly stealing now, since he had exchanged an identical volume. Someone would be mystified that there was no card pocket or marking on the spine, but Thomas would leave it as a mystery. Whoever processed it would have to come up with his own explanation. Besides, he would continue making more donations from what they printed, so no one but he was out anything.

The rest was not bad. The wagon was locked in the garage that had been their first print shop. The lease had another year and some months to run, and the Schaeffers had warehouse space nearer to their new shop, so they donated the use of the garage to the library for the time being. It was an important cause, and they could spare it. He counted three studs from the left corner, stood on a box, and felt around for the spare key hanging on its nail. He unlocked the shelf on the side where the children’s books were kept, but after thinking a bit, he opened the back of the wagon and placed it in the middle of a stack of newspapers. Newspapers would either be sold, replaced, or put in the archive soon enough, so the book would be discovered. He hoped it would be in time. If not, he would have to think of something else.


Little Martin Geldner was inconsolable. The other children cried when their brother and father had been taken away, but Martin was still sobbing the next morning and refused to eat. Five-year-old boys do not stop eating unless everything has been devoured or something is seriously wrong. His mother was too distraught to deal with him, or even to notice it, since she herself could not eat and broke into tears at intervals throughout the day. Her mother, though, saw that something was amiss with her grandson and was determined to search it out.

“What is it, Martin? Do you feel sick?” she asked. His forehead was not warm, and the sniffling was clearly from crying. He shook his head and pulled up the blanket over his head. “Martin, come out of there. Come out, Martin.”

“It’s all my fault,” he wailed. “Here, take it back.” He held out a fuzzy yellow ball with something written on it.

“Who is Wilson?” she asked, “and why do you have his ball, Martin?”

“I traded the book for this ball. Not Wilson. Georg Fuchs traded it with me,” he said.

With the tennis ball in hand, Martin and his grandmother went to the headman’s house to demand the book in exchange for the tennis ball, then get her grandson and son-in-law released. She was not too old to walk to Saalfeld, but too old to rush there. Let that puffed-up Fuchs fellow do the explaining.


“Johann, someone in that village is destined to be a great clergyman. It may not have been on the scale of the loaves and fishes, but three books for one is a bit of a miracle.” Gerhardt did not know where the third copy had come from, and was not about to reveal his own participation.

TRLvllg“That may be,” said Johann. “Anyway, I think they can be put to good use. They are starting a subscription among the villages near Ilmenau for their own Rolling Library. Suhl is thinking of starting a public library as well, a stationary one. The gunsmiths there would not like to see any other towns get ahead of them in learning and applying technology.”

“Good,” said Gerhardt. “I’m glad to see the idea spreading. It should become self-sustaining in time.”

“In time,” said Johann, “but not just yet. You should not be surprised to see the Schaeffer brothers and their company approached for donations soon. No good deed goes unpunished.”

“Hmm. I liked it better when it was ‘For whoever has, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whoever has not, from him shall be taken away even that he has.’ Now that we have something, they have changed it!”