Most travelers do not notice anything unusual the first time they approach the village. In most respects it is unremarkable. Following the road through a gap in the crumbling town walls, one walks by rows of modest wooden houses with angled roofs. A little farther along the street broadens as homes give way to shops, cafés and taverns. Finally, at the foot of the hill, the road ends in a cul-de-sac ringed with imposing buildings hewn from white stone. At the top of the hill, however, where one expects to see the looming silhouette of a castle or a church, stands the Library.
It had been forty years since the Library needed a new apprentice. Word spread quickly throughout the village and then across the countryside on the lips of traders, travelers, and vagrants. Before long the village was overrun, its cafes and taverns packed with bearded and bespectacled hopefuls wearing the robes of foreign lands. For weeks the First Assistant of the Library read through stacks of books written by the candidates as well as the letters of introduction written on their behalf. Finally, he presented the Librarian with a list of four favorites.
On the day of the first snow these final four candidates were summoned to the Library. It took them nearly an hour to arrive, for along the way they were forced to weave through the throngs of disappointed candidates already making their way out of the village.
Each of the four had studied widely since their arrival. The Librarian was said to ask difficult questions, though none of them had been able learn what these questions might be. Yet when the time came for each candidate to speak with the Librarian they were surprised that he had only one question:
“What is the source of your desire to work in the Library?”
The first candidate stroked his thin beard as he considered the question.
Finally, he said: “I want to know.”
“Then I cannot help you,” the Librarian said.
The second candidate appeared as perplexed by the question as the first had been. She raised her eyes to the ceiling for several seconds before smiling at the Librarian.
“I want to understand,” she said.
Her smile faltered as the old man said, “Then I cannot help you.”
From the first it was plain that the next candidate, the youngest of the four, was earnest and humble. As the Librarian asked his question the young candidate gazed with wonder at the books that lined the walls.
“I want to learn,” the third candidate said without pause. The Librarian nodded. On a small slip of paper he inscribed a note granting the young man access to every corner of the library and handed it across the desk.
“You are welcome here any time,” the Librarian said, “but I cannot use you as an apprentice.”
It was the way of the Library to accept or refuse each candidate in turn rather than speak with them all and then select the most deserving among them. A given candidate was either suitable or unsuitable. Better to refuse them all and begin the entire process again than allow mediocrity into the Library.
“What is the source of your desire to work in the Library?” The Librarian asked for the fourth time.
The fourth candidate said only, “I want to be.”
The Librarian nodded. Rising from his chair he said, “Your apprenticeship will begin with a discussion of dust . . .”