Jorge Luis Borges wrote a profoundly affecting short story in 1941 about an infinite library, titled The Library of Babel.
Borges’s narrator describes how his universe consists of an enormous expanse of adjacent hexagonal rooms, each of which contains the bare necessities for human survival—and four walls of bookshelves. Though the order and content of the books is random and apparently completely meaningless, the inhabitants believe that the books contain every possible ordering of just 25 basic characters (22 letters, the period, the comma, and the space). Though the vast majority of the books in this universe are pure gibberish, the library also must contain, somewhere, every coherent book ever written, or that might ever be written, and every possible permutation or slightly erroneous version of every one of those books. The narrator notes that the library must contain all useful information, including predictions of the future, biographies of any person, and translations of every book in all languages. Conversely, for many of the texts some language could be devised that would make it readable with any of a vast number of different contents.
Despite — indeed, because of — this glut of information, all books are totally useless to the reader, leaving the librarians in a state of suicidal despair. This leads some librarians to superstitions and cult-like behaviors, such as the “Purifiers”, who arbitrarily destroy books they deem nonsense as they scour through the library seeking the “Crimson Hexagon” and its illustrated, magical books. Others believe that since all books exist in the library, somewhere one of the books must be a perfect index of the library’s contents; some even believe that a messianic figure known as the “Man of the Book” has read it, and they travel through the library seeking him.
The concept of the library is also overtly analogous to the view of the universe as a sphere having its center everywhere and its circumference nowhere. [Plot description lifted shamelessly from Wikipedia.]
In addition to my attraction for any book with ‘bones’ or ‘ghosts’ in the title, I also have a great affinity for anything with ‘infinite’ and ‘library’ or ‘bookstore’ in the title. Hence my reading of this wonderful short story by Shaenon K. Garrity about the Branch Library of Babel in Dublin, Ohio, and it’s librarians.
The Library of Babel is one of those extrusions of pure logic into our universe that you get sometimes, a library of infinite size containing all possible books. Logically, (and so actually), almost all these books are full of nonsense — meaningless collections of letters or even just random markings. The search for meaning in the Library’s honeycomb rooms is seldom rewarded, but really, most patrons just come in off the street to use the restroom.
This particular infinite library in Dublin, Ohio, is where roughly 72% of books are Moby-Dick.
Our library contains, within its stacks, every edition of Moby-Dick that ever has been or will be or could be published.
Every once in a while, our narrator and some co-workers mount an expedition into the farther honeycomb rooms in search of whatever new they can find. They always find something, because of course, the collection is infinite. It usually takes about 6 weeks, and they supply themselves with food and bedding and off they go.
But a sorry thing has happened. The city has decided to cut the funding for the Branch Library of Babel, and they are in danger of having to close, and the librarians will be out of work.
To learn more of just what this budget crisis means to our library, you can read the story here. It is free. And a most thought-provoking read. And while you are at it, why not read The Library of Babel, the story that started it all? It’s here, free. I love free. And I love fiction that makes you think.
And if you have a taste for short fiction, Strange Horizons has lots of it. All free.