Wisdom and the Universal Library

Would it be feasible to imagine a convincing universal library, one that contained not only every book in existence, but every possible book? Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), the Argentinian writer famous for exploring philosophical conundrums through short stories and fictive essays, once did so in his parable “The Library of Babel” (1941). Well before the age of the internet, Borges, once the director of the National Library of Argentina, “imagined paradise as a kind of library”, a yearning that is reflected in this story.

Borges’ library is eternal and infinite in size, composed of hexagonal rooms, each one housing the necessities of human survival and 640 books arranged on 20 shelves in a completely random order. The books contain all possible combinations of a full stop (N. Amer., ‘period’), a comma, the space and twenty-two letters of the alphabet. Much of the library is gibberish, or perhaps the gibberish is some secret unfathomable language. But at the same time, for the human-librarians whose existence is defined by the library, the hope persists that amidst all the gibberish:

Everything is there: the minute history of the future, the autobiographies of the archangels, the faithful catalogue of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, a demonstration of the fallacy of these catalogues, a demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue, the Gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary of this gospel, the commentary on the commentary of this gospel, the veridical account of your death, a version of each book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books. [1]

With the discovery of this proposition, orthodoxies and heresies appear among the librarians. Some go in search of the future inscribed in the library. But hope wanes in the infinitude of the library and some argue that searches be given up in favour of the random shuffling of letters and words to produce canonical works by chance. Others think the priority is to destroy useless books (a futile gesture as countless imperfect facsimiles exist that differ by only one character). One persistent hope is the discovery of a book that is the key to all other books, the perfect compendium, housed in a crimson hexagon, which must exist as it is possible that it exist in the universal library.

It seems that six decades after Borges imagined the universal library and futility of discovering the perfect key that would order all human knowledge, the technology to so inventorise this prodigious legacy of human thought and speculation has arrived.

Currently no one knows how many books there are in the world. WorldCat, the largest catalogue, has 32 million titles from more than 25,000 libraries around the world. But the race is now on to digitize texts and to make keyword searches of this ever-expanding digital library available online. Several projects are already underway, one of the largest being Carnegie Mellon University, which has already scanned one and half million books. However, the clear front-runner, at present, is Google, which aims at the very least to scan a number of book-texts equivalent to WorldCat within the next ten years. The scale of this ambition fits Google’s corporate mission “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”, and Google Books is regarded by the company as “Google’s moon shot”. [2] The obvious motive for such a huge undertaking is set out by Google’s vice-president, Marissa Mayer:

Google has become known for providing access to all of the world’s knowledge, and if we provide access to books we are going to get much higher-quality and much more reliable information. We are moving up the food chain. [3]

So the technology is available, and, in the grander scheme of things, this looks like a hugely exciting and worthwhile prospect, but one that may stumble not for technical but for legal reasons around copyright. With respect to copyright, there are broadly three categories of books:

(1) Twenty per cent of all books are in the public domain: they have either passed out of copyright or were never originally copyrighted.
(2) Ten per cent of all books are copyrighted and in print.
(3) Seventy per cent of all books are copyrighted, or have an unclear copyright status, and are out of print.

Category One presents no legal problems whatsoever, and Google has agreements with major universities and public libraries to digitize this with the quid pro quo of providing the digital archiving and preservation of their back catalogue for them. Category Two has been the subject of commercial agreements between Google (or Amazon for instance) and its publisher partners to provide another form of searchable advertising for the 175,000 or so books that are published every year, from which Google does get advertising revenue. Publishers understand too that browsing online leads to buying if surfers find a book in print on a topic they are interested in. Usually on Google Books, the title page, contents, index and part or all of the introductory chapter are displayed in full, while the rest of the book is word searchable.

The real problem lies with Category Three, which has become the subject of an ongoing legal dispute in the United States between Google and some its partner publishers. The publishers argue that Google has infringed copyright by scanning in the entire texts of books within Category Three. Google’s counter-argument is that the company only makes “snippets” available, lawful under fair usage rights available to all researchers, that are the product of a keyword search. Thus web research is analogous, in Google’s eyes, to book research. Searchability of texts is not the same as making entire texts available. (And it should be noted that Google does not put advertising on search pages for books from Categories One and Three, which it has obtained from libraries and not from publishers.) The stately progress of the federal legal process means, however, that this case might not be heard until early 2008, thereby increasing the chance of an out-of-court settlement. It is to be hoped that whether the outcome emerges from a settlement or from a courtroom verdict, it is one that favours access to learning over profit.

So if the gamut of human bookish learning does eventually become available online, what would Borges have made of it all? Besides the delights of instant searchability, cutting out the drudgery of wading through the dross, Borges would perhaps have thought that the key to human understanding lay not within the perfect compendium but in the hermeneutical relationship between the reader and the text.

A sheikh once recalled that when he used to visit the home of his teacher, they would meet in his voluminous library. In his early student days, the sheikh hoped to find a book that would be the key to unlocking all the others. The teacher reminded him that it was, of course, a dialogical process, that if we read books that change us, then we see new meanings and attain deeper levels of understanding in what we read (even from books we have read before). In other words, the perfect compendium lies not within a universal library but within the wisdom of the human subject, illuminated by an integration of learning, reflection, experience and imagination. To express it as a counterfactual, books read us differently as we go through a process of transformation.


[1] Jorge Luis Borges, “The Library of Babel”, Fictions, trans. by Anthony Kerrigan (London, 1991 [1965]), 72-80, quote at 75-76.
[2] Jeffrey Toobin, “Google’s Moon Shot”, New Yorker, 5 February 2007, available online at http://www.newyorker.com/printables/fact/070205fa_fact_toobin.
[3] Ibid.


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