The Library of Babel

The Library of Babel is a short story by Jorge Luis Borges describing a library that contains every possible 410-page book of a 25 alphabet character set. As Wikipedia sums up the story,

Borges’ narrator describes how his universe consists of an enormous expanse of adjacent hexagonal rooms. In each room, there is an entrance on one wall, the bare necessities for human survival on another wall, and four walls of bookshelves. Though the order and content of the books are 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 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 superstitious 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.

Jonathan Basile has a fascinating site dedicated to the idea of the Library of Babel that includes a partial implementation of the infinite library,

The Library of Babel is a place for scholars to do research, for artists and writers to seek inspiration, for anyone with curiosity or a sense of humor to reflect on the weirdness of existence – in short, it’s just like any other library. If completed, it would contain every possible combination of 1,312,000 characters, including lower case letters, space, comma, and period. Thus, it would contain every book that ever has been written, and every book that ever could be – including every play, every song, every scientific paper, every legal decision, every constitution, every piece of scripture, and so on. At present it contains all possible pages of 3200 characters, about 104677 books.

Since I imagine the question will present itself in some visitors’ minds (a certain amount of distrust of the virtual is inevitable) I’ll head off any doubts: any text you find in any location of the library will be in the same place in perpetuity. We do not simply generate and store books as they are requested – in fact, the storage demands would make that impossible. Every possible permutation of letters is accessible at this very moment in one of the library’s books, only awaiting its discovery. We encourage those who find strange concatenations among the variations of letters to write about their discoveries in the forum, so future generations may benefit from their research.

The site generates the pages of text information algorithmically, and there is a subreddit dedicated to the site, /r/BabelForum.

Both the site and the subreddit are a fascinating way to contemplate the issues raised by Borges’ story.

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