Information policy for Borges's Library of Babel

Copyfighter James Grimmelman -- now at the New York Law School -- has just posted a new draft paper: "Information Policy for the Library of Babel." It's a lovely allegory about the Library of Babel proposed in 1941 by Jorge Luis Borges, in which all possible books are available -- and about the information policy the library's guardians would have to implement to make it the best library possible. James proposes that the Internet bears striking similarities to the Library of Babel -- and applies the lessons from its infinite depths to the question of information policy for the net.
Or, looked at another way, the Federal Library Commission must serve the inhabitants of the Library (or "librarians," as Borges calls them). There is no one else for it to serve. The inhabitants, however, encounter the Library first and foremost as readers. Indeed, their search for information in its stacks (or the repudiation of that search) is the principal act that gives their own lives meaning. They search for their Vindications, for "the books of the Crimson Hexagon, books smaller than natural books, books omnipotent, illustrated, and magical." 12 On the shelves somewhere are "the detailed history of the future, the autobiographies of the archangels, . . . the treatise Bede could have written (but did not) on the mythology of the Saxon people,"13 and other informational treasures beyond measure. We do our job well if we help our constituents find the true and beautiful books and steer them clear of the false and ugly ones.
PDF Link, HTML Link

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  1. Is it ‘the Internet bears striking similarities to the Library of Babel’ or ‘Google bears striking similarities to the Library of Babel’?

  2. (That’s a facetious comment, by the way. You can read Gibson, Sterling, Vinge, Baudrillard, and whoever else you want, but none of them will seem quite as… necessary, if you read Borges first.)

  3. sure you haven’t, Pinky. Borges book on the internet is available in the library of Babel, if you just want to go right to the source.

  4. I haven’t read that story in quite a few years. Does Borges or Grimmelman’s analogy include things like the government tracking borrowers’ activities?

  5. I like this. And the conclusions are useful. But I am stuck on the fact that it blurs the distinction between the infinite (as the Library of Babel must be, if you think about it) and the simply very large (as the Internet is).

    If you believe the Library is infinite, the numbering system referred to in “a hexagon in circuit 15—94,” could just be a numbering system local to the storyteller, rather than a global numbering. Both are practically useless since, as the probable size of the Library increases towards infinity, the chance of there being a book that contradicts all catalogued parts of the Library increases towards certainty.

    I think of the Library story as a different take on the same subject as another Borges’ short story ‘The Book of Sand’.

  6. In Borges’s library, Grimmelman tells us, “All possible books already exist; no further incentive is required to bring them into being.” This, he says, is why the concept of copyright is meaningless in the Library of Babel — which makes good sense, within the context of the story. (Indeed, I’m not sure how a writer could be compensated for adding even a new book to an infinite library, given that nobody would ever find it.)

    He then, problematically, goes on to extend it to the real world, where he claims “the information production problem has been solved.” But as Robster points out, the internet is not infinite, and (I hope) we have not yet produced all the books we need to. The “information-consuming public” is not “properly the sole beneficiary of information policy” — we still need the tradeoff. His points about search engines are quite good, but for copyright the analogy breaks down in a pretty obvious way.

  7. As specified by Borges (though he can’t resist mentioning infinity several times), the Library of Babel is not truly infinite — just impossibly huge and all-inclusive. Every book has 410 pages, every page has 40 lines of print, every line has 80 (or about 80) letters, and there are 25 symbols — including the space — in the character set. No two books are identical. A very large number ensues.

    By the way, the German author Kurd Lasswitz anticipated Borges with his 1901 story “Die Universalbibliotek” (“The Universal Library”). I remember adding this point to the Wikipedia entry on “The Library of Babel”.

  8. Interesting. I just made a search engine for the complete Library of Babel, as described by Borges. (Only the first three lines of each book are available, due to liability issues.)

  9. The wiki for “The Library of Babel” says:


    Borges speculates on the existence of the “Crimson Hexagon”, containing a book that contains the log of all the other books; the librarian who reads it is akin to God.

    And obviously thousands of librarians who think they’ve read it but haven’t actually read it become akin to your regular religious psycho.

    Oh and the same for those who read the book that most strongly advocates destroying the library of babel and the heathens within.

    I’ve only read The Total Library by Borges, the precursor to babel. Your average big library is much more useful than THE BABEL/TOTAL Library. Secondly, the internet is akin to a real actual wordly library+public forum, not to the total library.

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