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The Library of Babel

February 3, 2016

Imagine a library. In this library is every word that has been, and will ever be, written.

If the concept seems familiar, perhaps you’ve read a short story by Borges, called ‘The Library of Babel’, which revolves around a similar collection of volumes upon volumes of every word ever written in every possible permutation.

Borges’ Library is a hypothetical. A thought experiment. The notion that a colossal library filled with every work of literature, every hastily scrawled love note, and every council tax bill ever written is an entertaining thought, but is surely, sadly, an impossibility.

It exists.

Libraryofbabel.info is the brainchild of Jonathan Basile, a computer programmer and self-described ‘librarian of Babel’. Within the virtual stacks of the library, a program whirrs away, frantically tapping out letter after random letter, filling books and neatly tidying them away upon the shelves. Unlike Borges’ Library, which features books which are, although bizarre, at least somewhat comprehensible, the vast majority of the ‘books’ in Library of Babel are absolute gibberish, occasionally interrupted by legible words, or even entire paragraphs. Perhaps a better comparison would be to the proverbial room full of monkeys, eternally striving to type the works of Shakespeare.

Of course, unlike those poor immortal monkeys, Library of Babel actually has typed the works of Shakespeare. At least, it’s typed 3200 characters worth of the works of Shakespeare.  It’s also typed The Aeneid.  And the wikipedia page for ‘The Library of Babel’. And this very blog post.

It’s not a trick, Basile explains. Anything you find while surfing the Library’s shelves will remain exactly where you find it, forever. ‘We do not simply generate and store books as they are requested – in fact, the storage demands would make that impossible.’

So I’m left to ponder a couple of pretty tough questions.

  1. If everything I will ever write has already been written by an insane typing robot, can I truly say that anything I write will be ‘original’?
  2. If the next bestseller is lurking somewhere in this huge collection of text, could I steal it, publish it, and make a killing?

I’ll address the Question #2 first, because I’m feeling too upbeat to tackle Question #1, and because Question #1 is a concept that’s already been tackled at least a dozen times.

So anyway, Question #2. The ‘if’ is not a hypothetical – there is no question that somewhere in the Library of Babel, the next Harry Potter, the next 50 Shades, or the next horrible amalgamation of the two, is waiting to be discovered. The sheer number of iterations of different words and letters almost guarantees that this will be the case. And should someone discover the magical sequence, copy+paste it, and ship it off to a publisher, it would be impossible to prove that they had in fact stolen it from a virtual room full of monkeys. It would be the perfect crime.

Of course, all of this supposes that someone will actually be able to find that bestseller. A quick skim through the first few pages of the first book on the first shelf in the first room of the Library (entitled tig .xswfor the curious) reveals that most of what you will find in the Library will be complete and utter gibberish. It would take somebody a lifetime, maybe ten lifetimes, to sort through the books in the first room alone. Which is why Basile built a program to do that exact thing in the first place.

Which brings me to the big failure of the Library of Babel. I’m reminded somewhat of a question I ran into on willyoupushthebutton.com that went: ‘You can have infinite knowledge on every subject, but you will never be able to tell anyone what you know.’ That situation is embodied in the Library of Babel. One of those books will be 409 pages of random letters and 1 page of a snippet from the Library of Alexandria, and we might never know. Now that the Library of Babel is (probably) complete, there’s been a substantial effort on the forums to collate and analyse what information (if any) there is to be found. They have some pretty cute ASCII art. There’s also a guy searching for his own obituary. So far, no bestsellers. So far, no library of Alexandria.

So far.