In his infamous short story The Library of Babel, author Jorge Luis Borges presents readers with an interesting thought experiment. The story is centered around fictional library that contains every possible combination of all the letters of in the alphabet, in a massive collection of 410-page novels. Because the collection contains every possible combination of characters, the library holds not only every book that has ever been written, but also every book that could ever be written.
The only problem is that, in addition to the complete works of Shakespeare, Voltaire, and every other author who has ever been born; the library also contains a staggeringly large amount of incomprehensible gibberish. Many of the permutations of alphabetic characters are totally random strings of letters, so a large portion of the library’s books are pure nonsense. There’s also no effective way to organize so many volumes of worthless dribble, so in the story, the librarians who maintain the collection quickly lose their minds trying to reign in the unfathomably large amount of nonsensical books.
It’s a fascinating story, but the thing is, a library of this size could never actually exist in the physical world. The Library of Babel would have contained 1.9×10^1834097 books, which is astronomical compared to the 22 million (2.18×10^6) found in some of the world’s biggest brick-and-mortar libraries. Clearly, a physical Library of Babel would be impossible to build — but what if the library could exist digitally?
This very idea is what inspired artist and programmer Jonathan Basile to create a digital version of the Library of Babel. His library contains a massive collection of digital novels (currently 10^4677 and counting), all of which are are 410 pages long, and contain a completely random arrangement of letters. The tricky part is that even this digital version of the Library of Babel has much too large a footprint for any practical storage or accessibility. Basile discovered that just one million books required almost two terabytes of space, so he quickly recalculated with a new approach.
Using random number generators and a reversible seed-style page generator similar to the ones used by search engines and library systems, visitors call up entries in the digital library using algorithms run backwards to search the database. In plain English, this means that any user who searches for a phrase or string of text in the library receives a freshly generated “copy” of that text from the seed that held its place on the digital shelves.
The system works the same way if a library visitor selects a random result from the site’s search function, although true to the story’s philosophy, much of what you’ll find is nonsensical strings of letters. Users more interested in browsing the library shelves can sort through a simple visualization of the Library of Babel’s hexagonal chamber system, selecting walls of books, specific shelves, and then names on the spines. Basile understands that the concept of a universal library has its dangers, and the site includes a forum where users and fans can discuss the library’s philosophical implications, as well as real-world legal issues like plagiarism, copyright laws, and the impact the library might have on the publishing industry.
If you’re less concerned with the legal and philosophical issues in play, you can still get a kick out of the library’s enormity. You can search for your own writing in the library, or even stories about your birth, your death (or someone else’s birth or death, regardless of whether or not those events have happened yet). It gets spooky fast.