Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The nightmare of the Total Library

I have an article in Talis’ Panlibus magazine this month. You can read issue 22 here and I’m on pages 14 and 15. My thanks to the editor for accepting it and putting it out there.

The article is about the concept of a ‘Total Library’ and how this concept has been treated by literature and philosophy across the centuries from The Great Library of Alexandria to Paul Otlet’s Mundaneum to modern-day legal deposit libraries. It ends by pointing to the Universal Library’s ghostly electronic shadow, the National Digital Library, as the next development and practical embodiment of the Total Library ideal. Basically this piece combines the concept of a Universal Library, the dream of a National Digital Library, my love of Borges, and the idea of the infinite: all topics that I am obsessed with interested in and have written about before.

Though this article exclusively discusses the dream of a Total Library, my original concept for the piece was to present both sides of the idea: dream and nightmare. It would have discussed both the positive aspects of the idea followed by the negative aspects leaving the reader to decide whether the Total Library is paradiso or inferno. For Borges, the Total Library is both dream and nightmare, everything and nothing: “Everything would be in its blind volumes. Everything: the detailed history of the future, Aeschylus’ The Egyptians, the exact number of times that the waters of the Ganges have reflected the flight of a falcon … the complete catalog of the Library, the proof of the inaccuracy of that catalog. Everything: but for every sensible line or accurate fact there would be millions of meaningless cacophonies, verbal farragoes, and babblings. Everything: but all the generations of mankind could pass before the dizzying shelves – shelves that obliterate the day and on which chaos lies – ever reward them with a tolerable page.”  (1)

So I gathered and wrote a lot of material that, for reasons of space and word count, I had to cut. Here is the counter-argument to my own argument in Panlibus (make sure you read the Panlibus article first otherwise this won't make much sense) – the idea of the Total Library as a nightmare:



The Total Library is nothing: a nightmare of meaningless promise.

The Total Library represents all that we cannot be: the idea taunts us with promises of infinity, calling to us like the Sirens leading us to wreckage and madness upon the shoals of deadly knowledge. As well as the sheer shuddering horror of the misprints and contradictions throughout the Logically Complete Library, the Universal Library is ultimately useless to us and reveals in itself a void of meaning. In acquiring everything, the Total Library reveals nothing.

The paralysis of choice inside the Universal Library is unrelenting. With literally every printed word at one’s disposal, where could one possibly begin? The Universal Library offers a taunting glimpse at everything that we do not and cannot possibly know. Even the polymath – a dying breed – can only know a percentage of all there is to know. Even if we constructed the Universal Library – the written mirror of the universe replete with every theory, every manifestation of idea, every supposition and every contradiction – there is not a single person who could understand it. Standing at the threshold of the Universal Library, we feel the pull of everything, of the infinite, while knowing that it will never be ours: as finite beings, the mysteries of the universe are forever inaccessible to us. There is not one person who could gaze long into that abyss without losing themselves.

As finite beings, we bestow meaning through selection. A random cluster of objects is meaningless but if the same objects are carefully chosen and ordered, they are given a meaning comprehensible to at least the person who chose them. The books on our bookshelves mean more to us than the books in the library because we have chosen each one individually. By collecting everything without discrimination or selection, the Universal Library becomes as meaningless as the universe itself: the model offers us nothing that the subject itself cannot give.

Even today, as we flounder in the ocean of ‘information overload’, we look to libraries as respite, as carefully ordered sanctuaries from the chaotic miasma of unordered data on the Web. Kruk is correct that librarians filter, select, choose, and present. To have meaning a library must be carefully chosen and constructed to meet the user’s needs: “We may discover that in times when a former relative scarcity of information is being replaced by indiscriminate over-abundance, the selective or filtering function of libraries is more important than providing indiscriminate access to information. What was a dream of humanity may be a nightmare. The ceaseless torrent of words hinders understanding.”  (2)

In the Universal Library, secret choices have already been made. For one, the primacy of the written word. By collecting only books and printed texts, the library has made a choice and has artificially limited itself. Why only collect published books and articles? The greatest work of literature could be written on the back of a bar napkin. Why not include ephemera? Why not what librarians refer to as ‘realia’: physical objects, gifts, tools, flags, clothes, that one special shirt, the present she sent you, the watch you no longer wear? “Every library both embraces and rejects. Every library is by definition the result of choice, and necessarily limited in its scope. And every choice excludes another, the choice not made. The act of reading parallels endlessly the act of censorship.” (3)

The primacy of the written word is a cultural prejudice reflected by the composition of the Universal Library. On close examination, words reveal themselves to be utterly inadequate as a mirror of the universe. The key Anglo-European philosophical project at the start of the 20th Century was the construction of a perfect language. The cloistered men of Cambridge attempted this by refining formal logic. Heroes and knights errant like Hilbert, Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein set out to create a model of the universe using the elegant, simple notation of mathematics. In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein constructed his perfect description of the universe; in the Philosophical Investigations published years later, he exposed the impossibility of any logically perfect language. For all their trials, the philosophers could not make language perfect. The written word is an arbitrary, brute system: as Death says in a Terry Pratchett short story, humans try “TO UNDERSTAND THE COMPLEXITIES OF CREATION VIA A LANGUAGE THAT EVOLVED IN ORDER TO TELL ONE ANOTHER WHERE THE RIPE FRUIT WAS” (4). How could the arbitrary sounds we make and commit to paper through arcane symbolism possibly capture the infinite?

The Universal Library is utterly without meaning. When we gather every book, every word ever written, what is it that we’ve captured? In ‘A Yellow Rose’, Borges depicts the death of the poet Giambattista Marino who, as his life ebbs away, looks upon a yellow rose: “Marino saw the rose, the way Adam must have seen it in Paradise. He sensed that it existed not in his words but in its own timelessness. He understood that we can utter and allude to things but not give them expression, that the proud tall volumes that made a golden shadow in the corner of his room were not the world’s mirror, as his vanity had figured, but simply other objects that had been added to the world.”  (5)

Books are objects like any other with no more meaning or dignity than that which humans bestow. The Universal Library is an expansive collection but its perfection is an illusion. With no-one to understand the model it creates, it has no more meaning than a warehouse of yellow roses. Without the minds to understand them, books are useless assemblages of paper and the model of the universe that they purportedly create is a sham. In another Borges story, an ancient order of cartographers set out to create a perfect map of the Empire. They find they can do this only by making the map successively larger and more detailed until eventually it encompasses the whole Empire. “The world encyclopedia, the universal library, exists, and is the world itself.” (6)



(1) Jorge Luis Borges. “The Total Library,” in Jorge Luis Borges (Eliot Weinberger, ed.), The total library: non-fiction 1922-1986 (London: Penguin, 2001), p. 216.

(2) Miroslav Kruk, “The Internet and the revival of the myth of the universal library,” Australian library journal, 48 (2).

(3) Alberto Manguel, The library at night (London: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 108.

(4) Terry Pratchett, “Death and What Comes Next”. 

(5) Jorge Luis Borges, “A Yellow Rose,” in Jorge Luis Borges (Alexander Coleman, ed.), Selected poems (London: Penguin, 2000), p. 77.

(6) Manguel, Library at night, p. 89.

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