The Library of Babel

Imagine a library where every combination of letters, spaces, commas, and periods is accessible, where anything that has ever been said or written or thought—or ever could be said or written or thought—is there. It would include news stories about the future, descriptions of your own birth and death, the secrets of the universe, and so on and on (both true and false, of course).

According to Wikipedia, “‘The Library of Babel’ (Spanish: La biblioteca de Babel) is a short story by Argentine author and librarian Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986), conceiving of a universe in the form of a vast library containing all possible 410-page books of a certain format and character set.”

This short story was published in 1941.

A couple years ago, someone decided to build a website to implement the idea. The video at the bottom of this post is set to start at the 17:10 mark where it talks about how it works.

The problem with this is that because there are more possible combinations than you could ever sort through, the vast and overwhelming majority of it is gibberish. And just as in the short story, spending time trying to find something useful in all the gibberish could result in “suicidal despair.”

However, the site does allow you to find anything you type in to search for within the library.

What’s also weird is that the library on the site has the same thing for images.

As it says on the site about that section of the library:

“Instead of letters and punctuation marks, the Image Archives permute the 4096 colors, and rather than a page of 40 lines each with 80 characters, the images are pixel grids with 416 rows and 640 columns. It contains every image that ever has been or could be created with this color palette in these dimensions, including portraits of every person who ever lived at every moment in their life, digitized versions of every work of art ever created, even those lost to history, as well as every work of art which ever could be created, and photographs of your own birth, wedding, and funeral.”

As intriguing as this might be, again, the vast majority of images look like static. And again, you could look for something by uploading an image and it will find where it would be located in the library.

While it might seem to be some kind of trick—that the only coherent thing you might find is what you input—the site doesn’t store any text or pictures. As the person who built the site says, “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.”

As compelling as this might seem, I imagine hunting for something in all the static could lead to madness.

However, it is kind of disturbing to consider the implications. It has been bothering me ever since I learned about it.

Here’s the video:

Here’s the site: