Libraries tend to occupy a sacred space in modern culture. People adore them. (Perhaps even more than that, people love the idea of them. A Pew survey last year found that while people report feeling strongly about the importance of public libraries, those same people are using libraries less and less.)
The grandest libraries, built like monstrous cathedrals, are particularly beloved. It ought to follow, then, that the ultimate library—an infinite library—would be revered as a utopia, especially in an age where data is seen as its own currency. But libraries have a dark side in the cultural imagination.
In The Book of Sand, Jorge Luis Borges tells the story of an unexpected visit from a Bible salesman, who has in his collection a most unusual object. “It can’t be, but it is,” the salesman says. “The number of pages in this book is no more or less than infinite. None is the first page, none is the last.”
The strange book is so engrossing as to be sinister. This is a theme that comes up repeatedly in Borges’s work. “Paradise is a library, not a garden,” he famously said. But libraries, he warned, can be hellish, too.
The titular institution in Borges’s The Library of Babel, for example, is a universe unto its own, composed of “an indefinite perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries,” full of identically formatted books—“each bookshelf holds thirty-two books identical in format; each book contains four hundred ten pages; each page, forty lines; each line, approximately eighty black letters.” The appearance of order is an illusion. Many of the books contain “senseless cacophony, verbal nonsense, and incoherency,” and many of the people who are born and eventually die in the library are miserable for their fate.