Librarians in the Branch Library of Babel
By Shaenon K. Garrity
17 October 2011
with apologies to Jorge Luis Borges
The Library of Babel is one of those extrusions of pure logic into our universe that you get sometimes, a library of infinite size containing all possible books. Logically (and so actually), almost all these books are full of nonsense—meaningless collections of letters or even just random markings. Once in a very long while a book containing a few readable lines is found, and the people who find it rejoice. The search for meaning in the Library's honeycomb rooms is seldom rewarded, but really, most patrons just come in off the street to use the restroom, and the Library has plenty of restrooms.
I'm sorry. That was unfair to our patrons.
Carol and I worked at the Branch Library of Babel in Dublin, Ohio.
The Branch Library is infinite. All Libraries of Babel are infinite. The Branch Libraries are just smaller.
Which is larger: all possible numbers, or all possible even numbers? Logically, they're the same size. A fraction of an infinite set is still infinite, isn't it? By the same logic, it's possible for an infinite library in which every other book is, say, Stephen King's Cujo to still contain all possible books, same as the main library. It's just that you stand a 50% chance of getting Cujo.
I'm only using Cujo as an example. As you know, we did not work at an infinite library where every other book is Stephen King's Cujo. That library is in El Paso.
I know it's confusing. We used to have a laminated sign behind the front desk explaining the Library system, with all the math, but a few years ago someone stole it and by then we'd lost the laminating machine.
Carol and I were librarians at an infinite library where roughly 72% of books are Moby-Dick. Our library contains, within in its stacks, every edition of Moby-Dick that ever has been or will be or could be published. So does the main Library, of course, but at our branch the probability of coming across one of them is much higher.
The main Library, as I'm sure many of you know, is a sphere of infinite diameter packed with small, dimly lit hexagonal book-lined cells. Our branch in Dublin is a converted firehouse. Was. No, is. Inside is an endless labyrinth of whitewashed cinderblock rooms with all-weather carpeting and fluorescent lights. It has a faint smell of cat pee. We do not keep cats, out of consideration to our patrons with allergies or phobias; unfortunately, we suspect that a fractional but infinite number of the people squatting in the Branch Library stacks do.
In the Branch Library we have located two 1851 first editions of Moby-Dick from Harper and Brothers in the black cloth and orange endpapers, one with light foxing to title and text, the other significantly water-damaged and missing the front cover and part of the spine. We have also found a book that appears to be an 1851 first edition but contains no words, only hundreds of thousands of small hash marks with no meaning we can figure. We have found one volume of the three-volume slipcover with woodcuts by Rockwell Kent published in 1930, #496 in limited edition of 1,000 copies. Presumably the other two volumes are somewhere in the collection, and the 999 other copies of the set, and an infinite number of additional sets as well. We have found Moby-Dick in French, Swiss, Korean and a Vigenère encryption with several intentional misspellings to frustrate codebreakers (Carol cracked it). We have found a dog-eared Tor Classics paperback printed in 1996, signed by Herman Melville "with love to Kelly." We have found many, many copies of the CliffsNotes.
The readable Moby-Dicks, what we call the general-circulation copies, we used to shelve in the front rooms near the entrance for the convenience of our patrons. We were working very hard to make our library more convenient.
We had both subtly and spectacularly misprinted Moby-Dicks, Moby-Dicks riddled with misspellings and bad punctuation, Moby-Dicks where words disappear or run backward. I personally found eight copies with alternate endings. Three were gibberish and one was just the last chapter of The Great Gatsby, but the others weren't bad. We had two Moby-Dicks with sex scenes (Queequeg/Ishmael, Queequeg/Ahab). We had several about a black whale, and many where the whale was called Mocha Dick. If the deviations weren't too extreme—say, a few letter Es missing from one of the chapters like "Measure of the Whale's Skeleton" that everyone but Carol skips anyway—we used to shelve the book in front. Some of the others, the interesting ones, we kept in the back office. We felt we should do something with them. Not many of the Moby-Dicks we found were either useful or interesting. Most were seas of typographical babble from which rose, like coffins, floating phrases about sperm whales, shipbuilding and revenge.
Over time, working at the Branch Library, I came to think of all books as just misprinted editions of Moby-Dick. Carol told me she felt the same way.
I dwell in Possibility—A fairer House than Prose . . . Dickinson, Emily Dickinson, sorry. I do read things other than Moby-Dick, or used to.
The Dublin City Council voted to cut off funding to the Branch Library of Babel.
I didn't get the news right away. I was in the deep stacks, the infinite network of unexplored, unorganized and uncatalogued rooms. At this point in my career at the Branch Library, an expedition into the uncatalogued collection required a journey of one to six weeks, round trip. Most times, I set out with a small team of assistant librarians and hired a local squatter as a guide. On this expedition I also took Ted, our star volunteer. Ted is an English instructor at the community college. I've heard a lot of people here say that no one uses the Branch Library except Melville scholars, but Ted's focus is the Transcendentalists, so there you are.
The room we were cataloguing had squatters, a fairly large encampment. They watched us warily as we set up camp, moving only to throw the occasional fresh book onto their cooking fire. We used to put signs up telling them not to do that, but it never helped. It's why I worked so hard to catalogue the Library—if I could save just a few more readable books from the squatters' fires or the walls of their papier-mâché huts or those flocks of rainbow-hued booklice that swarm every seven years, I would be doing my duty. The books deserved as much.
This particular encampment was non-hostile, I'm glad to say. Many are. We gave them a small electric cookstove as a peace offering, and they allowed us to bivouac in the opposite corner of the room.
It was not a fruitful expedition. We found two moderately irregular Moby-Dicks and a Nora Roberts novel. Nothing else in the room was worth adding to general circulation. We prepared catalog tags in silence, trying to stay cheerful. Statistically speaking, we could have done worse.
With our work done, we packed and began the long trek back through the already-catalogued rooms. Liz, one of our assistant librarians, handled the map and compass. She's still working on her master's in library science, but she has a BS in post-Euclidean topology.
On the third day of the return journey, the expedition was ambushed by hostile squatters. They wore shredded paper woven into their hair—I averted my eyes from the print, praying it hadn't been one of the legible books—and their faces were painted in blue and black ink and blood-red words: Discarded, Second Notice. I Tasered three before they fell back. Their crude spears . . .
Yes, yes, sorry. I'm getting off track.
Carol looked up from her coffee as we staggered into the front office, streaked with blood and dust. But O this dust that I shall drive away / Is flowers and kings . . . She took in the bandage on Liz's upper arm—a squatter's arrow had nicked her in the raid—and hurried over. "The books. Did they get the books?"
I opened my pack. "No, but it's just these three paperbacks."
"You could have given them the Nora Roberts."
"Carol!" I'd never heard her speak that way.
That was when she told me.
"The City Council's shutting us down?" It wasn't real. It couldn't be real. "But we've gotten so much cataloged this year! We've added so much to circulation!"
"They said they don't see the point," said Carol. "They said it's a, a waste of taxpayer money. They said nobody in Dublin wants to pay for people to look for old whaling novels."
"You talked to them? They were here?"
She shook her head. "I only found out about it when a reporter for the Villager called me to get a quote. I was like, they voted what? So I called them. Talked to one of the councilmen, I don't remember, Dan somebody." She trailed off, staring into nothing. I'd never seen Carol looking so small.
"We'll fight it," I said. "It's an infinite library, for the love of Pete! They're rare! We'll get it on the National Register of Historic Places! Or the world one, the World Heritage Sites!"
Carol smiled. "You get to work on that, Bev," she said.
I could tell she'd already given up hope.
It is surprisingly hard to get something onto the National Register of Historic Places.
Or any kind of registry, it turns out. I made all the calls. I filled out all the paperwork, when there was paperwork. More often, I got to the end of a long phone tree and an hour of hold music (the National Register plays the Beatles—isn't that odd?) only to be told to take it up with the government. Which I did. I wrote to both senators and our congressman. And now I'm here, so there's that.
Carol spent our last weeks wandering the stacks. I drifted around the back office, sorting and resorting the special collection. Moby-Dick as a play. Moby-Dick in space. Moby-Dick scrimshawed onto sheets of horn. They were very pretty, some of them. I always thought so. I wish I had some to show you now, but you know.
"We need an angel investor, is what we need," said Ted.
Ted and I were lingering late at one of the computer kiosks, combing the Internet for nonprofits that might have a little arts funding left. Earlier in the evening, Ted had given a PowerPoint presentation on Walt Whitman as a special event for our patrons, "to raise awareness," he said. It's so very Ted that he thought Whitman would get rear ends into seats.
Oh, well, it was a lovely presentation. Very witty. And a few of our regular seniors did show up. Mostly, though, it was nice to see more of Ted.
"We get a private investor with an interest in the library," said Ted. "There aren't many Libraries of Babel, are there? And this is the only one with all the Moby-Dicks."
"They all have all the Moby-Dicks," I corrected him. "Our library just has more of all the Moby-Dicks."
"It's unique, is what I mean. That's got to be worth something to somebody."
"Sell the library?" This was worse than Carol wanting to give up the Nora Roberts. "But it belongs to the people."
"Bev, the people have made it pretty clear what they want to do with it." He was right, as you all know. By then we'd gotten word of your plans to bulldoze the firehouse and put in an additional parking lot for the Marc's Discount Store across the street.
. . . Please, everyone. I'm not trying to start a fight. All water under the bridge now, isn't it? My point is, the firehouse was going to be torn down. And when the firehouse was gone, the library inside would go . . . wherever it came from, I guess. Scientists say the singularity collapses. I watched a video on it when I started work at the Branch Library, but that was a long time ago.
"I can't imagine what price you could put on an infinite collection," I said. "Anyway, who would want it? It doesn't . . . that is, on a strictly practical level, it doesn't do anything."
"It creates order," said a voice behind us. "It reverses entropy. It gives meaning."
Ted and I jumped like a couple of rabbits. We'd forgotten about Carol, and she should've gone home hours ago anyway. But I knew she hadn't left, and I'm sure Ted knew it too. Deep down I knew she hadn't left the library all week.
Hm? Where did she go? Anywhere. The stacks are infinite. There are campgrounds of colorful leather and cardboard, lean-to shelters of dismantled shelving, domed paper tents with gilt-edged windows, marketplaces where a library card can buy wonders. A glorious court, where hourly I converse / With the old sages and philosophers. . . . It's not my business, and it's certainly not yours. But it's dangerous, really dangerous, to go in alone. That's why we have Liz with the topology degree. Had Liz. You could wander there forever and never find your way out. That's how the library got its small but infinite population of squatters, and the cats I never saw but could always, faintly, smell.
There was so much more in the stacks than any one person could ever see.
Ted ran to Carol's side, and then I saw the ink in her hair, the smears of blood on her face. "Christ, Carol," said Ted, the first time I'd ever heard him take the Lord's name in vain. "Where were you?"
"You got into a skirmish," I said. "Are you crazy, fighting the squatters all by yourself?"
"I haven't been fighting anyone," said Carol. "I might be crazy. It's hard to tell. Did I hear you seriously talking about selling the library?"
"I have my doubts that anyone would buy it," I said, "but as a last-ditch effort—"
"Let some illiterate with too much money seal it off for his private collection?" Carol suddenly looked more alive than she'd been in days. "Let it get neglected and overgrown?"
"I don't see any other way, realistically—"
"That's not what libraries are for."
Ted put an arm around her. I'd always known he stuck around for her, really. It had been silly of me to invite him along on the expedition in the stacks, but I'm allowed a little silliness, aren't I?
"You know," Carol was saying, "my favorite chapters of Moby-Dick are the ones people say are boring."
Funny thing—I'd never heard her talk about the book itself before. "'Of Whales in Paint'?" I said. "'The Whiteness of the Whale'? 'The Right Whale's Head—A Contrasted View'?"
"That's right. All the stuff about whale biology and history and stuff. That's where the real story is." Carol's eyes were unfocused, like she was staring at something a long way away. Or maybe she was just exhausted.
I should have been sympathetic. I should have worried about the blood. But at that moment, Carol got under my skin. You know how that is, someone just getting under your skin? "And what do you think the real story is?"
Carol slid a Moby-Dick from the nearest shelf. Penguin paperback with French flaps, very recent edition. "Moby-Dick? It's about trying to categorize the uncategorizable. It's about trying to control something too big to be controlled."
"You said the library creates order."
"But it doesn't, Carol." It was late and I was so, so tired. "It's full of nonsense. Room after room of nonsense."
"Carol's right," said Ted. Of course he would. "Statistically, it contains significantly less nonsense than the main library." He thought for a second. "Significantly less nonsense than the rest of the universe, then."
"But still an infinite amount of nonsense," I said. "Can we go home? Let's all go home, Carol."
"I would prefer not to," said Carol. She laughed faintly. "We've never found 'Bartleby the Scrivener,' have we?"
With that, she wandered back into the stacks, swinging the paperback like a little purse.
We let her go, and I drove Ted home. "You want to know a secret?" I said as I pulled out. "I always skip those chapters Carol was talking about. I like the adventure story. The tragedy of Ahab chasing something he can never catch. And of course the funny parts."
"You want to know a secret?" said Ted. "I've never read Moby-Dick at all. I've been terrified of telling Carol."
That made us laugh, and I was glad to have him around again.
"But I thought Ahab did catch the whale at the end," said Ted.
"That's true," I said. "He did."
I don't want to be pushy, but I'd appreciate it if you could stop telling me to hurry it up. I'm trying to explain. . . .
Well, no, I don't know what happened. Not really. I have my guess, is all. Now may I have some quiet, please?
That night was the last time I saw much of Ted. He started following Carol into the stacks, at first because he was concerned about her, then . . . well, I'm sure he had his reasons. I ignored them and focused on saving the library.
The Columbus Dispatch did a little news item about the library closing, and we got a handful of supportive emails. At the eleventh hour, I drove out to the city for a weekend to meet with some people who had made noises about doing a fundraiser for us. It came to nothing. I won't bore you with the details, because it really was awful. Just a dead end, like everything else.
I drove back to Dublin the night before the Branch Library's last day of operations. We had activities planned. A trivia contest. A book sale. Liz had promised to hang crepe streamers while I was gone.
The last time I saw Carol? I don't remember. I know the last time I talked to Ted, though. It was on my drive back from Columbus. It wasn't like him to call. When I saw his name on the phone I was sure there was something wrong. But there wasn't. At least, he said there wasn't.
Now I think he was giving me an invitation.
"How'd the meeting go?" he asked.
"Badly. It's over, Ted. Tomorrow after we close I'm going to put in an application at Barnes & Noble. Kill me."
"Why did you fight so hard for the library?"
The past tense shook me. "What do you mean? It's the library."
"I mean why did you, specifically, fight for it? You said it was just rooms full of nonsense."
"Did I say that?"
"What made you put in all that effort? What made you keep going back into the stacks, week after week?"
I was going to say something glib, about how it almost paid the bills and I had to use my master's degree for something, after all, but the tone of his voice made me pause. "I don't know . . . I think I like that the job never ends. There's always another room to catalog. Every Moby-Dick is different, and we'll never file them all."
"Huh? It's an infinite library, Ted. You can't organize an infinite library."
There was silence on the other end of the line, and then Ted said, "I always admired how hard you worked."
"You drive safely."
Somehow I felt like I'd failed a test.
Why do you care so much, anyway? You got what you wanted. We can't bring them back, we can't bring any of it back . . .
I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm not much of a public speaker. Ted could have done it. He did such a nice presentation on Whitman. Look at me, I don't even have any visual aids, except my book.
I did drive safely. When I turned off the interstate, I thought briefly about stopping at the library, just to check up on everything. But it was so late. I went home and got some sleep instead. Maybe it wouldn't have made a difference. Maybe they were already gone by then.
I woke up early so I could set up for the last day. Like I said, we had activities planned. Liz had collected gift certificates from local businesses so we could do a raffle. Hair Today donated something, I remember that, and thanks very much, Trish. Yes, Jeff, and your garden center, that was very generous. Every little bit, you know.
No, I can't tell you where they went. All I have is a guess, and I'm trying to explain where that guess comes from. It's about what Carol said that night. That's not what libraries are for.
What are libraries for?
Well, it depends on who's asking, doesn't it? To some people, they're for literature. To other people, they're for reference, for answers. Or for free computer access. For DVD rentals. I know a certain number of people who think they're for babysitting their kids while they shop at the Marc's across the street, and no, Kimberly, I'm not looking at you.
But Carol was a librarian. And for librarians, libraries are for cataloging. Bringing order to chaos, maybe. I don't know. I just know what Carol said.
I think Carol cataloged the Branch Library of Babel. The whole thing. And that made it . . . go away. Not back to where it came from. On to where it was going. I think she reversed entropy and collapsed the singularity that allows extrusions of pure logic into our universe. Through Space and Time fused in a chant, and the flowing, eternal Identity . . .
Yes, I know it's an infinite library. I know I told Ted you couldn't organize it all. But the Branch Library contained a fractional but infinite number of squatters. If Carol and Ted spent those last weeks making peace with the tribes and uniting them, had them pass the word along, showed them how to use the Library of Congress filing system . . .
A fractional but infinite number of librarians is the same size as a complete and infinite number of books. Isn't it? I wish I still had that sign we used to keep behind the front desk.
I remember punching the security code on the front door. I remember turning the key in the lock.
The inside of the firehouse was a whitewashed cinderblock room with all-weather carpeting. No other rooms. Nothing. Except for the book on the floor.
It's not even one of the nice editions. I mean, look at it. 1985 trade paperback from Watermill Press, with, frankly, kind of an ugly cover illustration of the Pequod under attack. You see it in a lot of used bookstores.
But the text is perfect Moby-Dick, no hiccups or irregularities, from beginning to end.
The first edition of Moby-Dick was irregular, you know. That 1851 edition. It came out in England first, and the English publisher put out this terrible, typo-riddled book. They even left out the Epilogue. The critics all gave it bad reviews, and Melville's masterpiece—I do think it's a masterpiece, even if I skip the boring parts—was forgotten for almost a hundred years. I used to like to imagine the Branch Library was trying to fix that old mistake by putting out an infinite number of irregular editions, with one perfect one, the way it should have been, mixed in somewhere.
Well, they're all shelved correctly now, all the good Moby-Dicks and bad Moby-Dicks in the universe. And all the books that aren't Moby-Dick, although to me all books are Moby-Dick, it's just that some of them are really badly misprinted. They're all in order now, and our librarian and star volunteer keep them that way, in a cinderblock pocket universe that's infinitely less chaotic, infinitely more meaningful than this one. I really do believe that. And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.
That's from the Bible, originally, you know. That line. Is it all right to mention the Bible at a city council meeting?
Well, that's good to know. Thank you very much. It's from Job. And I guess you can go ahead and tear down the building now.