Is Google Building a Library of Babel?

by Anne O’Sullivan

“The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries. In the center of each gallery is a ventilation shaft, bounded by a low railing. From any hexagon one can see the floors above and below – one after another, endlessly...I declare that the Library is endless.”
- Jorge Luis Borges, “The Library of Babel”

The Borgesian library, which is “perfect, complete and whole” and composed of “all books”, is not a far cry from reality in the digital age. Google has openly declared its intention of digitizing all the world’s information, and estimates it will take approximately 300 years to do so. Substitute Borges’ hexagonal galleries for Google’s server farms, and an eerie picture begins to emerge, one that should seem reminiscent from the pages of Genesis to which Borges alludes in his title.

Borges aptly names the library in his story after the Tower of Babel parable, wherein humankind, united by one language, has the hubris to build a tower to reach heaven. God strikes down the tower, and punishes the sinners by confusing their tongues, and dispersing them geographically (hence the origin of languages, and nations). For Borges, the Library of Babel comes out of this tradition; though the Library may contain all books, meaning is only made more elusive by the vastness of what the Library contains.

And vast it will be. The scope of Google Books alone is astounding, from both a technological and logistical perspective. Google Books has already succeeded in digitizing over seven million volumes, and has major university partners such as Columbia, Cornell, Harvard and Princeton, to say nothing of its partnerships with major publishers. Google is both a librarian’s dream and a librarian’s nightmare. Ironically, it will become the role of librarians to counteract the negative effects of such unprecedented access to information.

Arguably, it is this access to information that is responsible for a paradigm shift in the academic model. Academia has become hyper-specific, and critics lament that undergraduate students are graduating with only a patchwork understanding of their chosen disciplines. Library usage trends corroborate this view: teary-eyed reference librarians will readily tell you about their dwindling print reference collections, whose budgets have since been reallocated. Seemingly, there is no use for generalia. Students, no doubt provoked by their professors, approach the reference desk looking for highly specific information and overlook any background reading (or perhaps Wikipedia suffices).

Google, as a modern Library of Babel, will support this hyper-specific model of scholarship. Of course, there is no denying the tremendous benefits full-text searching of the world’s print materials will yield. Imagine the power of a keyword search that could search all the works of romanticism for every mention of the sublime, or its various iterations. But this mode of scholarship is also inherently problematic: there is an over-emphasis of the particular, with no understanding of the whole.

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Concrete example

Give me one concrete example of this: It is imperative that librarians attempt to impose some order upon the chaos, and fill in the holes that academia leaves behind.

Librarians put books into a catalog and everything better for you? What exactly do you want librarians to be doing?

In a science fiction work you have your cute little electronic frequency idea. In the real world the ability to keyword search documents and find specific information is the exact thing that allows us to use books and documents at a deeper level.

You want to talk about list? What did librarians use before computers? One thing was bibliographies. Long list of all the books on a topic. Maybe there would be a little summary with the name of the book. It is computers that are allowing us to get away from list and search at a deeper level.

Conceiving the whole

The "holes that academia leaves behind" is a view of topics that is entirely based on particular details. The infrastructure of the library will be built by Google; it is my argument that librarians will have to see to how the library is used. By suggesting more holistic search strategies (i.e., start with the general, not the particular, look to reference materials before finding specific articles), librarians can encourage a broader understanding of any one topic. This should seem obvious to researchers, but usage trends suggests that it is not.

I agree that computers allow us to search at a deeper level, but the inherent problem is that students get lost in the particulars, like Lotaria - the problem is not lists, it's when students start mistaking lists of things for scholarship. Simply enumerating something's parts, like Lotaria enumerates the repeated keywords in any work of literature, is not scholarship.

Destination: Journey

With the "world at your fingertips" sort of advantage that such a hyper-digitization of literature offers, I am reminded of the Ralph Waldo Emerson addage, "Life is a journey, not a destination." With such an immediately-accessible world of information available to any scholar, today, the distance of the academic journey of research has become abbreviated to the partial typing of a keyword and a click of the mouse: one can ride the lightwave of binary algorithms to find a quotation, a fragment without even having to skim the material -- we've commissioned Google to do this for us. The result is a curt, hodge-podge education, albeit accurate and precise, that arguably skirts the true attainment of knowledge, viz. that deriving at the digestion of a work in its entirety; the recognition of that extra something invested into any work which is beyond expression; its soul, if you will. Besides the ability to compile a fractional collage of knowledge of educational materials in a way that will pass finals, students are losing the wonderous advent of accident: stumbling upon a work that happened to be located in a physical proximity to something being researched and finding interest and experience within. The Googlization of education intends at a system of ends, with the beauty of means being gobbled up in bytes. One is forgetting the beauty of a walk to the library for the convenience and pallour of the graphic user interface. Why travel to the Parthenon, when one can Google Earth-it? The curtailing of the journey in search of knowledge has reduced the aquisition of knowledge through experience to the pursuit and collection of cold, dead information: through this new medium, those on the path to wisdom are led only to the shores of experience, while the immediate tides deliver semblances, empty remnants of what was, once, the living craft of artisans.

Nice job

I appreciate the literary references. I think librarians will play a role in sorting out all the material that will be available electronically. Librarians work for Gale, Ebsco, and other databases, right?

Idealistic Librarian

You are taking a sacrosanct stance about the library. Library is a socially constructed entity within the educational system. The issues (libraries budget, future of reference librarians; students being narrowly focused (i.e. trees vs. forest argument) you highlight have other causes. Your singular focus on Google impoverishes an otherwise good commentary and leaves one disquieted.

Destination: Journey

With the "world at your fingertips" sort of advantage that such a hyper-digitization of literature offers, I am reminded of the Ralph Waldo Emerson addage, "Life is a journey, not a destination." With such an immediately-accessible world of information available to any scholar, today, the distance of the academic journey of research has become abbreviated to the partial typing of a keyword and a click of the mouse: one can ride the lightwave of binary algorithms to find a quotation, a fragment without even having to skim the material -- we've commissioned Google to do this for us. The result is a curt, hodge-podge education, albeit accurate and precise, that arguably skirts the true attainment of knowledge, viz. that deriving at the digestion of a work in its entirety; the recognition of that extra something invested into any work which is beyond expression; its soul, if you will. Besides the ability to compile a fractional collage of knowledge of educational materials in a way that will pass finals, students are losing the wonderous advent of accident: stumbling upon a work that happened to be located in a physical proximity to something being researched and finding interest and experience within. The Googlization of education intends at a system of ends, with the beauty of means being gobbled up in bytes. One is forgetting the beauty of a walk to the library for the convenience and pallour of the graphic user interface. Why travel to the Parthenon, when one can Google Earth-it? The curtailing of the journey in search of knowledge has reduced the aquisition of knowledge through experience to the pursuit and collection of cold, dead information: through this new medium, those on the path to wisdom are led only to the shores of experience, while the immediate tides deliver semblances, empty remnants of what was, once, the living craft of artisans.

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