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.