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Inside the quest to put the world's libraries online

A librarian stands in Mexico City's City of Books library.

A librarian stands in Mexico City's City of Books library. // Christian Palma/AP

In his short story "The Library of Babel," Jorge Luis Borges imagines the universe as a "total library," whose 410-page books have achieved all possible combinations of letters and punctuation. No two books are the same. Some, of course, are gibberish. But others carry the answer to life's deepest mysteries. In Borges's library can be found every thought ever had, every turn of phrase ever uttered, every masterpiece penned by Shakespeare, and even the ones that he never got to write—simply stated, everything.

Borges's fearsome fantasy builds upon a centuries-old conception of the library as an enclosed instantiation of the universe's mighty sprawl. In Advice on Establishing a Library, a classic manual on the creation of a library, the 17th-century French scholar Gabriel Naudé argued that a library "erected for the public benefit ought to be universal," observing that "there is nothing which renders a Library more recommendable, then when every man finds in it that which he is in search of, and could no where else encounter." This sort of accumulation has sometimes come hand-in-hand with power, as the historian Jacob Soll has shown with his study of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the finance minister to the great French king Louis XIV who sought to establish a universal library and state archive because he believed it made a firm foundation for national intelligence.

Read the entire story at The Atlantic.

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