The Mis-shelved Book

Image 1: The Library of Babel, a possibly infinite network of galleries

Editors’ note: Occasionally we’ll run a blog post because its ideas are good, even if it may not seem to be explicitly about media studies. While reading this post, consider how categorization and record-keeping matter to film and television, particularly in the age of digital media. One example might be the possibility (or impossibility) of cataloging the huge number of film festival submissions, especially those that are not chosen to compete and never reach the public.

Anxiety surrounding libraries seems to be a recurring theme in the discussion of human knowledge. Bowker and Starr offhandedly reference the scenario of “a library book shelved under the wrong Library of Congress catalogue number”1 in establishing beyond a doubt the importance of classification systems. Gleick, in his discussion of the long tradition of TMI, cites Augustus De Morgan, whose sentiments that “the library cannot be rummaged also drive toward the same fear: that the library represents the perpetual threat of information glut, precariously kept in check by faith in a perfect and wise system of categorization. None of these figures would advocate for the dismantling of the library as an institution, yet their preoccupation with miscategorization and unsearchability reveal fears that the institution is greater than they or any intelligence, and that its very mass poses a threat to human knowledge.

As Gleick ably demonstrates, the fear of information glut is a phenomenon nearly as old as human knowledge, stretching back before the Internet to all incarnations of the archive. To take his history back to its extreme beginnings, the Library of Alexandria perhaps originated the idea of an actual repository of knowledge larger than one man could comprehend. Whatever the actual size of its legendary holdings, its existence was established fact and its destruction proverbially set Western civilization back one thousand years. This paradox, of something too great to master but too indispensable to live without, has governed our relationship with human knowledge from the very beginning and formed much of the basis of the social contract. While the modern era seems particularly ridden with technologies that are indistinguishable from magic to the layperson, the average Roman could no more have explained his civilization’s architecture than a master architect of the time could have replicated his proconsul’s specialized knowledge of military strategy. Nevertheless, just as with the Library of Alexandria, the value of preserving this vast and growing total knowledge is beyond question, and civilization strives to distribute it via castes, professions, and repositories (all divisions of labor), even when this guarantees a larger organizational scheme that is a matter of faith.

Nevertheless, as Gleick observes, the navigation of the waterways of knowledge seems to be accompanied by the constant fear of a coming deluge. Biblical connotations aside, at stake in this other oft-used motif is the notion that the navigable will become unnavigable, that the terrain will lose its features and flatten out into an undifferentiable sea of noise. The greater the body of knowledge, the stronger the sense becomes that the vast majority of it is useless, or, more accurately, not useful. As the body of knowledge grows, the value of the body appears, ironically, to depreciate. Ultimately, the accumulation of knowledge drives itself toward the Borgesian nightmare of the Library of Babel. Indeed, against the backdrop of a growing list of metaphors for information glut, I propose the following juxtaposition of quotes:

“Take the library of the British Museum…what chance has a work of being known there merely because it is there? If it be wanted, it can be asked for; but to be wanted it must be known.”2
—Augustus De Morgan

“A half-dozen monkeys equipped with typewriters could easily knock out in a few eternities all the books contained in the British Museum.”3
—Jose Luis Borges

Setting aside the specific references to the British Museum (which prompted the resonance in my mind), the ideas of an unsearchable and growing body of knowledge seem to converge into an endgame scenario in the infinite monkey theorem. In the old chestnut about a chimpanzee eventually producing the works of Shakespeare, the anxious can perceive the eventuality of a trackless ocean of gibberish in which any glimpse of sublime meaning is immediately overwhelmed and lost under reams of random typing.

However, while the accelerating proliferation of information seems to have been forever driving us toward this simian event horizon, Gleick’s argument relies on the premise that the tipping point, apocalypse, or singularity has not come to pass and never will. The fears that attended the printing press, moving image, and Internet have made the reality of information glut seem more plausible and imminent each time, yet both society and the individual still thrive. Gleick seems to resolve the question of how society functions through John Guare’s notion of small networks, six degrees of separation helping us all myopically creep about through the Library of Babel (Borges, appropriately).4 In these chapters, at least, he leaves pending the question of how the unending spiral of technology leaves the individual unfazed.

It may be that the illusion of information glut is ultimately dispelled by the fact that none of the advancements of the past six centuries have succeeded in reinventing the page. The printing press and computer have both reincarnated the same tabula rasa onto which anything can be projected. Despite all of our apparent leaps in the presentation of content, the acquisition of knowledge remains constricted not only by the bandwidth of the human eye’s speed, the brain’s powers of concentration, and the body’s lifespan, but also by the rectangular matrix through which we absorb the information. The endlessness of the Library of Babel may be frightening, but it is only made up of rooms, and even more fundamentally of one page at a time. From the moment that the Library of Alexandria was founded, human knowledge exceeded the learnable amount, and it became an abstraction. Some amount of knowledge will always be inaccessible and thus imaginary, and fears of the mis-shelved book and the primate Hamlet are preoccupations with theoretical unknowns—shadows of shadows. But whatever the constraints of mortality, the knowledge that we do happen to gain is very real. One hopes that, if we are librarians of Babel, as Gleick claims, then we can complete the quote of Augustus De Morgan:

“Nobody can rummage the library, except those officially employed there, who will only now and then have leisure to turn their opportunities to any independent undertaking.”5

If Google and Wikipedia have made us all librarians, then perhaps there is reason to restore optimism to the infinite monkey theorem: over a lifetime of poring through page after page, we may stumble across the occasional mis-shelved book or the lost Shakespeare play.

Image Credits:



1. ^ Bowker, Geoffrey C., and Susan Leigh Star. Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999. 3. Print.
2. ^ Arithmetical Books, quoted in Gleick, James. The Information: A Theory, a History, a Flood. New York: Pantheon Books, 2011. 410. Print.
3. ^ The Total Library, quoted in Gleick, 426.
4. ^ Gleick, 424-425.
5. ^ Quoted in Gleick, 410.

Author bio:

Clifford James Galiher received his B.A. in Film and Television Production and M.A. in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA, and he is currently a Ph.D. student in Critical Studies at USC. His research focuses primarily on film production in classic Hollywood, including a current project on the history of pre-digital visual effects. His other interests include animation, narrative studies, and digital media history, and he wishes he had the money to pursue his dream of ushering full-time.

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