Socrates believed writing things down was harmful to memory and weakened the mind. True to his word, he left no writings behind. Yet the only reason we know his thoughts on this or any other subject is that his pupil Plato wrote down what he said. Otherwise, there is little doubt his ideas would have been lost to history after the authorities put an end to his philosophizing by forcing him to drink hemlock. Certainly it is hard to imagine how word of mouth alone would have preserved his ideas intact after 2,400 years.
Socrates no doubt had a point when he insisted the written word eroded memory. But he was already fighting a losing battle. Centuries before Christ, the author of the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes observed, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” This was at a time when books were actually parchment scrolls laboriously copied by hand.
The written word is a kind of time machine, allowing perishable thoughts to be preserved from one generation to the next. The earliest extant writings, inscribed on framed clay tablets, were mostly commercial transactions and government edicts. These were stored in repositories with the subject matter written on the outer edge of each frame, like the spine of a book.
These repositories became the first libraries. The largest of these was the Library of Alexandria in Egypt, founded during the Ptolemaic Dynasty in the third century BCE and housing as many as 400,000 papyrus scrolls. The library had been founded at the suggestion of·Demetrius of Phalerum, an exiled Athenian statesman who had reputedly been a student of Aristotle. He had proposed a universal library with copies of all the books in the world, including Latin, Buddhist, Persian, Hebrew, and Egyptian texts translated into Greek. To build his collection, Ptolemy I had written to various kings and governors he knew asking for books of every kind. The Ptolemies also confiscated works not already in their collection from visitors to Alexandria. To keep track of its immense collection, Alexandria boasted the world’s first library catalogue, organized by subject and then alphabetically by author.
The Library of Alexandria became a center of learning in the ancient world and thrived in that role until the Romans arrived. Julius Caesar occupied the city in 48 BCE and shipped tens of thousands of its books to Rome. These were apparently gifts from Cleopatra, but books were precious commodities in those days and were often regarded as spoils of war. More than one library was stocked with volumes looted from another. Others were simply torched, presumably by invaders who placed little store in the accumulation of knowledge. The Imperial Library at Constantinople, which succeeded the Alexandria Library as the largest in the world, was deliberately destroyed twice, once by Christian knights during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 CE and once by Ottoman Turks in 1453 CE.
Although libraries are essential to the advancement of civilization, librarians have mostly labored in obscurity. A notable exception is Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), director of the National Library of Argentina, who is remembered primarily as a literary figure. Borges had happy childhood memories of the hours spent reading English classics in his father’s library. "If I were asked to name the chief event in my life, I should say my father's library," he would later recall. "In fact, sometimes I think I have never strayed outside that library."
Less happy were his years employed as a cataloguer at a branch library in Buenos Aires while he struggled to establish himself as a poet and short-story writer. He remembered the nine years there as a “menial and dismal existence.” However, he would generally finish his work early in the day and spend the rest of his time down in the library’s basement, reading the classics and translating modern fiction into Spanish. He also began writing the short stories that would bring him worldwide fame.
His short story, “The Library of Babel,” written during those years, was no doubt inspired by his dismal employment. He presented a nightmarish vision of a library that was more than universal; it was the universe itself. It contained not just every book in existence but books composed of every conceivable combination of letters in an alphabet of 22 letters, plus a comma, period and space. It was as if an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters had devoted themselves to works of literature. Mostly, they produced gibberish, books shelved at random, with unintelligible titles that bore no relation to contents, housed in an immense repository consisting of identical hexagonal galleries, each containing the same number of volumes of equal length. The story’s narrator, a young librarian now grown old, had devoted himself to finding a mythical index to all the other books. But, of course, there was no way to find this or any other book in the library’s endless shelves.
Borges’ growing literary renown eventually led to his appointment as director of the national library. The institution was housed in the labyrinthine former national lottery headquarters in Buenos Aires. Borges had been terrified of labyrinths since he was a child. Nevertheless, he regarded his directorship as a dream come true. Yet he was soon unable to locate any book on its shelves because he went blind, the result of a congenital condition inherited from his father. He later commented, "I speak of God's splendid irony in granting me at one time 800,000 books and darkness." Still, the 17 years he spent in that position were perhaps the happiest of his life. Looking back years later, he said, “I dream often about the library, and inexplicably, as it happens in dreams, the library is infinite and belongs to me.”