Tuesday, November 01, 2011


Here's the keynote address I gave recently to "Access 2011: The Library is Open": "From Access to Interactivity".

You can also, if you are so minded, watch a video of me delivering the talk.

It's about Borges, libraries, library fines, open source, primitive accumulation, and difficulty, among other things. What follows is the opening paragraph or two:

Librarians have seldom been paid a handsome wage. At the Miguel Cané Library, in the Buenos Aires suburb of Almagro Sur, in the late 1930s the going rate was some 210 Argentine pesos a month. On the other hand, it could hardly be said that the work was particularly taxing. The library assistant tasked with cataloguing found that he could do his job in an hour or so each day, which left plenty of time for reading, thinking, and writing. Sometimes he got to thinking about the library itself, or about the place of the library in the world. He thought, for instance, that in some ways the library was a mirror of the world: after all, if you wanted to find out about some aspect of the world, you could come to the library and look it up. The library had books of Geography, History, Physics, Maths, Literature, Art: every conceivable topic. It might be an unprepossessing building in the suburbs of a city in an obscure Southern Hemisphere country, at the periphery of civilization, but a library had everything. You could spend your life there, without ever exhausting what it had to offer. If the library was big enough (and the assistant librarian imagined a library that had every book ever published, and perhaps even every book that could conceivably be published) you could even get lost in it. The library was a labyrinth, but also a rather miraculous thing, a double of the universe.

In September 1945, the library assistant published a short story about just such a miraculous double of the universe, hidden in an obscure corner of Buenos Aires that was nearly as unlikely as the Miguel Cané library itself. In this story, the narrator, a rather awkward and shy middle-aged man, discovers that an acquaintance of his, an aspiring but not very talented poet, has a secret. He still lives in the house where he grew up, which is located on a non-descript city-centre street. But the house harbors a surprise: on the staircase in a basement under the dining room is an object that is only some “two or three centimeters in diameter, but universal space was contained within it” (Borges, “The Aleph” 283). This is “the place where, without admixture or confusion, all the places of the world, seen from every angle, coexist” (281). This strange, mysterious thing takes the logic of the library to the limit: it is the absolutely universal contained within an extremely limited, compressed and particular space. The poet calls it an “Aleph,” the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and the number one in Hebrew, which in the Jewish Kabbalistic tradition is the number that contains all other numbers. As the narrator tells us of his encounter with the Aleph, in it he “saw the populous sea, saw dawn and dusk, saw the multitudes of the Americas, saw a silvery spider-web at the center of a black pyramid [. . .] saw horses with hand-whipped manes on a beach in the Caspian Sea at dawn, saw the delicate bones of a hand” and so on and so forth (283). He is practically struck dumb by the experience: “I had a sense of infinite veneration, infinite pity” (284).

But if the Aleph is a fantastical version of the library, a library that takes up the smallest amount of physical space but encompasses the entirety of the universe, there is one significant difference between the two. The library is public, while the Aleph is private. The incompetent poet emphases, “his words fairly tumbl[ing] out,” that “It’s mine, it’s mine; I discovered it in my childhood, before I ever attended school” (280). It’s his prized possession, and he keeps it absolutely to himself, hiding it from everyone else. He only shows it to the narrator in desperation, as his landlords threaten to tear down the house and so destroy the basement, the staircase, and the secret they harbor. But the narrator, having seen this precious thing, is struck by a fit of jealousy and refuses to help the pathetic poet’s campaign to preserve his precious property. Cruelly, the twist in the tale comes when the narrator refuses to admit that he has seen unusual at all in the cellar, and suggests therefore that the poet must be suffering from some kind of delusion. He should “take advantage of the demolition of his house to remove himself from the pernicious influence of the metropolis [. . . ]. I clasped him by both shoulders as I took my leave and told him again that the country--peace and quiet, you know--was the very best medicine one could take” (284). The poet will pay the price for keeping his Aleph secret, a private hoard rather than a public good: by prohibiting access he has sacrificed even his own opportunity to enjoy this miraculous discovery. He will be laughed out of town as a madman if he so much as mentions the existence of this all-capacious universal library.

The universal and all that comes with it--the university, the library--is always in peril if it is treated as private possession rather than common treasury. It would be nice if we could conclude that, by contrast, it is in safe hands if it is the property of the state. But shortly after publishing the story of the Aleph, its author, the library assistant, was summarily fired and offered in compensation only the post of “the inspectorship of poultry and rabbits in the public markets” (qtd. in Williamson, Borges 292). Jorge Luis Borges, Argentina’s greatest writer (and incidentally also the country’s most famous librarian), was out of a job.


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