CAS Blog

The Utopian Library

Bill Bell, 09 February 2022

When he set out to describe his foundational utopia in 1516, Thomas More imagined a library. More’s fictional traveller takes on his voyage a model collection of books along with a printing press to bring the best of European intellectual culture to the strange folks among whom he will find himself. Included in his luggage are the latest editions of Plato, Aristotle, Theophrastus, Plutarch, Lucian, Homer, Euripides, Sophocles and others. The minds of the Utopians, Hythloday soon finds, are so adept that they also quickly perfect the skills of printing and paper making, allowing them to reproduce these auratic texts in their “many thousands”.

Historians of print have long recognized that the invention of moveable type served to transform the early modern cultural landscape in the late fifteenth century. In the process, the concept of a republic of letters was to emerge, sustained by an international network of intellectuals and printers. The European printing shop, observed Elizabeth Eisenstein, provided wandering scholars with a meeting place, a message exchange, sanctuary, and cultural centre all in one. That More’s Utopia may have contributed to this idea of a pan-European republic of letters is evidenced by one Leiden printer who, in the year of its publication, identified in his colophon “Utopia” as his business address.

Frontispiece to Thomas More's Utopia, 1516.

One fundamental tension which More's utopian canon raises is a dynamic between what elsewhere I have called closed and open textual economies; one shut off from the proliferation of new texts, the other having a more porous relationship with new forms of knowledge. This distinction might be related to Rolf Engelsing's opposition between intensive versus extensive reading in a later period: the first referring to a pre-industrial world in which reading is canonical, meditative, and sacred; the other, taking place in an era of mass production, is extensive and promiscuous.

If we compare another early utopian text like Campanella’s City of the Sun (1602) – with its canon of knowledge, static completed and reproduced generation on generation through endless replication – with Bacon's New Atlantis (1626) – in which the House of Solomon exists for the promotion of novel scientific discoveries –, we can see the effect of closed and open textual economies in action. Campanella’s fortress city is closed off from the contamination of the world beyond, hermetically protected from outside influence. Writing from an age of exploration, Bacon imagines a culture whose curiosity leads it to explore the world beyond its island in order to accumulate the intellectual and mechanical equipment necessary for social progress. In effect, the extension of knowledge is for Bacon a national imperative. The amenability of the New Atlanteans to novel ideas through progressive revelation might be seen to parallel the Utopians’ celebration of the latest additions to their canon of knowledge embodied in the catalogue of Hythloday’s library. But was More imagining a forward-looking world open to the protocols of classical learning as a means of generating new ideas or should we see Hythloday’s library as a conservative cultural mission seeking to give permanence to a distillation of the best of antiquarian learning? How dynamic or static is a utopia such as More’s? To what extent can it be seen, like Campanella’s, to fantasize cultural perfection at the end of epistemological history? To what extent, like Bacon’s, to reach beyond itself to a progressive concept of knowledge?

In an effort to imagine a world transformed a number of authors in the long history of utopian speculation have opted for a pared down rather than expanded canon. In the Republic Plato has Socrates advocate the censorship of art and poetry for the good of the State. Some in the modern dystopian tradition have imagined the abolition of books altogether. Consider for example Fahrenheit 451, The Handmaid’s Tale, Nineteen Eighty-Four. From centuries of religious censors to the book burners of the Third Reich, such satirical texts remind us of real legislators who have attempted to achieve their own versions of cultural hygiene. And yet the persistence of a belief in an extensive universal library has haunted the dreams of many, from the lofty ambitions of More’s sixteenth century contemporaries like Hernando Colón and Conrad Gessner in their search for a biblioteca universalis, the French encyclopaedists of the Enlightenment and grand projects like Boullée’s monumental library project, even to the architects of today’s massive online digital collections.

Etienne-Louis Boullée, Plans for a National Library of France, 1795, Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Around 1936, H.G. Wells began to contemplate the possibility of a near future in which all of humanity would have access to what he called a “World Encyclopedia . . . alive and growing and changing continually under revision, extension and replacement from the original thinkers in the world everywhere.”

“You see how such an Encyclopaedic organization could spread like a nervous network, a system of mental control about the globe, knitting all the intellectual workers of the world through a common interest and a common medium of expression into a more and more conscious co-operating unity and a growing sense of their own dignity, informing without pressure or propaganda, directing without tyranny. It could be developed wherever conditions were favourable; it could make inessential concessions and bide its time in regions of exceptional violence, grow vigorously again with every return to liberalism and reason.”

H.G. Wells, The Idea of a World Encyclopaedia, 1936.

Around this time the Eastman Kodak Company was experimenting with microfilm and the Library of Congress and other major research institutions were commissioning the first large-scale microform projects. In effect, Wells believed that the technology was already in place for creating a global information revolution. The cultural heroes of what Wells speculatively called “The World Brain” would be the bibliographers and librarians of the future. In effect, Wells might be credited with having anticipated something like today’s digital landscape. “The time is close at hand”, he speculated, “when any student, in any part of the world, will be able to sit with his projector in his own study at his or her own convenience to examine any book, any document, in an exact replica.”

It was only two years after Wells was outlining his dream of a boundless infoverse that Jorge Luis Borges described in The Library of Babel an infinite collection containing not only all of the books ever written but even those yet to be conceived. Reading the tale against this Wellsian background seems to provide a clue to Borges’ otherwise enigmatic story. “When it was announced that the Library contained all books, the first reaction was unbounded joy”, remarks Borges’ narrator, “All men felt themselves the possessors of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal problem, no world problem, whose eloquent solution did not exist-somewhere in some hexagon.”

Just as the realist novel sought to capture a semblance of the real world in fiction it may be said in the end that, for a bibliopole like Borges (who was to become the national librarian of Argentina in the decade after The Library of Babel), the fundamental impulse in utopian writing is bibliocratic. Many such works aim to forge new worlds out of books. Those that tend towards the political manifesto proceed on the assumption that the imagination and codification in print of a world transformed is the first step towards the transformation of the world. Yet the Library of Babel, as its name suggests, creates more questions than answers, as much confusion as certainty. The ultimate effect of this bizarre and infinite library is not so much to generate a society renewed but rather to destabilize epistemology itself. In his fantastic library, Borges imagines both an open and a closed textual economy, closed in its totality, open to all hermeneutic possibilities and none. Like utopianism itself the Library of Babel brings ultimate disappointment. Holding out the promise of plenitude revealing all of the secrets of the future, ultimately “the world brain” threatens confusion, dissonance, and noise.

So often the distinction between utopia and dystopia has been characterized as a parallel tension between the conservation of books as trophies of civilization and their impossibility, or even worse their destruction, at the hands of a philistine authoritarianism. While on the one hand the Library of Babel appears to operate as a utopian idea whose fecundity promises to unlock all of the world’s mysteries, in reality such a compensatory fantasy turns out to be false. Again that “unbridled hopefulness was succeeded naturally enough by a similarly disproportionate depression. The certainty that some bookshelf in some hexagon contained the most precious books yet those precious books were forever out of reach, was almost unbearable.”

The Long Room, Library of Trinity College Dublin.

The perennial problems of contingency versus plenitude, of individuality against collectivity, of aesthetic value against the coming democracy, are a few of the questions that have long haunted the idea of the library. Is it any surprise that utopian writers and theorists have spent so much time exploring the future of the library in their imaginations? In the end, many of the metaphors that can be conjured up to describe the strange fascination of utopia – a no space, a desiring machine, a nightmare labyrinth – turn out to be in the words of Borges “the universe (which others call the Library)”.

Bacon, Francis, New Atlantis, 1626.
Borges, Jorge Luis, The Library of Babel, 1941.
Campanella, Tommaso, City of the Sun, 1602.
Eisenstein, Elizabeth, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, 1979.
Engelsing, Rolf, Der Bürger als Leser: Lesergeschichte in Deutschland, 1500-1899, 1974.
More, Thomas, Utopia, 1516.
Wells, H.G., The Idea of a World Encyclopaedia, 1936.

Bill Bell, The Utopian Library, CAS LMU Blog, 09 February 2022,