The Apocryphal Cartographies of Carroll and Borges

An excerpt from the astounding Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, by Lewis Carroll:

“What a useful thing a pocket-map is!” I remarked.
“That’s another thing we’ve learned from your Nation,” said Mein Herr, “map-making. But we’ve carried it much further than you. What do you consider the largest map that would be really useful?”
“About six inches to the mile.”
“Only six inches!” exclaimed Mein Herr. “we very soon got to six yards to the mile. Then we tried a hundred yards to the mile. And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!
“Have you used it much?” I enquired.
“It has never been spread out, yet,” said Mein Herr: “The farmers object: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well. Now let me as you another question. What is the smallest world you would care to inhabit…?”

It only gets better from there, teaching us about a world where, in typically inarugable Carrollian logic, the worst marksmen are the best soldiers. If the story of the map sounds familiar, you might have read Borges “On Exactitude in Science.”

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

Suarez Miranda,Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV,Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658

A bit more pessimistic to be sure, but it’s a thrill to see such a clear correlation between the two authors; to realize that Jorge Luis Borges was inspired by the author of Alice in Wonderland.



Is the Library Relevant?

“A public library is the most enduring of memorials, the trustiest monument for the preservation of an event or a name or an affection; for it, and it only, is respected by wars and revolutions, and survives them”

– Mark Twain

In a sidebar of the August Issue of Wired, the magazine poses the following question to three librarians: “Will the internet put public libraries out of business?” Michael Gorman, president elect of the American Library Association believes that computer access will always draw people into the library, and “once they’re inside… they end up checking out books.” Even though our existing punctuation leaves little room for interpretation, there seems to be an air of pessimism in his response. Blogger/Librarian Jessamyn West is a little more overt. “The people who can afford to buy computers and internet service often stay home to read and do their research, which means that libraries are increasingly becoming places where poor people go to use public services.” On a recent morning, here in New Orleans, a friend of mine was needed to get some information from the main library. He was a little early, and just decided to wait for the library to open. Over 20 homeless people had the exact same idea. This isn’t just happening in New Orleans. Libraries have always been a popular refuge, but problems begin to arise as “people who can afford to buy computers,” stop going to the library, and it becomes only a refuge. Ms. West continues to point out that as this trend increases, people will become more reluctant to fund a facility that, to them, has outlived its usefulness. So what is to become of the “trustiest monument?”

This article reminded me of of MVRDV’s proposal for the Libraries 2040 Exhibition, which assumed that by the year 2040, the traditional public library will cease to exist. MVDRV proposal was not merely a re-imaging of the library building, it was a proposition to re-define the information network of an entire province. Everything that we currently think of as a typical library function (ie book and media collection, computer access) would be housed in a sublime “meta-building,” whose entire archive would be digitized. Smaller, yet more exclusive collections will be incorporated into modern meeting places such as cafes, schools, waiting rooms and even gas stations. These remote locations will be connected to the central library network – which would, of course, also be accessible from personal computers. MVRDV envision a library that infiltrates the fabric of our social environment, becoming more accessible than ever, yet also much less important as a civic space.

With Media outlets and university libraries digitizing their archives, the idea of a fully virtual information resource is well within the realm of possibility. If libraries are going to retain their relevance, they’re going to have to develop as a social space, offering programs, services, and events that will lure people away from their monitors and the sanctity of their homes. The days of getting “shushed” are at an end.

In The Library of Babel, Borges describes an infinite Library – the very makeup of the Universe – that contains and orders all things known and unknown, wise and nonsensical. The infinite nature of their surroundings drive the curators into a self-destructive despair. His Distopic library parallels the potential of the internet – an infinitely vast collection of knowledge surpassed only by the amount useless gibberish and meaningless drivel. (re: blogs) If we lose the social and civic nature of our information resources, we too may get lost in our own infinite resources.