The Library of Babel I

In the story The Library of Babel, Jorge Luis Borges describes a library whose design follows near axiomatic principles:

It is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries. In the center of each gallery is a ventilation shaft, bounded by a low railing. From any hexagon one can see the floors above and below—one after another, endlessly. The arrangement of the galleries is always the same.

One of the hexagon’s free sides opens onto a narrow sort of vestibule, which in turn opens onto another gallery, identical to the first—identical in fact to all. […] Through this space, too, there passes a spiral staircase, which winds upward and downward into the remotest distance.

If we remove all the cosmetics, we might end up with a design like the above, clearly unsatisfactory. Nothing is said about the underlying geometry of the library, Euclidean, spherical, hyperbolic, or even more esoteric. We will assume that the universe is Euclidean, for now, because this is still interesting enough. In this first post I will discuss the floor plans of a single floor. The combination of hexagonal galleries and square vestibules suggests that we are looking at floor plans that can be derived from this Archimedean tiling of the plane:

Of course the triangles will be Voids, and we have too many square vestibules. We get one more clue (or axiom) from Borges: Twenty bookshelves, five to each side, line four of the hexagon’s six sides […]

This means that each gallery has just two vestibules where one can enter or exit. As all galleries are identical, this leaves us with three distinct possibilities how a gallery can look like.

If we assume that the vestibules are placed at opposite sides of a gallery, our floor plan will necessarily look like the one above (which is used in the top image, too), representing a favorite labyrinth of Borges, the line (!). In the other extreme case, when the vestibules are at adjacent sides of each hexagon, there are two possible floor plans:

As a single floor plan, neither looks exciting, but we’ll see. There is one more option when between the two exits to the vestibules there is just one wall with shelves, like so:

And fascinatingly, this last options allows for much more intricate floor plans, like this infinite double spiral:

Next time we will investigate how the connections between different floors makes the life of the librarians even more exciting.

One thought on “The Library of Babel I”

1. LM says:

It’s so nice to find another fan of the Library of Babel. Are you also a fan of Borges in general? I can recommend the book “Tar for Mortar”, it explores the geometry of the library and shows that it is impossible. It also references other essays about the geometry.
If you speak German, you might like this quite excessive article on the Library of Babel: https://hinterdemnebel.de/index.php/2018/12/04/die-bibliothek-von-babel/

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