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An unnamed narrator describes the universe in which he lives. It is a seemingly infinite Library, consisting of bookshelves, corridors, bathrooms, and staircases. Bookshelves are arranged in hexagonal galleries, with the same number of books and bookshelves on four sides. There are two open sides that connect, via vestibules, to identical galleries, stretching endlessly outward. Each endlessly stretching floor is connected by spiral staircases, also stretching endlessly up and down. There are small rooms in the vestibules: one for sleeping while standing up, and the other is a bathroom.
The narrator explains that he has traveled to other galleries, like many others before him. He is now an old man, and when he dies, he will be thrown into the abyss by another librarian, where he will decay and turn to dust as he falls.
He goes on to explain some basic axioms of the Library. First, he states that the Library has always existed, and its perfect design can only be explained by having been built by a god. Second, there are 25 orthographic symbols, meaning that in every book, there exist only the 22 letters of the Spanish alphabet (the story was written in Spanish), spaces between letters or words, commas, and periods. The narrator explains that the Library contains within it every possible combination of these symbols, meaning that among the books of the Library, everything that can be expressed in words is expressed. His examples include: the history of the future, a catalog of the Library itself, countless numbers of false catalogs, the facts of your death, and the translation of every book into every language.
This fact was originally met with joy by the librarians 500 years ago, as was the idea that there were no identical books. Immediately there was an excitement that every question could be answered and every thought or action could be justified. However, that joy was tempered by the sheer immeasurability of the books that the librarians would have to go through to find something usable. The truth of the Library is that most of the books are pure nonsense. The search for meaning in them has driven many people out of their minds, and those who have not committed suicide from despair have taken multifarious tracks in their quest for understanding. Some have tried to piece together sections from different books to create coherent texts, and other have decided to destroy books they considered worthless.
The narrator, in his attempt to justify his search for meaning within the Library, holds tight to the idea that there is, somewhere, a book that explains the Library and that someone, somewhere, at some time, has read it. He worries about those who suggest that there is no rationality behind the Library, that instead of being based in “sense,” it is based in “non-sense.” They claim that because the Library contains both every book and its opposite, it might not be a resource that can provide knowledge and meaning. The narrator dismisses this, stating that meaning is everywhere, since even something that seems to be nonsense must necessarily have a justification in another book in the Library. Thus, it is invalid to claim that just because someone doesn’t know what a string of letters means, there is not a book somewhere in the Library that explains it. He points to the idea that this story, as well as its “refutation” already exist in the Library, as an example of the impossibility of dismissing meaning within the structure of the Library.
The narrator ends by saying that humanity suffers by knowing that everything has already been written, and that the extinction of the species seems inevitable. But, he clarifies, while seeming to be endless, there is necessarily a finite number of books, even if the number is unfathomable for humans. He is heartened by the idea that an infinite being, with endless time to travel, would eventually see the Library repeated, and in that awareness, bear witness to the true “Order” of the Library.