In The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges, we learn that there are hallways in between rooms, which have bathroom and sleeping facilities when the speaker says,

To the left and right of the hallway there are two very small closets. In the first, one may sleep standing up; in the other, satisfy one's fecal necessities

However, this does not account for how the people within the library are meant to eat. So, how do people in the library eat?


2 Answers 2


Like many of Borges's tales, The Library of Babel is meant more as a thought experiment than a realistic story. Don't overthink it.

There's no mention anywhere in the story of any of various practicalities of life:

  • where the librarians get food and how they eat
  • how the plumbing for the toilets is operated and maintained
  • how the librarian population is maintained (assuming that they bear children in the normal way, how and where are those children born and raised?)
  • whether they ever wash themselves as well as excreting
  • how they cope without fresh air, in the infinite indoor space of the Library
  • how the bulbs that light the Library maintain their power
  • etc.

Instead of addressing any of these practical considerations, Borges preferred to spend the text of the story pondering philosophical issues: language, meaning, and infinity. This, the essential 'theme' of the tale, should tell us how we're meant to approach it: not as a realistically constructed world in which people could actually live, but instead as a philosophical exercise for the amusement of the mind. (Having read several other Borges stories, such as The Garden of Forking Paths or The Lottery in Babylon, I believe this is typical of his work.)

Thus, any answer would not only be necessarily almost purely speculation, but it wouldn't even be useful speculation, in the sense that it wouldn't increase our understanding of the story in the spirit it was intended. This isn't the kind of analysis the author meant anyone to make. The Library of Babel focuses on wacky ideas rather than realism; if Borges has intended us to worry about the latter, he would have paid more attention to it in the story itself. If you're looking for that kind of worldbuilding, then I'm afraid you've probably got the wrong author.

  • This is not an answer, but a comment that makes no attempt to answer the question
    – VicAche
    Apr 9, 2017 at 18:23
  • 2
    It's a frame challenge - essentially saying "you're asking the wrong question", but also "this question is unanswerable", which does (IMO) resolve the issue the OP is asking about.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Aug 18, 2017 at 9:40

You don't eat in the library. You'd get the books messy.

The library here is intended to evoke a university library, where scholars toil away their lives searching for some snippet of information. Libraries have bathrooms, and places for catnaps, but not real sleeping facilities, and certainly not places to eat. You go home for that.

The question is, why did Borges include that surreal little detail if you're not intended to ask about the other pragmatics of life in the Library? Or rather than engaging in crit-fic, what is the effect on the story of that line?

I'd suggest that it helps set the tone of the piece. This line is in the opening paragraph, and establishes a certain absurdity right from the get-go. Sleeping standing up does not make this a very inviting place. Jumping to the question of bathrooms before you've established the purpose of the place is simultaneously pragmatic and out of place.

It's in keeping with the last line of the paragraph: "The light they emit is insufficient, incessant," a striking contrast. At first they might seem contradictory, but they aren't. That, and the fact that the light comes from "some spherical fruit", creates a mood that is somewhat off-kilter. The reader is being told "This is not a place of the real world" by the ridiculousness of the practical details we do get.

It feels like a university library, where the author spent a lot of time and which would be very familiar to many readers. The "insufficient, incessant" light must be maddening: the lights are on 24x7, but it's nonetheless often too dim to read comfortably. The "spherical fruit which bear the name of lamps" sounds like the kind of thing a bleary-eyed scholar might come up with: the dim lamps feel like his only nourishment.

  • But the librarians live in the Library. It's their whole universe. If they don't eat, how do they live? More to the point, if they don't eat, why do they need toilets?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Apr 7, 2017 at 17:01
  • @Randal'Thor librarians are an exception. Also, people are allowed to drink, aren't they? At least in my university's library, we're allowed to bring water in bottles. Apr 7, 2017 at 18:25
  • I believe the intention is to put you in mind a student: they don't really live in the library, they just feel like it. (The piece uses "librarian" in a way that I believe implies "people of the library" rather than "employees of the library". The former is a student, who is there to read, rather than somebody who is there as a job all day.) Apr 7, 2017 at 18:31

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