Library of Congress Lists

The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. -Umberto Eco

The data release by the Library of Congress coincided with me reading Umberto Eco’s The Infinity of Lists. I couldn’t stop thinking about both, so I decided the first thing I do with the data should be something simple, like a list. A list of every cataloged book in the Library of Congress, sorted alphabetically, of course.

It is not too difficult to pull out the ~9 million unique titles from the 8 gigabytes of LC MARC book data and make a list. But I wanted to show the size and scope, to give it a kind of shape and to be able to “view” everything at once. The result was a huge list, 160 columns with over 55,000 titles in each:

View The List

List Vertigo —

Drawing the list was difficult, it is a 80,000 x 557,017 pixel image. The python script that created the image is simple. But it requires a computer that can fit all those pixels into RAM. I needed to borrow a beefy computer from Jeff Bezos for 12 hours. A 244GB RAM machine @ $2.128 an hour, this list cost $25 to make. The single image ended up being 5.1GB which in turn were cut into 21GB of tile images.

Who doesn’t like to watch numbers slowly increment in their console

It’s fun to browse around, you quickly become disoriented, zooming out, losing your spot, spanning hundreds of thousands of books in a few clicks. Lists inherently bring organization but no one said they have to be useful. I personally enjoy the idea of an impractical and even absurd list.