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Shadow Libraries

Caitlin Riddell explores the world of open access knowledge

“Those with access to these resources — students, librarians, scientists — you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not — indeed, morally, you cannot — keep this privilege for yourselves… Meanwhile, those who have been locked out are not standing idly by. You have been sneaking through holes and climbing over fences, liberating the information locked up by the publishers and sharing them”

Aaron Swartz, Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto, 2008

The debate surrounding open access is admittedly niche and something easy to dismiss when you are a university student. You already have library logins; there is no more hard work in cracking the vault of information safeguarded by a culture of paywalls and exclusivity. Many people will go their entire university careers without thinking about the wealth and privilege of their knowledge hoard. A hoard they have collated simply by having access to higher education. In truth, I know very little about it all, the politics of open access, its celebrities, its secrets. It was only recently that I scratched at the surface and saw a vast chasm of questions peeking through the holes I had made in my own understanding.


People have died for this.


The endless pursuit of freedom of knowledge.


It’s all very dramatic.


It makes sense, then, that the moniker ‘shadow libraries’ has emerged. Describing the vast collections of often illegally obtained resources, these libraries and their ‘shadow librarians’ sound like something out of a fantasy novel. They sound like they are shrouded in secret and probably filled with arcane and powerful knowledge and dust, lots of dust.

In reality, it’s a lot more modern than that.


Shadow libraries are the conglomeration of digital media; be it literary or academic books and papers, or software, music, films – you name it, they have it. They have existed since the advent of computers, and their key concern is the digitisation, collection, and cataloguing of resources. Most digital libraries choose to operate outside of the law, creating expansive archives of crowdsourced content and ‘biblioleaks’ which work outside of formal channels of media access. They often manifest as full-scale archives of pirated material, and they are open for anyone. If you need to find something, be it an academic paper, a rare book, an obscure foreign film, it’s most likely somewhere in a shadow library, waiting for you to find it.


Understandably, these libraries have emerged as the thorn in the side for various publishers and copyright holders. Sometimes, the veil of shadow slips and examples are made of those who make themselves and their allegiance to open access known. High profile figures like Aaron Swartz, perhaps most famous for his involvement in the foundation of popular social media site Reddit, and Alexandra Elbakyan, founder of the academic shadow library SciHub, have had legal repercussions thrown at them to various degrees of success. Aaron Swartz, who would eventually become the first martyr for the cause, was initially arrested for breaking and entering with the intent to commit a crime and was further indicted on various charges, including computer fraud and unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer. His ‘theft’ of papers from academic archive JSTOR and subsequent indictment prompted backlash for the federal prosecution, who argued that “stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar”.


He hung himself in his New York apartment in 2013.


Understandably so, a significant portion of the shadow library community prefers to be kept anonymous. Communication with the librarians themselves or even anyone from those communities is rare. Some of the administrators of the shadow library, Library Genesis, were interviewed and strikingly, those individuals whose identities had been protected refer to themselves as ‘we’, collective action against the denial of scholarship for those who don’t have the means. These collectives of shadow librarians act under a kind of Robin Hood-esque ethos, taking content from behind barriers, robbing from the knowledge-rich to give to masses outside of traditional academia, with limited access, whether for political, geographic, or economic reasons.


Logically, we must know that the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots is not exempt from the academic sphere. In the age of globalisation, the culture of ‘bibliogifts’ and belief in Guerrilla Open Access will only increase as those who are barred from knowledge open their eyes. At the end of it all, I echo Swartz’ manifesto – as an individual with access to this wealth of resources in books and journals, it is my obligation to share it. When somebody asks, I can download pdf files and send them. I can give my institution login details to people who need them. I can point people to shadow libraries and whisper to them, there is place you can go where your access is unlimited; just use a VPN first.


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