Libraries in the Post-Scarcity Era

Chapter 4
Libraries in the Post-Scarcity Era

Balázs Bodó


In the digital era where, thanks to the ubiquity of electronic copies, the book is no longer a scarce resource, libraries find themselves in an extremely competitive environment. Several different actors are now in the position to provide low cost access to knowledge. One of these competitors is the shadow library – piratical text collections which amassed electronic copies of millions of copyrighted works and provide access to them usually free of charge to anyone around the globe. While such shadow libraries are far from being universal, they are able to offer certain services better, to more people and under more favourable terms than most public or research libraries. This contribution offers insights into the development and the inner workings of one of the biggest scientific shadow libraries on the internet in order to understand what kind of library people create for themselves if they have the means and if they don’t have to abide by the legal, bureaucratic and economic constraints that libraries usually face. I argue that one of the many possible futures of the library is hidden in the shadows, and those who think of the future of libraries can learn a lot from book pirates of the twenty-first century about how users and readers expect texts in electronic form to be stored, organised and circulated.

The library is society’s last non-commercial meeting place which the majority of the population uses. (Committee on the Public Libraries in the Knowledge Society, 2010)

With books ready to be shared, meticulously cataloged, everyone is a librarian. When everyone is librarian, library is everywhere. (Marcell Mars,

I have spent the last few months in various libraries visiting – a library. I spent countless hours in the modest or grandiose buildings of the Harvard Libraries, the Boston and Cambridge Public Library systems, various branches of the Openbare Bibliotheek in Amsterdam, the libraries of the University of Amsterdam, with a computer in front of me, on which another library was running, a library which is perfectly virtual, which has no monumental buildings, no multi-million euro budget, no miles of stacks, no hundreds of staff, but which has, despite lacking everything that apparently makes a library, millions of literary works and millions of scientific books, all digitised, all available at the click of the mouse for everyone on earth without any charge, library or university membership. As I was sitting in these physical spaces where the past seemed to define the present, I was wondering where I should look to find the library of the future: down to my screen or up around me.

The library on my screen was Aleph, one of the biggest of the countless piratical text collections on the internet. It has more than a million scientific works and another million literary works to offer, all free to download, without any charge or fee, for anyone on the net. I’ve spent months among its virtual stacks, combing through the catalogue, talking to the librarians who maintain the collection, and watching the library patrons as they used the collection. I kept going back to Aleph both as a user and as a researcher. As a user, Aleph offered me books that the local libraries around me didn’t, in formats that were more convenient than print. As a researcher, I was interested in the origins of Aleph, its modus operandi, its future, and I was curious where the journey to which it has taken the book-readers, authors, publishers and libraries would end.

In this chapter I will introduce some of the findings of a two-year research project conducted on Aleph. In the project. I reconstructed the pirate library’s genesis in order to understand the forces that called it to life and shaped its development. I looked at its catalogue to understand what it has to offer and how that piratical supply of books is related to the legal supply of books through libraries and online distributors. I also acquired data on its usage, so I was able to reconstruct some aspects of piratical demand. After a short introduction, in the first part of this chapter I will outline some of the main findings, and in the second part will situate the findings in the wider context of the future of libraries.

Book Pirates and Shadow Librarians

Book piracy has a fascinating history, tightly woven into the history of the printing press (Judge, 1934), into the history of censorship (Wittmann, 2004), into the history of copyright (Bently, Davis and Ginsburg, 2010; Bodó, 2011a) and into the history of European civilisation (Johns, 2010). Book piracy, in the twenty-first or in the mid-seventeenth century is an activity that has deep cultural significance, because ultimately it is a story about how knowledge is circulated beyond and often against the structures of political and economic power (Bodó, 2011b), and thus it is a story about the changes this unofficial circulation of knowledge brings.

There are many different types of book pirates. Some just aim for easy money, others pursue highly ideological goals, but they are invariably powerful harbingers of change. The emergence of black markets, whether they be of culture, drugs or arms is always a symptom, a warning sign of a friction between supply and demand. Increased activity in the grey and black zones of legality marks the emergence of a demand which legal suppliers are unwilling or unable to serve (Bodó, 2011a). That friction, more often than not, leads to change. Earlier waves of book piracy foretold fundamental economic, political, societal or technological shifts (Bodó, 2011b): changes in how the book publishing trade was organised (Judge, 1934; Pollard, 1916, 1920); the emergence of the new, bourgeois reading class (Patterson, 1968; Solly, 1885); the decline of pre-publication censorship (Rose, 1993); the advent of the Reformation and of the Enlightenment (Darnton, 1982, 2003), or the rapid modernisation of more than one nation (Khan and Sokoloff, 2001; Khan, 2004; Yu, 2000).

The latest wave of piracy has coincided with the digital revolution which, in itself, profoundly upset the economics of cultural production and distribution (Landes and Posner, 2003). However technology is not the primary cause of the emergence of cultural black markets like Aleph. The proliferation of computers and the internet just revealed a more fundamental issue which has to do with the uneven distribution of the access to knowledge around the globe.

Sometimes book pirates do more than just forecast and react to changes that are independent of them. Under certain conditions, they themselves can be powerful agents of change (Bodó, 2011b). Their agency rests on their ability to challenge the status quo and resist cooptation or subjugation. In that effect, digital pirates seem to be quite resilient (Giblin, 2011; Patry, 2009). They have the technological upper hand and so far they have been able to outsmart any copyright enforcement effort (Bodó, 2015). As long as it is not completely possible to eradicate file sharing technologies, and as long as there is a substantial difference between what is legally available and what is in demand, cultural black markets will be here to compete with and outcompete the established and recognised cultural intermediaries. Under this constant existential threat, business models and institutions are forced to adapt, evolve or die.

After the music and audiovisual industries, now the book industry has to address the issue of piracy. Piratical book distribution services are now in direct competition with the bookshop on the corner, the used-book stall on the pavement, they compete with the Amazons of this world and, like it or not, they compete with libraries. There is, however, a significant difference between the book and the music industries. The reluctance of music rights holders to listen to the demands of their customers caused little damage beyond the markets of recorded music. Music rights holders controlled their own fates and those who wanted to experiment with alternative forms of distribution had the limited chance to do so. But while the rapid proliferation of book black markets may signal that the book industry suffers from similar problems as the music industry suffered a decade ago, the actions of book publishers, the policies they pursue have impact beyond the market of books and directly affect the domain of libraries.

The fate of libraries is tied to the fate of book markets in more than one way. One connection is structural: libraries emerged to remedy the scarcity in books. This is true both for the pre-print era and in the Gutenberg galaxy. In the era of widespread literacy and highly developed book markets, libraries offer access to books under terms publishers and booksellers cannot or would not. Libraries, to a large extent, are defined to complement the structure of the book trade. The other connection is legal. The core activities of the library (namely lending, copying) are governed by the same copyright laws that govern authors and publishers. Libraries are one of the users in the copyright system, and their existence depends on the limitations of and exceptions to the exclusive rights of the rights holders. The space that has been carved out of copyright to enable the existence of libraries has been intensely contested in the era of postmodern copyright (Samuelson, 2002) and digital technologies. This heavy legal and structural interdependence with the market means that libraries have only a limited control over their own fate in the digital domain.

Book pirates compete with some of the core services of libraries. And as is usually the case with innovation that has no economic or legal constraints, pirate libraries offer, at least for the moment, significantly better services than most of the libraries. Pirate libraries offer far more electronic books, with far fewer restrictions and constraints, to far more people, far cheaper than anyone else in the library domain. Libraries are thus directly affected by pirate libraries, and because of their structural interdependence with book markets, they also have to adjust to how the commercial intermediaries react to book piracy. Under such conditions libraries cannot simply \ rely on their legacy for their survival. Book piracy must be taken seriously, not just as a threat, but also as an opportunity to learn how shadow libraries operate and interact with their users. Pirate libraries are the products of readers (and sometimes authors), academics and laypeople, all sharing a deep passion for the book, operating in a zone where there is little to no obstacle to the development of the ‘ideal’ library. As such, pirate libraries can teach important lessons on what is expected of a library, how book consumption habits evolve, and how knowledge flows around the globe.

Pirate Libraries in the Digital Age

The collection of texts in digital formats was one of the first activities that computers enabled: the text file is the native medium of the computer, it is small, thus it is easy to store and copy. It is also very easy to create, and as so many projects have since proved, there are more than enough volunteers who are willing to type whole books into the machine. No wonder that electronic libraries and digital text repositories were among the first ‘mainstream’ application of computers. Combing through large stacks of matrix-printer printouts of sci-fi classics downloaded from gopher servers is a shared experience of anyone who had access to computers and the internet before it was known as the World Wide Web.

Computers thus added fresh momentum to the efforts of realising the age-old dream of the universal library (Battles, 2004). Digital technologies offered a breakthrough in many of the issues that previously posed serious obstacles to text collection: storage, search, preservation, access all became cheaper and easier than ever before. On the other hand, a number of key issues remained unresolved: digitisation was a slow and cumbersome process, while the screen proved to be too inconvenient, and the printer too costly an interface between the text file and the reader. Ultimately it were not these issues that put a break to the proliferation of digital libraries. Rather, it was the realisation that there are legal limits to the digitisation, storage and distribution of copyrighted works on the digital networks. That realisation soon rendered many text collections in the emerging digital library scene inaccessible.

Legal considerations did not destroy this chaotic, emergent digital librarianship and the collections the ad-hoc, accidental and professional librarians put together. The text collections were far too valuable to simply delete them from the servers. Instead, what happened to most of these collections was that they retreated from the public view, back into the access-controlled shadows of darknets. Yesterday’s gophers and anonymous ftp servers turned into closed, membership only ftp servers, local shared libraries residing on the intranets of various academic, business institutions and private archives stored on local hard drives. The early digital libraries turned into book piracy sites and into the kernels of today’s shadow libraries.

Libraries and other major actors, who decided to start large scale digitisation programmes soon found out that if they wanted to avoid costly lawsuits, then they had to limit their activities to work in the public domain. While the public domain is riddled with mind-bogglingly complex and unresolved legal issues, at least it is still significantly less complicated to deal with than copyrighted and orphan works. Legally more innovative (or as some would say, adventurous) companies, such as Google and Microsoft, who thought they had sufficient resources to sort out the legal issues, soon had to abandon their programmes or put them on hold until the legal issues were sorted out.

There were, however, a large group of disenfranchised readers, library patrons, authors and users who decided to ignore the legal problems and set out to build the best library that could possibly be built using digital technologies. Despite the increased awareness of rights holders to the issue of digital book piracy, more and more communities around text collections started to defy the legal constraints and to operate and use more or less public piratical shadow libraries.


Aleph2 is a meta-library, and currently one of the biggest online piratical text collections on the internet. The project started on a Russian bulletin board devoted to piracy in around 2008 as an effort to integrate various free-floating text collections that circulated online, on optical media, on various public and private ftp servers and on hard drives. Its aim was to consolidate these separate text collections, many of which were created in various Russian academic institutions, into a single, unified catalogue, standardise the technical aspects, add and correct missing or incorrect metadata, and offer the resulting catalogue, computer code and the collection of files as an open infrastructure.

From Russia with Love

It is by no means a coincidence that Aleph was born in Russia. In post-Soviet Russia the unique constellation of several different factors created hospitable conditions for the digital librarianship movement that ultimately led to the development of Aleph. A rich literary legacy, the communist heritage, the pace with which various copying technologies penetrated the market, the shortcomings of the legal environment and the informal norms that stood in for the non-existent digital copyrights all contributed to the emergence of the biggest piratical library in the history of mankind.

Russia cherishes a rich literary tradition, which suffered and endured extreme economic hardships and political censorship during the Soviet period (Ermolaev, 1997; Friedberg, Watanabe, and Nakamoto, 1984; Stelmakh, 2001). The political transformation in the early 1990s liberated authors, publishers, librarians and readers from much of the political oppression, but it did not solve the economic issues that stood in the way of a healthy literary market. Disposable income was low, state subsidies were limited, the dire economic situation created uncertainty in the book market. The previous decades, however, have taught authors and readers how to overcome political and economic obstacles to access to books. During the Soviet times authors, editors and readers operated clandestine samizdat distribution networks, while informal book black markets, operating in semi-private spheres, made uncensored but hard-to-come-by books accessible (Stelmakh, 2001). This survivalist attitude and the skills that came with it became handy in the post-Soviet turmoil, and were directly transferable to the then emerging digital technologies.

Russia is not the only country with a significant informal media economy of books, but in most other places it was the photocopy machine that emerged to serve such grey/black book markets. In pre-1990 Russia and in other Eastern European countries the access to this technology was limited, and when photocopiers finally became available, computers were close behind them in terms of accessibility. The result of the parallel introduction of the photocopier and the computer was that the photocopy technology did not have time to lock in the informal market of texts. In many countries where the photocopy machine preceded the computer by decades, copy shops still capture the bulk of the informal production and distribution of textbooks and other learning material. In the Soviet-bloc PCs offered a less costly and more adaptive technology to copy and distribute texts.

Russian academic and research institutions were the first to have access to computers. They also had to deal with the frustrating lack of access to up-to-date and affordable western works to be used in education and research (Abramitzky and Sin, 2014). This may explain why the first batch of shadow libraries started in a number of academic/research institutions such as the Department of Mechanics and Mathematics (MexMat) at Moscow State University. The first digital librarians in Russia were mathematicians, computer scientists and physicists, working in those institutions.