The Permanent Library Card of the World

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way university students access study materials, and with that comes a greater appreciation of shadow libraries that have quietly been ramping up their databases to provide for a burgeoning need. Library Genesis, or LibGen, is one such pirated content distribution forum that openly commits to its agenda of creating a community of self-learning individuals.

It is fascinating to learn about how Sci-Hub, LibGen, and other mirror sites have partly emerged as heirs to the informal practices of the underground circulation of books, to preserve scholarship in Soviet Russia. The unique Russian reading culture was enabled within a paradox, aided by the state’s focused approach around developing mass readership among its citizens, as well as political censorship of literature which ultimately led to black marketing and hoarding of banned material.

A neuroscience student from Kazakhstan named Aleksandra Elbakyan launched SciHub in 2011 in the hope of providing greater access to restricted copies of scientific journals for research and educational purposes. At home in India, the following year we witnessed an extraordinary case: three giant publishing conglomerates against a lone xerox shop, tucked away in the nooks and corners of Delhi University’s north campus. Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and Taylor & Francis Group, among others, filed a copyright infringement case against Rameshwari photocopy services, for the reproduction of chapters from their books, by means of mass photocopying to provide for course reading material at the Delhi School of Economics.

In a luminous judgment in 2016, Justice Rajiv Sahai Endlaw of the Supreme Court of India upheld the right to “fair use” under educational exemption by stating in its ruling:

“Copyright, especially in literary works, is thus not an inevitable, divine, or natural right that confers on authors the absolute ownership of their creations. It is designed rather to stimulate activity and progress in the arts for the intellectual enrichment of the public. Copyright is intended to increase and not to impede the harvest of knowledge.”

Knowledge isn’t meant to be bottled up in a genie’s lamp, it is meant to be the stardust scattered across our landscapes. The ongoing case against SciHub is a case against the freeing of imprisoned knowledge. Its parent site, and de facto database, LibGen, faces similar challenges today. For journal giants like Elsevier and Wiley, this is a radically fair model of distribution that has gotten too big to ignore. The FBI’s procurement of Elbakyan’s data from Apple, as well as the continual legal harassment faced by the Sci-Hub members, in the backdrop of the website’s rising popularity amongst a pandemic-beholden student community is not lost on us.

When people cannot borrow, copy, or source their education through other means, they turn to these few dozen proxy websites, lacking both financial means and intuitional access. From a historical point of view, the Russian dissidents that participated in samizdat (Russian for “self-publishing”), across the Eastern Bloc, partaking in makeshift publication networks, painstakingly manually reproducing documents to keep them from going out of print, are linked to this grassroots practice that has taken on a more sophisticated, tech-savvy approach of digitising a worldwide library.

The ascent of shadow libraries is marked by the works of students, volunteers, activists, academics, scientists and other ordinary people. Among them was Aaron Swartz, a hacker-activist and an open-access advocate who was relentlessly pursued by MIT and the US state department for the unauthorised bulk downloading of JSTOR articles. Legal harassment forced him to die by suicide two years into the case, but he left behind a powerful legacy that evokes contempt for the broad-spanning application of IP and copyright laws. Penned in 2008, by Aaron Swartz and other free information activists, The Guerilla Open Access Manifesto makes us rethink the values we associate with propriety, ridiculing the stigma around academic piracy, “as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew.”

The fight for equitable access to education does not stand separate from these actions. Oxford University vs. Rameshwar Photocopy Services lays the foundation for a future that keeps societal access to education above profit movie. But the threats to gatekeeping are profound, and those at the helm of this boundary-setting won’t give up so easily. Scientific research is inevitably tied to this lack of access, and a pandemic is not a bad time to acknowledge the value of a strong R&D ecosystem.

It is for the larger student community to recognise the dangers of losing access to these strongholds of knowledge that have kept us going despite being cut-off from central library systems and deprived of physical study material. But something larger might be at stake here: the idea that knowledge is power, and that power must never be in the hands of a privileged few.