Publishers are starting to catch up to, the rapidly growing file-sharing megalibrary for cultural theory and philosophy books, which currently makes available PDF files of hundreds of books that I would love to have but couldn’t realistically afford to buy. (See Columbia University Press’s cease and desist letter here.) At least I couldn’t afford all of them. On my professor’s salary I could certainly buy the ones I want most — after looking up some reviews, viewing the pages that Google Books (and/or the publishers) make available online, or actually walking to the campus library to sign them out just so I can see how much I really need to have my own copies. (Which means that at any given time I might have over two hundred books out on indefinite loan from the library, and that my most common excuse to visit the library is to return something in response to another borrower’s request for it.) But the library option often means special-requesting a book first and waiting weeks for it to arrive (if that happens at all), or recalling it from another borrower — which leaves me feeling rotten enough for taking it away from someone else that I rarely end up resorting to that. (Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.) And when I buy, there’s usually still that grad-studenty, budget-conscious voice in the back of my head asking if I really need this book, or will it just sit on a shelf and gather dust?

I imagine, though, that for the actual grad students and untenured academics who probably make up the bulk of AAAARG’s membership (along with some voracious intellectuals outside academe who have no access to a university library, and librarians or publishers’ employees subverting the system from within), most of these aren’t very realistic options. (For one thing, the book is probably out of the library in some professor’s office when you need it most.) And part of the value of a site like AAAARG is that it brings all these materials together in one place and — although the site doesn’t exploit this nearly as much as it could — that it can generate conversations about and around them in the process of making them available. So in addition to being a kind of dream library — because of the selection, but also because the books are always there on the shelf, to be read (or downloaded) whenever you need it — a site like this could also be a reading room and a virtual cafe with speakers, conversations, performative denunciations and adulations and rousing manifestos, and whatever else might happen when a bunch of intellectuals gather together around their favorite authors.

That little bit of (not so) utopian fantasizing aside, there’s something about wandering the aisles of this library that feels less like sitting in the comfortable couch of a Barnes and Noble or, better yet, one’s favorite local bookstore that’s somehow survived the onslaught of the chain stores — or for that matter even the pages of Amazon, with all its reviews and commentary — and that feels more like sneaking through the porn section of a video rental joint. The titles are written in black ink on white covers, with little or no information about them until you load them in your VCR. Some of them are misfiled or mistitled. Many have fingerprints all over (notes in the margins, black bands running down the sides of a bad photocopy job). There’s no colorful display of the current hot sellers, the store manager’s and employees’ selection of current favorites, or discounted copies of publisher’s deleted titles. And certainly no coffee.

So what do we make of this new tug-of-war, which echoes the skirmishes between record companies and Napster-inspired mp3 file-sharers, and all the many variations of the intellectual property rights game to be played out on similar battlefields in years to come? I know that information “wants to be free,” and that the same should go for knowledge and ideas. But I also know that there’s a price to be paid for their production: even if most scholarly books generate little if any profit, if the publishers didn’t make their money back — at least some of it (where they’re supplemented by institutional subsidies, private endowments, government grants, and the like) — then it wouldn’t be possible to produce those hand-held, flippable paper-and-ink bundles the world has come to know and love.

As with media, music, and everything else these days — witness the recent agreement between Google and publishers, libraries, and authors’ guilds, which has advanced things somehow, but no one seems to agree exactly how — we are (pace Yeats) struggling toward Bethlehem to be born… into a new model of digitally accessed texts with flexible copyrights, scalable pricing, incentive, and availability structures, and other things we couldn’t have dreamed of just a few years ago. Part of the pressure for a new model is coming from publishers (and record producers, et al.) who don’t want to see their profits continue falling — or their losses escalating. But part of it comes from those who are setting the data free by opening up one space after another where it can be freely exchanged. This is good, because it shows us that the baseline assumptions about access and availability have changed and that we need to address the new assumptions — about information’s “wanting to be” free — directly. And if a few dinosaurs like the music industry giants end up collapsing of their own weight in the process, then so it goes. What’s important here is the flow of knowledge and creativity and the possibility of making a living at it, but not necessarily every single way to profit from others’ knowledge and creativity. The latter constitutes a second layer built atop the first, a layer that in some respects might be expendable at the end of the day.

As far as knowledge goes, as opposed to commerce and entertainment, expanding access should be a fundamental starting point. When I’m researching a topic, whether it’s the reception by film theorists of Gilles Deleuze’s writings on cinema or social theorists’ analyses of the political economy of contemporary Haiti, having all of their writings (books and articles) available and fully searchable at my fingertips is just, well, such a quantum leap forward from where we were a couple of decades ago that it’s hardly even worth mentioning. The way we used to think about these things was by asking how we can make available those things we wish to see distributed widely, but without penalizing those who produce and distribute them. And the answer was: public libraries! This left intact the marketing and intellectual property rights systems that kept the books in production, but also created a shared space for accessing these materials freely, or at little cost, with only the commitment that we all had (back then) to a shared minimum of taxpayer supported public culture.

Public libraries are still around, at least in the better places to live, but many are struggling and not keeping up well with the expanding needs of our day. And I think the baseline question has changed from how to make things available – that’s easy: you put them online — to how to provide ways of compensating their producers so as to keep them wanting to produce more of them. What kinds of arrangements will provide incentives for those who do the work that others value? Beyond popularity alone, alongside a guaranteed minimum wage (well, okay, let’s leave that one aside until the next utopian moment), what else would an author want or need? Open access theorists have thought about this and devised some simple but flexible incentive structures (such as Creative Commons licenses and other things), but we’re a long way from figuring it all out yet.

As for AAAARG, most of its authors are either scholars, who make a living not from their writings but from the (public or private) institutions that support them — and who might be quite happy to allow other scholars to access their books without buying them — or else they’re dead. (Or both.) Neither Plato nor Foucault will care if you steal their book or pay forty-five dollars for its latest edition, and those who care about that on their behalf are, arguably, following the old model. As for whether John Law, John Mullarkey, or Elizabeth Grosz will mind that I recommended their PDFs to my students because hard copies were so expensive or difficult to find in this form, I don’t know. I guess I’ll wait and see if anyone tells me I shouldn’t have.

See the Institute for the Future of the Book‘s if:book blog for some good thinking on these topics.

Be Sociable, Share!

Related posts:

  1. CSG set free (sort of): 10th birthday reflections
  2. The dharma of file sharing
  3. The state of academic publishing (RIP, Aaron Swartz)
  4. Not ‘uncontacted,’ just ‘free’
  5. free access to ISLE until May 15