Publishers are starting to catch up to AAAARG.org, 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.