Book Review: Shadow Libraries: Access to Knowledge in Global Higher Education

Shadow Libraries book cover Shadow Libraries: Access to Knowledge in Global Higher Educationedited by Joe Karaganis (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2018).

Shadow Libraries is a collection of country studies exploring “how students get the materials they need.”  Most chapters report original research (usually responses to student surveys) in addition to providing useful background on the shadow library history of each nation (Russia, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, India, Poland, and South Africa).  As editor Karaganis puts it in his introduction, the book shows “the personal struggle to participate in global scientific and educational communities, and the recourse to a wide array of ad hoc strategies and networks when formal, authorized means are lacking… ” (p. 3). Shadow libraries, sometimes called pirate libraries, consist of texts (in this case, scholarly texts) aggregated outside the legal framework of copyright.

Karaganis’ introductory chapter does an excellent job summarizing the themes connecting the chapters, and is worth reading by itself.  For example, the factors leading to the development of shadow libraries are common to each country covered: low income; a dysfunctional market in which materials either aren’t available or are overpriced; a rising student population; and easy access to copying and/or sharing technology. The student population boom in low and middle-income countries in the last 20 years is remarkable- quadrupling in India, tripling in Brazil, and doubling in Poland, Mexico, and South Africa.  At the same time, reductions in state support for higher education have exacerbated the affordability problem, leaving the market to meet (or more commonly, not meet) demand.  Add to this the tendency of publishers to price learning and research materials for libraries rather than individuals, and the result is a real crisis of legal access.

Due to the focus on student access to learning resources, there is less emphasis in Shadow Libraries on access to peer-reviewed articles and the best-known pirate library, Sci-Hub. However, Balázs Bodó presents two fascinating chapters on Library Genesis (LibGen) and how it was shaped by censorship and samizdat networks in Russia.  Online, shadow libraries are usually distributed (and easily forked), have separate indexing and item hosting, and are invisible to search engines (instead shared by word of mouth).  Other shadow libraries may be digital but not online, or in print.  Digital materials are often obtained via the sharing of university passwords.  In India, many materials are brought back by students studying in the U.S. or U.K.   The aggregation of scholarly materials is a community practice in which “a large majority of students… are shadow librarians by necessity if not choice” (p. 206).

The student surveys show the predominance of photocopying (in Argentina and Brazil, 90% of students obtain materials this way).  In many countries, “copy shops” in or near universities are ubiquitous, and students resort to other methods as well, such as taking photos of print materials (60% of respondents in Brazil).  Though publishers target university libraries for sales, in countries like India, few libraries can afford academic databases, and they provide access to only a “small fraction of the number of journals typically received by U.S. universities” (p. 186).

While there are some positive trends underway (the spread of SciELO to South Africa, greater fair use for education in India, and the rise of open educational resources, or OER), the current situation seems surprisingly resistant to change.  Indeed, access work-arounds only seem to reduce pressure on the system, as Karaganis notes:

“…the informal copying ecosystem operates as a safety valve… denying publishers the more complete markets they want but also forestalling a sharper crisis of access that might lead to a break with existing publishing and policy paradigms” (p. 11).

The book’s flaws are minor: some chapters go into more detail about a country’s copyright history than some readers may desire, and two chapters erroneously refer to U.S. fair use as limited to 10% of a resource.  References sometimes lack persistent identifiers such as DOIs or handles, and cited websites lack archiving (for example, with the Wayback Machine or Perma.cc, which should become universal practice in scholarship).

Shadow Libraries is a superb and fascinating book that is recommended to everyone in higher education.  As universities in wealthy countries emphasize international outreach (Virginia Tech is beginning to call itself a “global land-grant”), they should take into account access challenges around the world.  Of course, to some degree the same challenges are also present in well-funded institutions (textbook costs are receiving increased attention, and as Bodó notes, developed countries are major sources of traffic for LibGen).  Advancing university open access policies and creating OER can have impact on the crisis both locally and globally.  Emphasizing openness over prestige would help as well, with researchers in South Africa, Brazil, and Poland pressured to publish in “top” journals that often aren’t available in their own countries.  Such efforts would begin to remedy an academic environment that is “universalist in principle and unequal in practice” (p. 3).  Shadow Libraries leads one to ask: given the importance of higher education, why isn’t access to research and learning resources easier?

Shadow Libraries is an open access book (licensed CC BY-NC) available online in PDF, with buying options for those who would prefer a print copy.

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About Philip Young

Philip Young is the repository manager of VTechWorks, which provides global access to Virginia Tech scholarship. He also provides outreach to the university on open access, ORCiD, and Perma.cc.
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