[LINK] The disappearing virtual library
kim at holburn.net
Mon Mar 5 18:06:30 EST 2012
> The disappearing virtual library
> The shutdown of library.nu is creating a virtual showdown between would-be learners and the publishing industry.
> Last week a website called "library.nu" disappeared. A coalition of international scholarly publishers accused the site of piracy and convinced a judge in Munich to shut it down. Library.nu (formerly Gigapedia) had offered, if the reports are to be believed, between 400,000 and a million digital books for free.
> And not just any books - not romance novels or the latest best-sellers - but scholarly books: textbooks, secondary treatises, obscure monographs, biographical analyses, technical manuals, collections of cutting-edge research in engineering, mathematics, biology, social science and humanities.
> The texts ranged from so-called "orphan works" (out-of-print, but still copyrighted) to recent issues; from poorly scanned to expertly ripped; from English to German to French to Spanish to Russian, with the occasional Japanese or Chinese text. It was a remarkable effort of collective connoisseurship. Even the pornography was scholarly: guidebooks and scholarly books about the pornography industry. For a criminal underground site to be mercifully free of pornography must alone count as a triumph of civilisation.
> To the publishing industry, this event was a victory in the campaign to bring the unruly internet under some much-needed discipline. To many other people - namely the users of the site - it was met with anger, sadness and fatalism. But who were these sad criminals, these barbarians at the gates ready to bring our information economy to its knees?
> They are students and scholars, from every corner of the planet.
> In reality, however, the scholarly publishing industry has entered a phase like the one the pharmaceutical industry entered in the 1990s, when life-saving AIDS medicines were deliberately restricted to protect the interests of pharmaceutical companies' patents and profits.
> The comparison is perhaps inflammatory; after all, scholarly monographs are life-saving in only the most distant and abstract sense, but the situation is - legally speaking - nearly identical. Library.nu is not unlike those clever - and also illegal - local corporations in India and Africa who created generic versions of AIDS medicines.
> Why doesn't the publishing industry want these consumers? For one thing, the US and European book-buying libraries have been willing pay the prices necessary to keep the industry happy - and not just happy, in many cases obscenely profitable.
> But here is the rub: books and their scholars are the losers in this trade-off - especially cutting edge research from the best institutions in the world. The publishing industry we have today cannot - or will not - deliver our books to this enormous global market of people who desperately want to read them.
> Instead, they print a handful of copies - less than 100, often - and sell them to libraries for hundreds of dollars each. When they do offer digital versions, they are so wrapped up in restrictions and encumbrances and licencing terms as to make using them supremely frustrating.
> To make matters worse, our university libraries can no longer afford to buy these books and journals; and our few bookstores are no longer willing to carry them. So the result is that most of our best scholarship is being shot into some publisher's black hole where it will never escape. That is, until library.nu and its successors make it available.
> What these sites represent most clearly is a viable route towards education and learning for vast numbers of people around the world. The question it raises is: on which side of this battle do European and American scholars want to be?
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