Cataloging Plunder: Thoughts on the Digital Text-Sharing Underground

By SrrhHamerman


The hacker tenet, “Information wants to be free,” can be read as both a description of the potential of digital information economies and as an extension of library notions of information democracy. As digital relations of production radically destabilize traditional notions of intellectual property, they force information specialists and cultural producers to rethink information access for a new era.

The dominant narrative of the digital era, chronicled by Lawrence Lessig (2004) in his book Free Culture, is that of a dramatic expansion of copyright law to protect the commercial interests of major media corporations. With the passage of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act in 1998, the copyright term was lengthened to 95 years, preventing a massive number of works from entering the public domain (p. 135). As Lessig laments, the expansion of intellectual property law is pursued in the interests of a meager 2% of works that have any lasting commercial value. The real harm is to the remaining 98% of works that are not famous, not commercially exploited, and no longer available as a result (p. 221). Taken to such an extreme, commercial protection massively inhibits cultural exposure and innovation.

Despite claims of information democracy, we actually witness the “enclosure of the information commons” into a system of monopoly and lease by Silicon Valley conglomerates such as Amazon and Google. Rather than owning physical books, for example, we rent e-books for Kindle and Nook. With e-books, these corporations control devices, software platforms and content in a vertically integrated profit model. In his essay “Interface, Access, Loss” (2013), Sean Dockray points out how e-readers eradicate the “First Sale Doctrine,” which allowed owners of rightfully purchased works to share or re-sell them as they saw fit. He continues:

“The e-reader is an individualizing device. It is the object that establishes trusted access with books stored in the cloud and ensures that each and every person purchases their own rights to read each book. The only sharing that is allowed is sharing the device itself… This is no library — or, it is a library only in the most impoverished sense of the word” (190).

In other words, the e-reader’s interface is not an OPAC coupled with a library card – it is a marketing tool, pure and simple. And as a marketing tool, it privileges access to works deemed commercially profitable for a mass audience.

But in opposition to this expansion of immaterial private property, a digital text-sharing underground has emerged that truly does believe that “information wants to be free.” Collaboratively-maintained “pirate libraries” (my term) such as aaaaaarg, Monoskop, UbuWeb, and Memory of the World offer public access to resources focused on contemporary art, critical theory, media studies and related fields. Though these sites differ somewhat in content, architecture, and ideological bent, all of them flout intellectual copyright law to varying degrees, offering up “pirated” books and media with the aim of advancing information access and creative scholarship.

As acts of civil disobedience, these projects promise both the realization and destruction of the public library. They promote information democracy while calling the professional institution of the Library into question, allowing amateurs to upload, catalog, lend and maintain collections. Because they offer free access to copyrighted media, it is easy to see how intellectual property owners could cast these text-sharing networks as threats to publishers, to artists’ profits, or to “real” libraries. This view of the sites’ threats to book sales, in my opinion, is exaggerated and alarmist. Rather, I propose treating pirate libraries as “digital alternative spaces” that allow for the use (and creative misuse) of art and academic discourses outside of institutional settings. The pirate library actualizes a gift economy where, as Matthew Stadler (2013) writes:

“… Literature is not owned. It is, by definition, a space of mutually negotiated meanings that never closes or concludes, a space that thrives on — indeed requires — open access and sharing,” (175).

While democratic in the sense that they are free and collaboratively maintained, these resources are not necessarily democratic in the populist sense. They attract a modest but engaged audience of critics, artists, designers, activists, and scholars.



UbuWeb, founded in 1996 by conceptual artist/writer Kenneth Goldsmith, is the largest online archive of avant-garde art resources. Its holdings include sound, video and text-based works dating from the historical avant-garde era to today. Though informal, non-commercial and independently run, the site has come to be recognized as an important scholarly resource. UbuWeb focuses on making available out of print, obscure or difficult to access artistic media, stating that uploading such historical artifacts doesn’t detract from the physical value of the work; rather, it enhances it. This sharing of out of print/hard to find materials, common across the pirate libraries, is illegal, yet good for society, as Lessig argues. It increases exposure without harming artists, as the work is otherwise unavailable or under-available (69). UbuWeb intentionally uploads lower-quality video and audio files, emphasizing that researchers should go to the rightful owner for archival-quality copies. Additionally, the site will remove media from its archive upon artist’s request., a like-minded project, describes itself as “a wiki for collaborative studies of art, media and the humanities.” Its significant holdings — about 3,000 full-length texts and many more excerpts, links and citations—include avant-garde and modernist magazines, writings on sound art, scanned illustrations, and media theory texts. As a wiki, any user can edit any article or upload content, and see their changes reflected immediately. Like UbuWeb, the site makes clear that it is offering content under the fair-use doctrine and that this content is for personal and scholarly use, not commercial use., started by Los Angeles based artist Sean Dockray, is probably the largest of these resources, hosting full-text pdfs of over 50,000 books and articles. The library is connected to a an alternative education project called the Public School, which serves as a platform for self-organizing lectures, workshops and projects in cities across the globe. Aaaaaarg’s catalog is viewable by the public, but upload/download privileges are restricted through an invite system, thus circumventing copyright law.

I own a physical copy of this book.

A Screenshot of Claire Bishop’s “Participation” Anthology in Aaaaaarg’s browsing interface.

While Dockray has expressed criticism of intellectual property law in some writings and interviews, criticizing this form of property was not Aaaaaarg’s initial intent. He says, “It was simply about… the sharing of knowledge between various individuals and groups that I was in correspondence with at the time but who weren’t necessarily in correspondence with each other.” Though the library is easily searchable, it doesn’t maintain high-quality metadata. Dockray and other organizers intend to preserve a certain subjective and informal quality, focusing more on discussion and collaboration than correct preservation and classification practice.

Memory of the world, a younger “pirate library,” offers a collection of about 5,000 texts, but frames itself through a somewhat utopian philosophy of building a truly universal library. Through democratizing the tools of librarianship – book scanning, classification systems, cataloging, information – it promises a broader, de-institutionalized public library. In Public Library (an essay), Memory of the world’s organizers frame p2p libraries as “fragile knowledge infrastructures built and maintained by brave librarians practicing civil disobedience which the world of researchers in the humanities rely on.” This civil disobedience is a politically motivated refutation of intellectual property law and the orientation of information networks toward venture capital and advertising. While the pirate libraries fulfill this function as a kind of experimental provocation, their content, as stated before, is audience-specific rather than universal.

Between the cracks of the new information capital, the digital text-sharing underground fosters a the coming-into-being of another kind of information society, one in which the historical record is the democratically-shared basis for new forms of knowledge. Furthermore, we should not view alternatives to corporate monopoly as covert and illicit, carried out (metaphorically) under cover of night. Rather, piracy is normal and the public domain it builds is abundant. While these practices will continue just beneath the official surface of the information economy, it is high time for us to demand that our legal structures catch up.

Works Cited:

Dockray, S. (2013). Interface, Access, Loss. In M. Lewandowska & L. Ptak (Eds.), Undoing Property? Berlin: Sternberg.

Fuller, M. (2011, May 4). In the Paradise of Too Many Books: An Interview with Sean Dockray. Retrieved November 20, 2014, from

Lessig, L. (2004). Free culture: How big media uses technology and the law to lock down culture and control creativity. New York: Penguin Press.

Mars, M., Zarroug, M., & Medak, T. (n.d.). Public library (an essay). Retrieved November 20, 2014, from

Myers, J. (2009, August 26). Four Dialogues 2: On AAAARG. Retrieved November 20, 2014, from

Scanners, collectors and aggregators. On the ‘underground movement’ of (pirated) theory text sharing. (n.d.). Retrieved November 20, 2014, from‘underground-movement’-of-pirated-theory-text-sharing

Stadler, M. (2013). From Ownership to Belonging. In M. Lewandowska & L. Ptak (Eds.), Undoing Property? Berlin: Sternberg.

Some Related Resources Not Mentioned in this Essay:

Creative Commons

Internet Archive

The Piracy Project

Bringing (Un)dead Books Back to Life at Reanimation Library

By SrrhHamerman

Reanimation Library's Reading Room, via

Reanimation Library’s Reading Room, via

The shelves of Brooklyn’s Reanimation Library are lined with bowling manuals, guides to Gregg shorthand, outdated biology textbooks, a tech-savvy fitness book called “computercise,” and even a thick tome containing nothing but random series of numbers. Browsing the collection feels more like inhabiting a vaguely retro-futurist cabinet of curiosities than a library in the traditional sense. But through this hybrid library and conceptual artwork, Reanimation Library founder Andrew Beccone challenges us to rethink systems of knowledge and cultural value.

Located in the Proteus Gowanus complex since 2006, Reanimation Library serves primarily as a visual resource to inspire artists and individuals to create new work. Though the collection does not circulate, visitors are encouraged to scan and reuse images that they find – in Beccone’s words, to “pan for gold in the sediment of visual culture.” Among Reanimation Library’s audience are book artists, animators, collectors, writers and students. Beyond Brooklyn, Reanimation installs “branch libraries,” which are temporary, site-sourced versions of the library, at art and cultural spaces as far afield as Lebanon. Additionally, the library invites writers to critically respond to works from the collection on its Word Processor blog.

Reanimation Library started out as an extension of Beccone’s personal interests. A practicing visual artist, he worked in libraries for years and studied library science at Pratt. The collection’s scope reflects his interest in the print and visual culture of the era spanning from the ‘40s to the ‘70s, eschewing high-art texts for vernacular subjects. He delights in the “popular modernism” of this atomic-age visual culture, which seems to promise everyone the possibility of transforming his or her world, even through mundane pursuits. The books function more as artifacts than as texts, giving us insight into the era’s mode of visual/textual reproduction and embodying its cultural mindset. Reanimation Library allows visitors to perform their own “archaeology of knowledge,” gleaning understanding of the past’s (failed) promises through its detritus – and reclaiming its visual potential for the future.

Owing to the project’s focus on generating new work, I asked Beccone how he tracked and displayed the art created in response to the collection. While he originally attempted to include the works in his digital catalog and link them to the books they referenced, this proved to be too much of an administrative burden, even with occasional volunteer help. Also, attempting to meticulously track and record every artwork felt a bit authoritarian – patrons actively share in the project, and once the images enter their hands, they are theirs to transform. The library negotiates an interesting space between private and public collection – in some sense, it’s a portrait of Beccone’s own interests, but he’s offering it up to everyone.

Reanimation Library has drawn an ambivalent reaction from library professionals, perhaps because it calls attention to the materials libraries eliminate through weeding. Collection development policies prioritize currently relevant textual information, often assigning little weight to the visual dimension of the work. In our conversation, Beccone noted that there’s something conservative to the way libraries consider useful information, often de-privileging visual information that’s not easily classified and pushing it away from access. His perspective on the library’s power in determining culturally useful knowledge resonates with Foucault’s definition of the archive:

“[The archive is not] that which collects the dust of statements that have become inert once more, and which may make possible the miracle of their resurrection; it is that which defines the mode of occurrence of the statement-thing, it is the system of its functioning,” (Foucault 129).

While Reanimation Library may aim to make this “miracle” possible once more, it is still, resolutely, a library, with books cataloged according to the Library of Congress system. For Beccone, the choice of Library of Congress was a bit arbitrary – it suited his purposes, and was the classification system he was most familiar with. Still, many librarians have refused to see Reanimation Library as something more than an art project, despite the fact that Beccone embraces the library’s spirit of providing free, democratic access to information.

From Reanimation Library's digital image collection

From Reanimation Library’s digital image collection

The project has received a more enthusiastic response in the art world, where it resonates with recent interests in social practice and relational art. Particularly since the 1960s, the art world has showed a continued interest in questioning hierarchies and breaking down disciplinary boundaries. Artworks such as Marcel Broodthaers’ “Department of Eagles” have emphasized the strangeness of the archive, its gaps and its visual repetitions. Artistically, Reanimation Library has found a community at Proteus Gowanus, a gallery and reading room that hosts residents interested in cross-disciplinary inquiry and collaboration. Its neighbors at the space have included Morbid Anatomy Museum, focusing on art, science, and death, and Observatory, a group of “oddball para-academics” who present lectures and events.

Marcel Broodthaers' fictitious museum, Department of Eagles, 1968

Marcel Broodthaers’ fictitious museum, Department of Eagles, 1968

While Reanimation Library encourages engagement with books as physical and material objects, it also offers a full digital catalog and online collection of thousands of images. For Beccone, print and digital are not mutually exclusive – rather, they offer different modes of understanding and searching for information that can support and mutually reinforce one another. The digital archive allows people outside of New York to access part of the collection, as well as offering a browsing experience that’s distinct from the physical space. However, he has no intent of fully digitizing the collection – because of resource limitations, conceptual intentions, and because this may infringe on fair use.

Beccone finds that many people of the younger generation that has grown up with the Internet have taken a strong interest in the collection, and in book arts more generally. Citing the success of the New York Art Book Fair, he notes that there has been an embrace of print objects and analog technologies, in reaction to the ephemerality and intangibility of the digital. Books have a medium-specific way of conveying information, speaking as much through the feel of their pages and the visual quality of color, ink and image reproduction as they do through their content. While techniques of collage, remix and juxtaposition are nothing new, they are the dominant modes of cultural production in the digital environment.

From 1985 B-horror classic,  Reanimator, which you should all watch

From 1985 B-horror classic, Reanimator, which you should all watch

Reanimation Library’s books may be “dead” in one sense, bearers of bunk knowledge and outmoded cultural trends – but they encourage the mad scientist in all of us to give them life, to make their zombie-like moans reverberate through the cracks in the “official” archive’s walls.

Interested in Reanimation Library? Check out these other alternative library projects:

Work Cited:

Foucault, M. (1972). The archaeology of knowledge. New York: Pantheon Books.

Class, Access and Activism in Chicago Public School Libraries

By SrrhHamerman

Protest against Chicago school closings, via In These Times

Protest against Chicago school closings, via In These Times


In spring 2013, the Chicago Public School system attracted national attention for the unprecedented closing of 54 schools and layoffs of more than 2,100 employees. The closings confirmed the fears that motivated the Chicago Teachers Union’s historic fall 2012 strike, in which tens of thousands of teachers walked out of the job for nearly two weeks. Over a year later, Chicago’s public school students are facing another challenge: the continuing decline of library resources and professional library staff in the schools. While the dismantling of professionally staffed school libraries pose serious labor concerns for Chicago’s certified teacher-librarians, it also exacerbates information inequality in a school district that primarily serves minority and low-income students.

Over the past two school years, the number of librarians in Chicago’s public schools has been cut nearly in half, from 454 in the 2012-13 school year budget to just 254 this year. Only 38 percent of the schools welcoming students from the recently-closed schools have a professional librarian, compared with only 55 percent of schools in the district overall. The decrease is not a result of a diminished hiring pool, and it is only an indirect result of the mass layoffs of 2013. Rather, “student-based” rebudgeting has forced principals to make difficult decisions either to dismiss librarians or reassign them to fill vacant classroom teaching positions. Of the schools that have standalone libraries, many are now staffed either by part-time clerks or parent volunteers.

This reorganization of library labor within the schools points to the pernicious effects of austerity management and neoliberal policy on public education. As Nauratil writes in The Alienated Librarian, “The bottom-line measure of success in the private sector is profit. When this model is superimposed on a traditionally nonprofit organization, that organization’s own goals, structure, and character are jeopardized,” (Nauratil 75). How can school librarians fulfill their professional commitment to information democracy and equal access when their jobs are jeopardized by a city administration more committed to the interests of private corporations than the human rights of its most underserved (student) populations?[1]

Statistics published by Chicago Teachers’ Union on librarian employment in public vs. private schools demonstrate the ways in which access to library education is undeniably a class issue. CPS schools, which serve 87% low-income students, lack librarians in nearly 50 percent of schools. 100% of Chicago’s elite private schools have professional librarians. As CTU’s report states:

A school library is integral to every child’s education and shouldn’t be available only to students in wealthy schools… school librarians support information needs and integrate literacy development across the curriculum and across grade development.

Beyond reading skills, librarians promote digital information literacy and facilitate more self-directed learning experiences. Without instructing students in how to evaluate, retrieve, and manipulate information sources, we risk reproducing class inequalities by leaving low-income students under-equipped to navigate and empower themselves within a digital information economy.

In response to criticisms about decreases in school librarians and library access CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett attributed hiring decisions to individual principals, who must decide how to allocate funds for their schools. In addition, Byrd-Bennett promised digitally enhanced libraries in every welcoming school and iPads for all students in grades 3-8. While incorporating new technologies into the classroom seems positive, their value is diminished without specialized library and media instruction. Boasting of new technologies without tackling the fraught pedagogical situation in the schools belies a situation in which school boards award expensive contracts to high-tech corporations rather than hire skilled laborers to address students’ media education needs. Following Peter McDonald’s thesis in “Corporate Inroads and Librarianship,” we must question whether technological advancement masks the intrusion of the “paradigm of corporate hegemony” into the library (McDonald 9). I doubt that iPads for every student substantially address the educational needs of inner city students facing issues such as racial inequality, economic disparity, high crime rates, and police brutality.

Advocacy and Resistance: Learning from La Casita

Community members fight to save La Casita, 2011 (photo by Brett Jelinek, via

Community members fight to save La Casita, 2011 (photo by Brett Jelinek, via

Chicago Teachers’ Union, library advocacy groups, parents, and community members continue to fight to provide students with the library resources that they deserve. Beyond the labor issues in school libraries, these groups have pointed out how the dismantling of the public school system perpetuates structures of class and racial oppression. While the battle may be an uphill one, it is crucial to continue to challenge CPS budget-centered, neoliberal approach to education.

Perhaps the most inspiring challenge to the lack of school libraries came from the parents of Whittier Elementary School in Chicago’s mostly Latino Pilsen neighborhood. As the school had no dedicated library, parents turned a field house on the premises, affectionately termed “La Casita,” into a library and community center. When police threatened to demolish La Casita in September 2011, dozens of Whittier parents – mostly mothers – staged a sit-in for forty-three days and nights, demanding that the building be renovated into a library. The district had other plans: they wanted to remove the school’s special education classroom to make room for a library inside the building. During the sit-in, La Casita continued to serve as a community center, offering a collection of 2,500 books, ESL classes, sewing classes and other resources. When the occupation ended, school officials agreed to re-allocate the demolition funds to renovate the building according to the community members’ plans. However, work was not begun, and on a Friday night in summer 2013, the city sent in a demolition crew to bulldoze the field house. Of the more than 200 protesters (including myself) who gathered that evening, 10 were arrested. CPS has converted the former library into an astro-turf field and basketball courts.

Though community members no longer exchange skills and knowledge at La Casita, the center provides a key alternative model for how libraries can empower underserved communities. Forged out of direct action rather than state standards, La Casita provided materials and participatory experiences that addressed a minority student community whose educational needs were being denied by the state. Moreover, the parents and students who gathered there learned to articulate their needs and desires and forge political identities in a process of class struggle. The movement echoes the radical pedagogy outlined in Paolo Friere’s seminal “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” Learning from La Casita, I would encourage teacher-librarians to partner with parents and activist groups, offering their skills as informational specialists to help communities challenge educational inequalities in their own voices, in their own terms. While school and public libraries are critical for empowering people with information, we can’t reach this ideal through one institution. Along with open access media, self-directed community centers can allow people to activate knowledge to transform their everyday lives.

[1] At the time of the budget cuts, mayor Rahm Emanuel also approved the expenditure of $195 million of public money on a new stadium for DePaul University, attracting wide criticism. The incident builds on a track record of supporting private-sector growth, particularly in the areas of tourism and entertainment.

Additional References:

McDonald, Peter. “Corporate Inroads and Librarianship: The Fight for the Soul of the Profession in the New Millennium.” Questioning Library Neutrality: Essays from Progressive Librarian. Ed. Alison M. Lewis. Duluth, MN: Library Juice, 2008. 9-24. Print.

Nauratil, Marcia J. The Alienated Librarian. New York: Greenwood, 1989.


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