aleph in Bodo 2015
utions and Systems of Intellectual Property, Ashgate
physical spaces where the past seemed to define the present, I was wondering where I should look to find
the library of the future: down to my screen or up around me.
The library on my screen was Aleph, one of the biggest of the countless piratical text collections on the
internet. It has more than a million scientific works and another million literary works to offer, all free to
download, without any charge or fee, for anyone on the net. I’ve spent months among its virtual stacks,
combing through the catalogue, talking to the librarians who maintain the collection, and watching the
library patrons as they used the collection. I kept going back to Aleph both as a user and as a researcher.
As a user, Aleph offered me books that the local libraries around me didn’t, in formats that were more
convenient than print. As a researcher, I was interested in the origins of Aleph, its modus operandi, its
future, and I was curious where the journey to which it has taken the book-readers, authors, publishers
and libraries would end.
In this short essay I will introduce some of the findings of a two year research project conduct
y has coincided with the digital revolution which, in itself, profoundly upset the
economics of cultural production and distribution (Landes & Posner, 2003). However technology is not
the primary cause of the emergence of cultural black markets like Aleph. The proliferation of computers
and the internet has just revealed a more fundamental issue which all has to do with the uneven
distribution of the access to knowledge around the globe.
Sometimes book pirates do more than just forecast and react to c
atalog, standardize the
technical aspects, add and correct missing or incorrect metadata, and offer the resulting catalogue,
computer code and the collection of files as an open infrastructure.
From Russia with love
It is by no means a mistake that Aleph was born in Russia. In post-Soviet Russia the unique constellation
of several different factors created the necessary conditions for the digital librarianship movement that
ultimately led to the development of Aleph. A rich literary legacy, the Soviet heritage, the pace with
which various copying technologies penetrated the market, the shortcomings of the legal environment and
the informal norms that stood in for the non-existent digital copyrights all contribut
(Stelmakh, 2001). This survivalist attitude and the skills that came with it became handy
in the post-Soviet turmoil, and were directly transferable to the then emerging digital technologies.
I have conducted extensive research on the origins of Aleph, on its catalogue and its users. The detailed findings, at
the time of writing this contribution are being prepared for publication. The following section is brief summary of
those findings and is based upon two forthcoming book chapters on Aleph in a report, edited by Joe Karaganis, on
the role of shadow libraries in the higher education systems of multiple countries.
Aleph is a pseudonym chosen to protect the identity of the shadow library in question.
Bodó B. (2015): Libraries in the post-scarcity era.
in: Porsdam (ed): Copyrighting Creativity: Creative values, Cultural Heritage Institutions and Systems of Intel
ms of authors, during times
when the formal copyright framework and the enforcement environment was both unable and unwilling to
protect works of authorship (Elst, 2005; Sezneva, 2012).
Guerilla Open Access
Around the time of the late 2000’s when Aleph started to merge the Kolkhoz collection with other, freefloating texts collections, two other notable events took place. It was in 2008 when Aaron Swartz penned
his Guerilla Open Access Manifesto (Swartz, 2008), in which he called for the liberation
omised to be more effective than either the
creative commons (Lessig, 2004) or the open access (Suber, 2013) movements that tried to address the
access to knowledge issues in a more copyright friendly manner. During interviews, the administrators of
Aleph used the very same arguments to justify the raison d'être of their piratical library. While it seems
that Aleph is the practical realization of Swartz’s ideas, it is hard to tell which served as an inspiration for
It was also in around the same time when another piratical library, gigapedia/library.nu started its
operation, focusing mostly on maki
library on the internet amassing several hundred thousand books, including
high-quality proofs ready to print and low resolution scans possibly prepared by a student or a lecturer.
During 2012 the mostly Russian-language and natural sciences focused Alephs absorbed the English
language, social sciences rich gigapedia/library.nu, and with the subsequent shutdown of
gigapedia/library.nu Aleph became the center of the scientific shadow library ecosystem and community.
Aleph by numbers
Bodó B. (2015): Libraries in the post-scarcity era.
in: Porsdam (ed): Copyrighting Creativity: Creative values, Cultural Heritage Institutions and Systems of Intellectual Property, Ashgate
By adding pre-existing text collections to its catalogue Aleph was able to grow at an astonishing rate.
Aleph added, on average 17.500 books to its collection each month since 2009, and as a result, by April
2014 is has more than 1.15 million documents. Nearly two thirds of the collection is in English, one fifth
of the documents is in Russian, while German
r as a new copy or a second hand one, only about one third of the titles were
available in e-book formats. The mean price of the titles still in print was 62 USD according to the data
gathered from Amazon.com.
The number of works accessed through of Aleph is as impressive as its catalogue. In the three months
between March and June, 2012, on average 24.000 documents were downloaded every day from one of
its half-a-dozen mirrors.4 This means that the number of documents downloaded daily from Aleph is
probably in the 50 to 100.000 range. The library users come from more than 150 different countries. The
biggest users in terms of volume were the Russian Federation, Indonesia, USA, India, Iran, Egypt, China,
Germany and the UK. Meanwhile, many of the highest per-capita users are Central and Eastern European
What Aleph is and what it is not
Aleph is an example of the library in the post scarcity age. It is founded on the idea that books should no
longer be a scarce resource. Aleph set out to remove both sources of scarcity: the natural source of
Market availability data is only available for that 40% of books in the Aleph catalogue that had an ISBN number
on file. The titles without a valid ISBN number tend to be older, Russian language titles, in general with low
expected print and e-book availability.
Download data is based on the logs provided by one of the shado
l source of scarcity
created by copyright protection is overcome through infringement. The liberation from both constraints is
necessary to create a truly scarcity free environment and to release the potential of the library in the postscarcity age.
Aleph is also an ongoing demonstration of the fact that under the condition of non-scarcity, the library can
be a decentralized, distributed, commons-based institution created and maintained through peer
production (Benkler, 2006). The message of Aleph is clear: users left to their own devices, can produce a
library by themselves for themselves. In fact, users are the library. And when everyone has the means to
digitize, collect, catalogue and share his/her own library, then the library suddenly is everywhere. Small
individual and institutional collections are aggregated into Aleph, which, in turn is constantly fragmented
into smaller, local, individual collections as users download works from the collection. The library is
breathing (Battles, 2004) books in and out, but for the first time, this circulation of books is not a zero
sum game, but a cumulative one: with every cycle the collection grows.
On the other hand Aleph may have lots of books on offer, but it is clear that it is neither universal in its
scope, nor does it fulfill all the critical functions of a library. Most importantly Aleph is disembedded
from the local contexts and communities that usually define the focus of the library. While it relies on the
availability of local digital collections for its growth, it has no means to play an active role in its own
development. The guardians of Aleph can prevent books from entering the collection, but they cannot
pay, ask or force anyone to provide a title if it is missing. Aleph is reliant on the weak copy-protection
technologies of official e-text repositories and the goodwill of individual document submitters when it
comes to the expansion of the collection. This means that the Aleph collection is both fragmented and
biased, and it lacks the necessary safeguards to ensure that it stays either current or relevant.
Aleph, with all its strengths and weaknesses carries an important lesson for the discussions on the future
reative values, Cultural Heritage Institutions and Systems of Intellectual Property, Ashgate
a faithful summary of all the discussions on the future of libraries is such a short contribution. There are,
however, a few threads, to which the story of Aleph may contribute.
It is very rare to find the two words: libraries and competition in the same sentence. No wonder: libraries
enjoyed a near perfect monopoly in their field of activity. Though there may have been many different
ts also carry the danger of a commercial
lock-in of the access to digital works, and render libraries dependent upon the services of commercial
providers who may or may not be the best defenders of public interest (OECD, 2012).
Shadow libraries like Aleph are called into existence by the vacuum that was left behind by the collapse
of libraries in the digital sphere and by the inability of the commercial arrangements to provide adequate
substitute services. Shadow libraries are pooling distributed resources and expertise over the internet, and
use the lack of legal or technological barriers to innovation in the informal sphere to fill in the void left
behind by libraries.
What can Aleph teach us about the future of libraries?
The story of Aleph offers two, closely interrelated considerations for the debate on the future of libraries:
a legal and an organizational one. Aleph operates beyond the limits of legality, as almost all of its
activities are copyright infringing, including the unauthorized digitization of books, the unauthorized
mass downloads from e-text repositories, the unauthorized acts of uploading books to
es, the unauthorized act of users’ downloading
books from the archive. In the debates around copyright infringement, illegality is usually interpreted as a
necessary condition to access works for free. While this is undoubtedly true, the fact that Aleph provides
no-cost access to books seems to be less important than the fact that it provides an access to them in the
Aleph is a clear indicator of the volume of the demand for current books in digital formats in developed
and in developing countries. The legal digital availability, or rather, unavailability of its catalogue also
demonstrates the limits of the current commercial and library based arrangements that aim to provide low
cost access to books over the internet. As mentioned earlier, Aleph’s catalogue is mostly of recent books,
meaning that 80% of the titles with a valid ISBN number are still in print and available as a new or used
print copy through commercial retailers. What is also clear, that around 66% of these books are yet to be
made available in electronic format. While publishers in theory have a strong incentive to make their most
recent titles available as e-books, they lag behind in doing so.
This might explain why one third of all the e-book downloads in Aleph are from highly developed
Western countries, and two third of these downloads are of books without a kindle version. Having access
to print copies either through libraries or through commercial retailers is simply not enough anymore.
ownloads (17% compared to 8% in developed countries) are of titles that aren’t available in print
at all. Not having access to books in print seems to be a more pressing problem for developing countries
than not having access to electronic copies. Aleph thus fulfills at least two distinct types of demand: in
developed countries it provides access to missing electronic versions, in developing countries it provides
access to missing print copies.
The ability to fulfill an otherwise unfulfilled demand is not the only function of illegality. Copyright
infringement in the case of Aleph has a much more important role: it enables the peer production of the
library. Aleph is an open source library. This means that every resource it uses and every resource it
creates is freely accessible to anyone for use without any further restrictions. This includes the server
code, the database, the catalogue and the collection. The open source nature of Aleph rests on the
ideological claim that the scientific knowledge produced by humanity, mostly through public funds
should be open for anyone to access without any restrictions. Everything else in and around Aleph stems
from this claim, as they replicate the open access logic in all the other aspects of Aleph’s operation. Aleph
uses the peer produced Open Library to fetch book metadata, it uses the bittorrent and ed2k P2P networks
to store and make books accessible, it uses Linux and MySQL to run its code, and it allows its users to
upload books and edit book metadata. As a
sequence of its open source nature, anyone can contribute
to the project, and everyone can enjoy its benefits.
It is hard to quantify the impact of this piratical open access library on education, science and research in
various local contexts where Aleph is the prime source of otherwise inaccessible books. But it is
relatively easy to measure the consequences of openness at the level of the Aleph, the library. The
collection of Aleph was created mostly by those individuals and communities who decided to digitize
books by themselves for their own use. While any single individual is only capable of digitizing a few
books at the maximum, the small contributions quickly add up. To digitize the 1.15 million documents in
the Aleph collection would require an investment of several hundred million Euros, and a substantial
subsequent investment in storage, collection management and access provision (Poole, 2010). Compared
to these figures the costs associated with running Aleph is infinitesimal, as it survives on the volunteer
labor of a few individuals, and annual donations in the total value of a few thousand dollars. The hundreds
of thousands who use Aleph on a more or less regular basis have an immense amount of resources, and by
disregarding the copyright laws Aleph is able to tap into those resources and use them for the
development of the library. The value of these resources and of the peer produced library is the difference
between the actual costs associated with Aleph, and the investment that would be required to create
something remotely similar.
Bodó B. (2015): Libraries in the post-scarcity era.
in: Porsdam (ed): Copyrighting Creativity: Creative values, Cultural Heritage Institutions and Systems of Inte
scientific works is only possible at the moment through massive copyright infringement. It is debatable
whether the copyrighted corpus of scientific works should be completely open, and whether the blatant
disregard of copyrights through which Aleph achieved this openness is the right path towards a more
openly accessible body of scientific knowledge. It is also yet to be measured what effects shadow libraries
may have on the commercial intermediaries and on the health of scientific publishing and science in
general. But Aleph, in any case, is a case study in the potential benefits of open sourcing the library.
If we can take Aleph as an expression of what users around the globe want from a library, then the answer
is that there is a strong need for a universally accessible collection of current, relevant (scientific) books
in restrictions-free electronic formats. Can we expect
ture? Does such a service have a place in the future of libraries? It is as
hard to imagine the future library with such a service as without.
While the legal and financial obstacles to the creation of a scientific library with as universal reach as
Aleph may be difficult the overcome, other aspects of it may be more easily replicable. The way Aleph
operates demonstrates the amount of material and immaterial resources users are willing to contribute to
build a library that responds to their needs and expectations. If libraries plan to only ‘host’ user-governed
activities, it means that the library is still imagined to be a separate entity from its users. Aleph teaches us
that this separation can be overcome and users can constitute a library. But for that they need
opportunities to participate in the production of the library: they need the right to digitize books and copy
digital books to and from the lib
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