custodians in Constant 2016


A proposal for a curriculum in amateur librarianship, developed through the
activities and exigencies of the Public Library project. Drawing from a historic
genealogy of public library as the institution of access to knowledge, the
proletarian tradition of really useful knowledge and the amateur agency driven
by technological development, the curriculum covers a range of segments from
immediately applicable workflows for scanning, sharing and using e-books,
over politics and tactics around custodianship of online libraries, to applied
media theory implicit in the practices of amateur librarianship. The proposal is
made with further development, complexification and testing in mind during the
future activities of the Public Library and affiliated organizations.

Public libraries have historically achieved as an institutional space of exemption from the
commodification and privatization of knowledge. A space where works of literature and
science are housed

s Journal
• Antonić, Voja. Our beloved bookscanner. Memory of the
World (2012)
• Medak, Tomislav; Sekulić, Dubravka; Mertens, An. How to:
Bookscanning. Memory of the World (2014) https://
• Barok, Dusan. Talks/Public Library. Monoskop (2015) In Solidarity with Library Genesis and
Science Hub (2015)
• Battles, Matthew. Library: An Unquiet History Random
House (2014)
• Harris, Michael H. History of Libraries of the Western World.
Scarecrow Press (1999)
• MayDay Rooms. Activation (2015) http://
• Krajewski, Markus. Paper Machines: About Cards &
Catalogs, 1548-1929. MIT Press (2011) https://

s Journal
• Antonić, Voja. Our beloved bookscanner. Memory of the
World (2012)
• Medak, Tomislav; Sekulić, Dubravka; Mertens, An. How to:
Bookscanning. Memory of the World (2014) https://
• Barok, Dusan. Talks/Public Library. Monoskop (2015) In Solidarity with Library Genesis and
Science Hub (2015)



• Battles, Matthew. Library: An Unquiet History Random
House (2014)
• Harris, Michael H. History of Libraries of the Western World.
Scarecrow Press (1999)
• MayDay Rooms. Activation (2015) http://
• Krajewski, Markus. Paper Machines: About Cards &
Catalogs, 1548-1929. MIT Press (2011) https://

custodians in Mars & Medak 2019

development, and postcapitalist transition, particularly on economies of intellectual
property and unevenness of technoscience. He authored two short volumes: ‘The Hard
Matter of Abstraction—A Guidebook to Domination by Abstraction’ and ‘Shit Tech for A
Shitty World’. Together with Marcell Mars he co-edited ‘Public Library’ and ‘Guerrilla
Open Access’.

later re-emergence of avant-garde
practices in the 1960s as an attempt to subvert the separations that a mature capitalism
imposes on social reality. In the present, we claim, the radicality equivalent to the avantgarde is to divest from the disruptive dynamic of innovation and focus on the repair,
maintenance and care of the broken social world left in techno-capitalism’s wake.
Comparably, the university and the public library should be able to claim the radical
those gesture of slowdown and custodianship too, against the imperative of innovation
imposed on them by policymakers and managers., the first letter
On 30 November, 2015 a number of us shadow librarians who advocate, build
and maintain ‘shadow libraries’, i.e. online infrastructures allowing users to
digitise, share and debate digital texts and collections, published a letter
article | 345

ephemera: theory & politics in organization

(, 2015) in support of two of the largest user-created

rary Genesis and Science Hub,
two repositories for a decommodified access to otherwise paywalled resources,
attain a particular import for students, academics and researchers worldwide.
And it is in the face of combined economic and educational unevenness, that
Library Genesis and Science Hub continue to brave the court decisions,
continuously changing their domain names, securing ways of access beyond the
World Wide Web and ensuring robust redundancy of the materials in their
The letter highlights two circumstances in this antagonism
that cut to the core of the contradictions of reproduction within academia in the
present. The first is the contrast between the extraction of extreme profits from
academia through inflated subscription prices and the increasingly precarious
conditions of studying, teaching and researching:

346 | article

Marcell Mars and Tomislav Medak

Against innovation

Consider Elsevier, the largest scholarly publisher, whose 37% profit margin

e et al., 2015).
The second circumstance is that shadow libraries invert the property relation of
copyright that allows publishers to exclude all those students, teachers and
researchers who don’t have institutional access to scholarly writing and yet need
that access for their education and research, their work and their livelihood in
conditions of heightened precarity:
This is the other side of 37% profit margins: our knowledge commons grows in
the fault lines of a broken system. We are all custodians of knowledge, custodians
of the same infrastructures that we depend on for producing knowledge,
custodians of our fertile but fragile commons. To be a custodian is, de facto, to
download, to share, to read, to write, to review, to edit, to digitize, to archive, to
maintain libraries, to make them accessible. It is to be of use to, not to make
property of, our knowledge commons.) (, 2015)

Shadow libraries thus perform an inversion that replaces the ability of ownership
to exclude, with the practice of custodianship (notion implying both the labor of
preservation of cultural artifacts and the most menial and invisible labor of daily
maintenance and cleaning of physical structures) that makes one useful to a
resource held in common and the infrastructures that sustain it.
These two circumstances – antagonism between value extraction and precarity
and antagonism between exclusive property and collective custodianship – signal
a deeper-running crisis of two institutions of higher education and research that
are caught in a joint predicament: the university and the library. This crisis is a
reflection of the impossible challenges placed on them by the capitalist
development, with its global division of labor and its looming threat of massive
technological unemployment, and the response of national policymakers to those
challenges: Are they able to create a labor force that will be able to position itself

ow facing the prospect of their
investment in education never working out? Under these circumstances, the
article | 347

imperative is that these institutions have to re-invent themselves, that they have
to innovate in order to keep up with the disruptive course and accelerated the
pace of change.

Custodianship and repair
In what follows we will argue against submitting to this imperative of innovation.
Starting from the conditions from which shadow libraries emerge, as laid out in
the first letter, we claim that the historical trajectory of the
university and the library demands that they now embrace a position of
disobedience. They need to go back to their universalizing mission of providing
access to knowledge and education unconditionally to all members of society.
That universalism is a powerful political gesture. An infinite demand (Critchley,
2007) whereby they seek to abolish exclusions and affirm the legacy of the radical
equality they have built as part of the histo

cal pedagogy that increasingly seems a thing
of the past. Against the imposition to translate quality into metrics and capture
short-term values through assessment, they can resist the game of simulation.
While the playful simulation of reality was a thing in 1967, in 2017 it is no
longer. Libraries and universities can stop faking ‘innovativity’, ‘efficiency’ and

article | 361, the second letter
On 30 November, 2016 a second missive was published by
(2016). On the twentieth anniversary of UbuWeb, ‘the single-most important
archive of avant-garde and outsider art’ on the Internet, the drafters of the letter
followed up on their initial call to acts of care for the infrastructure of our shared
knowledge commons that the first letter ended with. The second letter was a gift
card to Ubu, announcing that it had received two mirrors, i.e. exact copies of the
Ubu website accessible from servers in two different locations – one in Icel

industries. (Wark, 2015:

As we claimed, the avant-garde radicalism can be recuperated for the present
through the gestures of disobedience, deceleration and demands for
inclusiveness. Ubu already hints toward such recuperation on three coordinates:
1) practiced opposition to the regime of intellectual property, 2) transformative
use of old technologies, and 3) a promise of universal access to knowledge and
education, helping to foster mass intellectuality and critical pedagogy.
The first letter was drafted to voice the need for a collective
disobedience. Standing up openly in public for the illegal acts of piracy, which
are, however, made legitimate by the fact that students, academics and
researchers across the world massively contribute and resort to pirate repositories
of scholarly texts, holds the potential to overturn the noxious pattern of court
cases that have consistently lead to such resources being shut down.
However, the acts of disobedience need not be made explicit in the language of
radicalism. For a public institution, disobedience can also be doing what should
not be done: long-term commitment to maintenance – for instance, of a mirror –
while dealing institutionally with all the conflicts and challenges that doing this
publicly entails.
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Marcell Mars and Tomislav Medak

Against innovation

The second letter was drafted to suggest that opportunity:
In a world of money-crazed start-ups and surveillance capitalism, copyright
madness and abuse, Ubu represents an island of culture. It shows what a single
person, with dedication and focus, can achieve. There are lessons to be drawn
from this:

1) Keep it simple and avoid constant technology updates. Ubu is plain
HTML, written in a text-editor.
2) Even a website should function offline. One should be able to take the
hard disk and run. Avoid

custodians in Mars & Medak 2017

he good guys) vs. them (the bad guys). However, only rare and
talented people are able to master cryptography, follow exact security protocols,
practice counter-control, and create a leak of information. Unsurprisingly, these
people are usually white, male, well-educated, native speakers of English.
Therefore, the narrative of us vs. them is not necessarily the most empowering, and
we feel that it requires a complementary strategy that challenges the property
regime as a whole. As our letter at says:
We find ourselves at a decisive moment. This is the time to recognize that the
very existence of our massive knowledge commons is an act of collective
civil disobedience. It is the time to emerge from hiding and put our names
behind this act of resistance. You may feel isolated, but there are many of us.
The anger, desperation and fear of losing our library infrastructures, voiced
across the Internet, tell us that. This is the time for us custodians, being dogs,
humans or cyborgs, with our names, nicknames and pseudonyms, to raise our
voices. Share your writing – digitize a book – upload your files. Don’t let our
knowledge be crushed. Care for the libraries – care for the metadata – care
for the backup. (, 2015)

PJ & AK: Started in 2012, The Public Library project (Memory of the World,
2016a) is an important part of struggle against commodification of knowledge.
What is t

lective disobedience, therefore, we want to make a
larger claim. Access to knowledge as a universal condition could not exist if we –
academics and non-academics across the unevenly developed world – did not
create own ways of commoning knowledge that we partake in producing and
learning. By introducing the figure of the custodian, we are turning the notion of
property upside down. Paraphrasing the Little Prince, to own something is to be
useful to that which you own (Saint-Exupéry, 1945). Custodians are the political
subjectivity of that disobedient work of care.
Practices of sharing, downloading, and uploading, are massive. So, if we want to
prevent our knowledge commons from being taken away over and over again, we
need to publicly and collectively stand behind our disobedient behaviour. We
should not fall into the trap of the debate about legality or illegality of our
practices. Instead, we should acknowledge that our practices, which have been
deemed illegal, are politically legitimate

The Public Library project (Memory of the
World, 2016a) provide important stepping-stones for emancipation of the
oppressed. Yet, such forms of knowledge and education are hardly – if at all –
recognised by the mainstream. How do you go about this problem? Should these
projects try and align with the mainstream, or act as subversions of the mainstream,
or both? Why?
MM & TM: We are currently developing a more fine-tuned approach to
educational aspects of amateur librarianship. The forms of custodianship over
knowledge commons that underpin the practices behind Monoskop, Public Library,
Aaaaarg, Ubu, Library Genesis, and Science Hub are part and parcel of our
contemporary world – whether you are a non-academic with no access to scholarly
libraries, or student/faculty outside of the few well-endowed academic institutions
in the Global North. As much as commercialization and privatization of education
are becoming mainstream across the world, so are the strategies of reproducing
one’s knowl

nce, a wide public response to a
social cause cannot be simply produced by shaping messages or promoting causes
in ways that are considered popular. The response of the public primarily depends
on a broadly shared understanding, no matter its complexity, that a certain course
of action has an actual capacity to transform a specific situation. Recognizing that
moment, and acting tactfully upon it, is fundamental to building a broad political
This can be illustrated by the aforementioned letter (2015)
that we recently co-authored with a number of our fellow library activists against
the injunction that allows Elsevier to shut down two most important repositories
providing access to scholarly writing: Science Hub and Library Genesis. The letter
is clearly a product of our specific collective work and dynamic. Yet, it clearly


articulates various aspects of discontent around this impasse in access to
knowledge, so it resonates

custodians in Medak, Mars & WHW 2015

ochal economic, technological and
political changes. A series of crises since the advent
of print have contributed to the configuration of the
institutional entanglement of the public library as
we know it today:01 defined by a publicly available
collection, housed in a public building, indexed and
made accessible with a help of a public catalog, serviced by trained librarians and supported through
public financing. Libraries today embody the idea
of universal access to all knowledge, acting as custodians of a culture of reading, archivists of material
and ephemeral cultural production, go-betweens
of information and knowledge. However, libraries have also embraced a broader spirit of public
service and infrastructure: providing information,
01 For the concept and the full scope of the contemporary library
as institutional entanglement see Shannon Mattern, “Library
as Infrastructure”, Places Journal, accessed April 9, 2015,

The Fu


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