A World Digital Library Is Coming True! Sort of.

In the May 22nd issue of The New York Review of Books, Robert Darnton wrote an article whose title proudly proclaims that a world digital library is coming true. [1] I would argue that this is true, but not for any of the reasons or purposes he discussed. In the process of making these claims he also makes some other claims that are, in my view, dubious and inaccurate, at best.

First a few of these claims need to be disposed of, and then I can go into my main critique.

He makes a claim that “flipped publication” can replace the present system.

“The entire system of communicating research could be made less expensive and more beneficial for the public by a process known as “flipping.” Instead of subsisting on subscriptions, a flipped journal covers its costs by charging processing fees before publication and making its articles freely available, as “open access,” afterward… …By creating open-access journals… …Anyone can consult the research free of charge online, and libraries are liberated from the spiraling costs of subscriptions. Of course, the publication expenses do not evaporate miraculously, but they are greatly reduced, especially for nonprofit journals, which do not need to satisfy shareholders. The processing fees, which can run to a thousand dollars or more, depending on the complexities of the text and the process of peer review, can be covered in various ways. They are often included in research grants to scientists, and they are increasingly financed by the author’s university or a group of universities.”

And then he writes:

“The main impediment to public-spirited publishing of this kind is not financial. ”

Which is clearly and obviously not true, per his own statements and the simplest logic. Having people pay up front for publication puts smaller schools that are already strapped for cash at a disadvantage. It also excludes anyone involved with publishing independent research, as it is extremely unlikely that they will also have a thousand dollars kicking around for every article they want to publish. He says economics aren’t the main resistant to a flipped system, but I just noted here two exact points of *exclusion* based on economics – an economics of processing fees which he himself has said can run into thousands of dollars.

To his credit, he does note a double standard involved:

“Why, they may ask, should we pay to get published? But they may not understand the dysfunctions of the present system, in which they furnish the research, writing, and refereeing free of charge to the subscription journals and then buy back the product of their work—not personally, of course, but through their libraries—at an exorbitant price. The public pays twice—first as taxpayers who subsidize the research, then as taxpayers or tuition payers who support public or private university libraries.”

However, what he misses is that this hypocrisy already exists. For example, a professor might make $100,000 (most make far less, but it’s a round number and easier for maths). Forty percent of his job may be research, which means 40% of his pay check ($40,000) is the state, as funded by taxpaying citizens, paying for research. And this professor might write a book that is published by a university press, which, again, is owned by the state and funded by citizen’s taxes. And then the book is sold to students for prices that are often only somewhat less than extortionate. What Darnton is missing is the means of knowledge production and distribution which are also nodes of extraction, and in this age of, as McKenzie Wark calls it, “vectoral capitalism”, this extraction is verticalised, destructive, and exclusive. [2]

Also Darnton writes:

“It would be naive, however, to imagine a future free from the vested interests that have blocked the flow of information in the past.”

I would respond that it would be equally naive to imagine that the vested interests are not going to be met with massive resistance, both tactical and strategic, especially given the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 27 section (1)

“Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”

The Access to Knowledge movement is relatively new and has a number of conflicted interests powering it – ranging from scrappy anarchists in the Pirate Party to billionaire arch-capitalists like George Soros. However much the “vested interests” of the publishing system (and the cultural industries in general) may seek to “block the flow of information”, there are other people who are actively resisting them and their extractive practices. And this is actually where the worldwide digital library is coming from. Not from the academic press. The academic press, especially in the humanities and media, is deeply flawed (as Darnton well shows) and has neither the inclination or incentive to radically change itself.

No, the true world-wide digital libraries are coming from two places:

1. People setting up online book, information, and media repositories, ranging from the 10 petabytes of Archive.org to the multi-terabyte varieties of the Tor based libgen library, and smaller more focused online libraries like AAAAARG.ORG that specialise in philosophy and theory. There are even more focused systems…
2. Where citizens all over the world are downloading books and articles as they can into personal portable libraries on hard drives and thumb drives, indexing them, and then sharing these libraries with each other by copying the drives and gifting them.

As long as knowledge is subject to capital, scarcity will be maintained via access reduction and / or expense in order to create profit from the imbalance of supply and demand. [3] Where ubiquity reigns, then rentier systems come into play and extraction is verticalised to the point of exhaustion, using techniques of “streaming” data from “the cloud” and other payboxed datalockers.

So yes, A World Digital Library Is Coming True! Sort of. Certainly not from the publishers, or even the academics, but from the citizens, students, and activists dedicated to the idea that a society that shares its knowledge and culture is a richer, more humane and resilient society.

[1] http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/may/22/world-digital-library-coming-true/?insrc=wci
[2] Wark, McKenzie. Hacker Manifesto. section 029. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 2004.
[3] There are counter examples, such as open systems like Arvix, but they prove the point.