When will we see a real Universal Library?

All of humanity’s knowledge at your fingertips. This promise sounds familiar – this is how a lot of people describe the internet. Indeed, we have unprecedented access to tons of information, and we need search engines to help us navigate this ocean of data. However, even if Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo and others are getting better at directly answering our questions, we can’t get access to all human knowledge on the internet yet. Wikipedia is “just” a summary of our knowledge; to access all of it, we need to be able to read every single book, article, journal, etc… ever published. Access to all of humanity’s knowledge means access to humanity’s entire scientific (and non-scientific) literature. Even if we have access to movies, songs, either legally or not, with the likes of Netflix, Spotify, or The Pirate Bay, access to books is much more restrained, even if some websites such as the Russian Library Genesis or the late Library.nu are prototypes of what a modern Universal Library could look like. Library Genesis, the only one of these sites still up, isn’t without its flaws, and is a bit confidential – it doesn’t come close to the title of Universal Library -, but it’s a good first step.
What should a Universal Library be like? What’s holding us back? How can we build one?

“Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.” — Samuel Johnson
A Universal Library is a representation of science. Gathering all human knowledge in one place creates a monolithic artefact I call the Universal Library. It contains all of what Popper called the third world or world three: all of humankind’s literature.
As Popper said, “instead of growing better memories and brains, we grow paper, pens, pencils, typewriters, dictaphones, the printing press, and libraries.”, yet today brain-enhancing tools like libraries are scattered around the globe, and are (academic libraries especially) inaccessible for most of us. The Universal Library is the ultimate tool we can create in order to store and retrieve all of our knowledge easily.
This is perhaps the only artefact we should send to an extraterrestrial civilization, the sum of all human knowledge. Such an artefact doesn’t exist today.
It is also our ultimate legacy. We have to make sure all our knowledge can survive our own existence. Like the monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which could have been created by a long extinct civilization, our Universal Library will have to still exist and be readable even if we disappear, just in case other intelligent beings stumble upon it.
L’Encyclopédie, perhaps the single most important book of the Enlightenment, was written with this sense of “urgency”. It was designed as The Book, the only book to preserve in the case of a global cataclysm if we were to preserve (most of, since the Encyclopédie was obviously a summary) our knowledge.
In a sense, books replaced cathedrals as mankind’s most enduring creation. Victor Hugo even wrote that “architecture will never again be the social, the collective, the dominant art. The great epic, the great monument, the great master-piece of mankind will never again be built; it will be printed.” Many compare scientific research to cathedral-building, likening the scientists, each publishing papers on a particular topic, to the masons adding stones to a particular part of a cathedral. (For example, Popper wrote: “All work in science is work directed towards the growth of objective knowledge. We are workers who are adding to the growth of objective knowledge as masons work on a cathedral.”)
Just like cathedrals were meant to last for millennia and took decades to be built, science transcends our existence as individuals; in As We May Think, Vannevar Bush wrote that “science has provided the swiftest communication between individuals; it has provided a record of ideas and has enabled man to manipulate and to make extracts from that record so that knowledge evolves and endures throughout the life of a race rather than that of an individual.”
Access to this “record”, as Bush called it, should be a human right. Every individual on this planet, no matter how much he earns or where he lives, should be able to read everything anyone ever published.
Yet fragmented access and storage of mankind’s literature make using and preserving our legacy difficult. Hence the idea of a Universal Library.

Having everything that’s ever been written (and published) all stored in one place isn’t a new idea, but it was always extremely costly and difficult to set up in the past due to technological limitations, which is why all the attempts at setting up universal libraries have failed.
From clay tablets to the Web, each new technology in publishing allowed more knowledge to be stored and disseminated more cheaply and easily. The amount of information we were able to store and the cost of access to this information respectively increased and decreased exponentially. It is mind boggling to imagine the difference between clay tablet encyclopedias, reserved to the Sumerian elite, and Wikipedia, accessible anywhere on Earth for anyone with an internet connection or a cellphone.
The most famous innovation/revolution in publishing is arguably the printing press, which industrialized knowledge dissemination and conservation: books were no longer scarce and expensive; the scientific community grew exponentially and thrived in all of the developed world thanks to cheap access to scientific works, and mass-education was made possible.
The cheap and easy copying of books made possible by the printing press enabled more texts to be preserved, since many different copies could be stored in different locations, and reprinted at will. With the printing press, the physical book didn’t matter anymore. Only the information it contained did (this is even more true with digital texts now). Hugo also referred to this revolution in preservation, writing “Under the form of printing, thought is more imperishable than ever; it is volatile, intangible, indestructible”.
The modern Universal Library will be the next revolution. The internet allows many copies of the Universal Library to be made by both institutions and individuals, so that preservation won’t be an issue. As Time journalist Michael Scherer put it: “The internet is Gutenberg on steroids, a printing press without ink, overhead or delivery costs”.

Yet the internet isn’t seen this way by publishers. They still behave like books are a “scarce” commodity, while the internet allows unlimited distribution of books for free. If the publishers really embraced the internet, they would publish their books/journals for free, instead of charging exorbitant amounts of money for pdfs.
Such resistance to change isn’t new. In its infancy, – in the 1500s and even in the 1600s – the printing press wasn’t recognized as the best tool to distribute knowledge more broadly and easily. In his Novum Organum (110), Bacon talked about those who didn’t acknowledge the superiority of the printing press over hand-copied books: “For however the discovery of gunpowder, silk, the compass, sugar, paper, or the like, may appear to depend on peculiar properties of things and nature, printing at least involves no contrivance which is not clear and almost obvious. But from want of observing that although the arrangement of the types of letters required more trouble than writing with the hand, yet these types once arranged serve for innumerable impressions, while manuscript only affords one copy; […] this most beautiful invention (which assists so materially the propagation of learning) remained unknown for so many ages.” So yes, the transition from copying by hand to the printing press wasn’t immediate. It took the actions of individuals (in this case, publishers) to bring this technology to the mainstream. With the internet, these individuals won’t be publishers. They will be programmers, “pirates”, hackers, amateurs, people who care about knowledge and its dissemination and want all human knowledge to be at the fingertips of everybody.

The most famous attempt at setting up a Universal Library was arguably the Library of Alexandria. Though it probably was the largest and richest library of its time, it never was a universal library, but was meant to become one, acquiring as many books as possible, and making them available to scholars from different regions of the mediterranean. Just imagine what it meant at the time to be able to browse through the stacks of the library, through thousands of manuscripts from around the (known) world, to be able to let your mind wander among the knowledge of entire civilizations! Such unprecedented access allowed the scholars of Alexandria to make remarkable discoveries that would have been impossible without the ressources of the Library. Unfortunately, the Library was completely destroyed by fire.
In China, an early fifteenth-century encyclopedia called the Yongle dadian ran to more than 10,000 volumes. It was so expensive to print that very few copies were made. Less than 4 percent of it has survived.
Books are fragile. When they are rare, or unique, a single fire, storm, earthquake, can wipe them out of the surface of the Earth. Even books for which hundreds of copies exist can disappear with time, wars, or natural disasters…
The internet offers us a new and unique opportunity to preserve all of them. An internet Universal Library could be easily copied on hard drives placed in safes, and allowing users to get their own copies of the books they consult will create even more numerous back ups.
Of course this method isn’t immune to everything. Hackers and malevolent governments and corporations would try to destroy the modern Universal Library. Time and decay could corrupt the hard drives the Library is stored on. However, the whole point of having an internet Universal Library is decentralization. In other words, there would be so many copies of it that it would be nearly impossible to destroy (and along with the preservation of the physical books, there would be a physical backup just in case… ). With offline backups, users’ backups, and many copies stored on state of the art servers in different locations, it would be very tough to destroy the modern Universal Library.

Another weakness of physical libraries that would be addressed by the Universal Library is the one of access. In the past, only noblemen and bourgeois had access to knowledge, because they could afford to learn to read and could be allowed in universities which had libraries. Though some libraries allowed more people than others, like the Ambrosiana in Milan in the early seventeenth-century, which seemed to be open to basically anyone who asked, the individual’s location and wealth were still key to his access to libraries. If you had the chance to live in Milan you could have visited the Ambrosiana, but if you were in rural Italy and not rich enough to afford the trip, you were basically out of luck.
This is still the main impediment to access to libraries. Not a lot of Americans can have easy access to the Library of Congress. Most of the world’s population lives in places where libraries are small, poor, or more often inexistant. If in theory most of the libraries across the globe don’t put restrictions on who can access them based on one’s wealth or social status, they are still mostly inaccessible and can’t offer many ressources.
On the other hand, an internet Universal Library, while by definition offering as many ressources as possible (everything that’s ever been published, no less), is accessible to anyone with an internet connection through a cyber-café, a personal computer or a cellphone. Of course billions of people lack access to the internet, but I’m hopeful the internet will reach them soon enough – at least before libraries reach them, for sure…

When you are lucky enough to have access to a library, it does a pretty terrible job at helping you navigate the maze of information we are faced with now. They of course only let you search through their catalog, since searching on another library’s catalog wouldn’t be very useful if you can’t access the physical books…but what about all the other books out there, those which aren’t in the library’s catalog?
Even when there wasn’t as many literature as nowadays, people needed tools to guide them through the forest of publications. That was one of the purposes of encyclopedias. Now in the twenty-first century we have search engines run by powerful algorithms, but they’re not quite good enough yet.
Google is a great tool, but it doesn’t have access to everything – scholarly publications especially are locked inside publishers’ databases and are behind paywalls – if you want to really get a good look at most of the literature, you have to switch between multiple tools: Google, Elsevier, Wiley, Springer’s databases, etc… It’s a very time consuming process the Universal Library should make fast and simple.

Before we look at what the modern Universal Library should look like, let me take a moment to address the issue of copyright and of the publishers retaining it. If the Universal Library is to give free access to all human literature, this is likely going to be quite an issue.
I am going to focus on the scientific literature here – though most of the outrageous publishing environment (abusive corporations, lengthy copyright) applies to non-scientific publishing as well -.
So, publishers. The “big three” (Wiley, Springer, Elsevier) and a few others retain a monopoly on scientific publications, and behave like a cartel, making deals to not compete with one another (just look at their prices, which are kept very high and are the same for all the different publishers). As they refuse to compete, they are very unlikely to change their business model. I’m surprised they haven’t been under investigation for antitrust… As they have the copyrights of most of the scientific publications in circulation, they can charge sky-high prices for simple pdfs, and they are quick to call “pirate” anyone who tries to make these papers more available. “Pirate” is a word linked to brutality, theft and blood. But in publishing, pirates are hardly what you would normally call criminals. There were pirates from the beginning of the publishing business. What were and are they still doing? Refusing to respect the copyright monopoly in order to make publications more affordable. That is much less brutal than boarding a ship and massacring all its crew, right? Furthermore, pirates served an essential role by publishing censored works (like those of Newton!), which “respectable” publishing houses were too scared to print. In publishing, a pirate is a person or corporation which makes publications more affordable or just available in the first place. The scholar Adrian Johns, in his amazing book Piracy takes his reader to the historical roots of “piracy”, explaining the pirate reprint industry like this: “A Dickens novel might appear first in a good-quality reprint by Carey or some other respectable firm; then a cheap piracy of that reprint; then in chapbooks, then in serialized forms; then in provincial newspapers; then in 25 cents “railroad” editions; and finally as chapters printed on railway timetables. As this happened, distinctions between propriety and transgression became increasingly blurred. Reprinters who ignored the courtesies issued popular works in enormous quantities and at very low prices. A five-volume Macaulay appeared in sixty thousand copies, at 15 cents per volume. Reprinters also issued science (Liebig’s Chemistry) in impressions well into the tens of thousands. And just as Careys and Harpers justified their own reproductions as moral enterprises, so these “pirates” (as Carey called them) openly defended theirs as exemplifying republican values. Here, after all, was an endeavor that distributed improving literature and authoritative ideas in unprecedented quantities and at extraordinarily low prices. It arguably did more to make America a truly lettered republic than any number of polite Philadelphia publications. It was in monarchial England, one pirate observed, that special societies had to be created to push useful knowledge out; here, entrepreneurs of knowledge responded to the pull of the masses.”
Did you know that publishers even tried to outlaw libraries? They argued that if people could read books for free, no one would buy any new books, and thus no one would write books anymore. This was in the late eighteenth to mid nineteenth century. Publishers lost their fight against libraries, and as we know, no one wrote a book since 1850, right?
Today they fight against file-sharers who make their publications available for free online, like library.nu. Their argument is still completely ridiculous, just as it was in 1850, but with the corrupt governments we have now, they are winning the legal battle against file-sharing (though hopefully technology won’t let them win the war). Tom Reller from Elsevier, which relies on libraries subscribing to its publications for most of its revenues, said: “We can’t allow published journal articles to be freely accessible on a large scale – especially not through other for-profit companies, who want to benefit from our and other publishers’ efforts. What library will continue to subscribe if a growing proportion of articles is available for free elsewhere?”. So basically, people shouldn’t have access to knowledge, even though it’s technologically absolutely possible, because it could hurt the big publishing multinationals.
I can imagine Shell, Exxon or BP saying the same thing about, say, electric cars: “If people buy electric cars, who will buy our oil?” Technological progress is not here to please corporations but to advance the human race. If we can have clean, electric transportation, that’s a progress, and if it kills the oil giants, so be it. If we can have free access to knowledge on the internet, that’s a progress, and if it kills the publishing giants, so be it. As Peter Murray-Rust said, “Publishers should be the servants of knowledge – at present they are becoming the tyrants.”
So when we face a big, inefficient (I ordered a book on neurology from Springer in February, it’s out of print and there isn’t an ebook version – I have yet to receive it – : a chance I am not a doctor needing some vital information for a patient…) and monopolistic system, our best course of action is to rebel. To follow Aaron Swartz’s Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, to liberate all this knowledge. To make all scientific literature available online for free. That’s basically the definition of the modern Universal Library.

Making all these publications available for free would violate copyright law. A law that has been invented to create a monopoly for publishers. This law has no moral basis, just like a law prohibiting people from buying electric cars to preserve the oil industry.
Copyright law is supposed to be about property. However property is based on scarcity, and there is no such thing as scarcity with electronic files. If you take my car, I don’t have a car anymore. If you make a copy of my ebook, I still have my ebook. Stephan Kinsella wrote a great book on this topic, Against Intellectual Property. In it he gives a very libertarian view of this issue, which is the only reasonable one: “Only tangible, scarce ressources are the possible object of interpersonal conflict, so it is only for them that property rules are applicable. Thus, patents and copyrights are unjustifiable monopolies granted by government legislation.”
As there cannot be conflict over things of infinite abundance, property rights cannot apply to them. Thus copyright is untenable.

Now that the issue of copyright is settled, that we have looked a bit into the historical roots of the idea of a Universal Library and at the book technologies throughout history, let’s see what a modern Universal Library should look like.
Two quotes to begin with:
“There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.” — Joseph Brodsky
“Free Libraries for every soul.” — Melvil Dewey

-Access to every book, article; everything that’s ever been published: The modern Universal Library needs to be the repository of all humankind’s knowledge, thus of everything man has ever published. This will allow scattered publications (for example, in scientific publishing articles on any topic appear on a very large number of publications, making tracking every one of them difficult) to be gathered in one place.
Search will be made orders of magnitude more simple, since you’ll only have to search one database to embrace the whole of human knowledge.

-Open APIs: users ought to be able to build on top of the Universal Library’s code if they want to.

-All the publications in the Universal Library must be machine readable and indexable: users will need powerful algorithms to search through the immense collection of the Universal Library. Perhaps some users or companies will want to improve the search tool and build their own, or even create an AI that could look through the sum of human knowledge to find information. They should be able to do so thanks to open APIs and the entire content of every publication being machine readable. To quote Vannevar Bush on the need for good search tools: “The difficulty seems to be, not so much that we publish unduly in view of the extent and variety of present day interests, but rather that publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record.
The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships.”

-No limitation on data mining, of course. I want ContentMine to be able to mine all the literature! Note that publishers are actively trying to restrict data mining. They can try, but the Universal Library won’t let them.

-Users should be able to download any publication they want.

-The Universal Library should be protected from Law Enforcement and rogue governments, corporations and individuals. Perhaps the Universal Library should be hosted on the Deep Web, and thus only be accessible via Tor? (If it is compatible with the openness of the project: can the Universal Library still be machine readable if it is hosted on the Deep Web?) Servers should be backed-up in different places, as described earlier, too, so that copies exist even if the website is taken down.
The World Brain described by H. G. Wells in the eponymous novel was supposed to be backed-up too: “In these days of destruction, violence and general insecurity, it is comforting to think that the brain of mankind, the race brain, can exist in numerous replicas throughout the world.”
Finally the Universal Library should probably be open source so that people can improve the code.

-Users should be protected, too. Encryption must be used so that it’s difficult to trace what users do and/or download on the Universal Library. Using the Deep Web would be a plus here too, since it would be very hard for Law Enforcement to trace users’ IP addresses.
No matter what technologies are used, the Universal Library must be super secure for its users, so that knowledge is accessible even in countries where the internet is censored.
To quote Timothy C. May in the Crypto-Anarchist Manifesto: “And just as a seemingly minor invention like barbed wire made possible the fencing off of vast ranches and farms, thus altering forever the concepts of land property rights in the frontier West, so too will the seemingly minor discovery out of an arcane branch of mathematics come to be the wire clippers which dismantle the barbed wire around intellectual property.”

These are the basic specs of a modern Universal Library.

What would its impact be? For society at large, according to technologists like Kevin Kelly, it would be quite huge: “If you have access to anything that’s been written, not just theoretical access, but like, instant access, next to your brain, that changes your idea of who you are” Kelly said in the documentary Google and the World Brain, adding “It’s all human knowledge… woven into a single entity that’s accessible by anybody, anywhere in the world, anytime. And that “all knowledge” is transformative, it just really kicks up the civilization and our society into another level.”
For science, it would mean a tremendous acceleration of research, especially for scientists in the developing world and citizen scientists, who usually have very little access to scientific literature. By making knowledge more accessible, new discoveries are made faster. It’s a correlation the nineteenth-century scientist Hermann von Helmholtz noticed, remarking the link between intellectual progress and the availability of “appliances” (catalogues, lexicons, etc) that made knowledge “immediately accessible”. Though catalogues were quite primitive, the ultimate “appliance” being the Universal Library, the improved accessibility made possible by such tools created noticeable progress. So we shouldn’t underestimate the impact a Universal Library could have on scientific research.
Furthermore, little known publications would be much more visible, since they would be in the same database as the famous and big ones. This is crucial so that scientists don’t waste their time doing things that have already been done, and can communicate their discoveries easily. An old example of a discovery being delayed because of a lack of visibility, but a telling one: Gregor Mendel’s work on heredity took more than thirty years to be noticed by other researchers who built upon it to ultimately create the whole new field of genetics, just because it was published in the proceedings of a local natural history society, and thus wasn’t visible to a lot of scientists…

When will we see a Universal Library? Who will create it?
We can’t trust publishers, which have their shareholders’ interests in mind, not their customers’.
We can’t trust governments, which are corrupt. Banks, the military-industrial complex, and even publishers have bought them. In Western countries, anti-science is rampant inside governments, which are very unlikely to start a project like the Universal Library that would benefit all humankind. Even if they did, it would be plagued by bureaucracy (healthcare.gov anyone?). Governments would try to control who can access knowledge, just like they’ve always done. If this is subtle in the West today, keep in mind that black people in the US at the beginning of the twentieth-century couldn’t access public libraries! In the developing world, sectarianism is ubiquitous and corruption is much worse than in the West. There isn’t one government on Earth capable of building the modern Universal Library.
Independent individuals, so called “pirates”, will create the Universal Library.

The technology is here. We now need bold and talented people to step in and create the Universal Library. People who aren’t afraid of corrupt laws and bureaucrats, who are willing to take risks. I know there are some out there.

The Burning of Library.nu


Nearly two years ago, on February 2012, one of the largest library on Earth burned, and no “mainstream” media, no politician denounced it. The reason for this silence is that the library was “illegal” and that it wasn’t a physical one.
Library.nu was by far the biggest public library on the internet, with a catalogue of about 400,000 to 1,000,000 books. And, as Christopher Kelty, whom I’ll quote extensively in this essay, said, it contained “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 ranges 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 remarquable effort of collective connoisseurship.”
Library.nu was indeed an academic library, the kind of one you would expect universities and research institutes to have. But the library closed. It vanished from the internet. It was, to use the physical library metaphor, as if one morning on your way to the library, you found that the entire building had disappeared. Where the library used to be, you’d find a single book on the ground, Blue Latitudes (before shutting down for good and displaying an Error 404 page, Library.nu redirected to the Amazon page of this book).

Library.nu was shut down along with its cyber file locker, ifile.it, by the injunction of a German Judge, at the request of seventeen scholarly publishers. The magnitude of this disaster is difficult to grasp.
While the library of Alexandria probably had hundreds of thousands of scrolls (the objective of Ptolemy II was to reach half a million), there were multiple scrolls for each work, and many duplicates; thus the number of individual works is unlikely to have been as high as 100,000 – between a tenth and a quarter of the number of titles library.nu made available.
Despite this mind boggling estimate, no one seemed to care about the end of Library.nu. Torrent Freak, the Huffington Post and Christopher Kelty’s op-ed on Aljazeera English’s website were roughly the only news coverage the event had. Why? Because the website offered all these works for free. It was indeed a copyright infringing site, like The Pirate Bay but for scholars. And scholarly publishers didn’t like the fact that researchers could access publications for free instead of paying hundreds if not thousands of dollars from their own pocket or from the institutions they were affiliated with (if they had the chance to be affiliated with an institution). Publishers went at war with the site. They sent cease and desist letters which had little impact. So they hired a law firm, Lausen Rechtsanwälte, to try to find who was in charge of Library.nu to sue him and take his website down.
The law firm, which also provides “lobbying services” (they try to screw you by defending big corporations’ interests at the European Commission), estimated the revenue of Library.nu and ifile.it : “The operators made an estimated annual turnover of €8 million ($10,602,400US) from advertising buys on the sites, donations and sales of premium-level accounts, making it one of the most significant piracy websites in the world.” It’s hard to say how Lausen Rechtsanwälte came up with this ludicrous figure, but their estimate is probably totally false. Let me explain why.
Library.nu had virtually no ad or very few, and its traffic was estimated to be at about 30,000 visitors per month, thus any advertising revenue must have been quite small. Remember this site is distributing academic publications, not porn and movies like The Pirate Bay for example. Free science books won’t drive as much traffic as free movies… Donations were also coming in small quantities (Library.nu wasn’t Wikipedia), the website just had a “donate” button and wasn’t actively seeking donations. The premium accounts were of course a source of revenue, but there were little of them. Finally, Lausen Rechtsanwälte didn’t take into account the costs of running such big websites (because, you know, 400,000 – 1,000,000 books? That’s quite a lot of technical costs). But the publishers needed something big, to make them look like victims, so they made this estimation up. And to put that in perspective, Elsevier, one of the seventeen publishing houses which sued Library.nu, made a €6,902 million (that’s nearly $9,5 billion) turnover in 2011 (the year Library.nu was at its apogee, and less than a year before it closed), up 2% from 2010 – it doesn’t look like Library.nu was damaging their business.

Then the law firm tried to find a way to identify the “operators” of the website. How did they succeed? The guy behind Library.nu made a terrible mistake while setting up the donation service: he used Paypal, which is not a good idea when you want anonymity. When you made a donation, the receipt you received from Paypal clearly mentioned the name of the man who owned Library.nu. And when the investigators looked at which bank account the money from the donations was going, it turned out to be either his bank account or one with his name attached to it.
If Bitcoins had been used, maybe Library.nu would still be up and running because of the total anonymity it allows (or at least it would have helped the website stay online a little longer – Law Enforcement Officials would have needed to use other ways to find who owned Library.nu). ifile.it and Library.nu were allegedly owned by the same person, an Irish twenty-something from Galway with a degree in IT who asked for his name to be withheld. I’ll call him Jack.

John Mooney reported that Jack’s venture “showed meagre profits until 2010, when it recorded income of more than €92,000”. So though the revenues of Library.nu aren’t well known, we know for sure that Jack didn’t become a billionaire with his website. (if he wanted to become one, he should have tried to get an MBA and a great job at Elsevier).

And that’s how Lausen Rechtsanwälte was able to close Library.nu. They discovered who owned it, so they were able to use the judiciary system to pressure the guy to stop his activities. Threatened with a massive fine, Jack, understandably, preferred to close the website rather than go to prison.

Result page of Library.nu

With the poor media coverage, when Library.nu burned, at first people didn’t understand what was happening. Then the news reach them through Torrent Freak or directly from Jack, who had set up an automatic response when you sent an email to admin@library.nu:
“Hello (this is an automated courtesy reply) Your email to Library.nu admin has been received. The website is shutting down due to legal bullshit :(, no further comments…
Regards Smiley”

Deceived users went on Reddit to mourn the death of Library.nu, they also shared their thoughts in the comment sections of the news articles.
On Reddit, user tripedal said “This was an invaluable resource for international academics. My doctoral research has taken a significant blow due to this recent shutdown.”
katapilla wrote “library.nu was an awesome site for the fact that some very old manuscript or books that are out of print were uploaded and taken care of by people who love to share hard-to-find books that can’t even be found in the bookstore anymore. As for the publishers who want to shut down sources of illegal book sharing sites, they may have to shut down the entire world wide web or Google; which I highly doubt it that modernization will go backward to the time when no internet existed.”
riziq32 was even more raw: “Those who burnt Alexandria are the same who took down Library.nu. This is a terrible loss for the students and the self-taught mainly, especially those of the third-world who, due to exchange rates and imports restriction, can’t afford to buy a 100 dollars academic book just to see if it’s useful or not. This isn’t an attack on piracy but an attack to the lovers of knowledge who found in Library.nu a tool to bypass geographic and economic difficulties and reach knowledge.”
The most amazing comment on Reddit though was made by PhilScholar. He wrote a short essay (which is too big to be put here in its entirety) that I would have loved to write myself. Read it, it’s amazing.
On Torrent Freak, many academics were just really mad about the burning of Library.nu
Sonia Useinova for example: “I teach at a leading university in Russia, I barely survive on my salary and with an average price of a monograph in my field of studies being well over $50 there’s no question of buying anything. No foreign scientific literature finds its way in our library, so Library.nu was one of the few ways I could find of reading books I have to.”
An anon asked “it’s a library, since when was that considered evil?”
User Angry Voter was really, really mad: “The violent anti-sharing parasites are a threat to civilization. They are the type of dunces that would have locked up the last copy of Euclid’s Elements and not let anyone read it.”
And Dan Harlow neatly explained why the burning of Library.nu was terrible “The thing that is unique about this is that Library.nu offered access to books that were nearly inaccessible through any other means (such as out of print) or were copies of scholarly works that cost hundreds of dollars to purchase through legal avenues. In a way this is like losing the Library of Alexandria all over again because many of these works will once again be seen by only a handful of people who either have fortunate access to them or the money to buy them. In fact, many academics used Library.nu as well. This was not just a book sharing site for people wanting the latest King novel, but a place where historians and mathematicians could easily gain access to important findings and research (both new, obscure and old) without having to jump through hoops, cut red-tape or spend a ton of their own money to access. That’s why this, above all the recent file sharing losses, is the one that hurts the most. Great research will now linger in a moldy corner of some publishers archive with a $100 price tag attached to it. The information inside will hardly be seen which hurts the author and the end consumer.”
Bloggers were also angry as hell about the burning of Library.nu. French blogger Yann Leroux wrote (in french) that a “greater crime than theft [copyright infringement] is the captation of knowledge and culture” He explained well that Library.nu did what traditional publishers are incapable of doing: making scientific research accessible to everyone. And closing it is a shame, comparable to the loss of the Library of Alexandria.

The guys who burned Library.nu are like the firefighters in Fahrenheit 451.

If the publishers want less piracy, they should innovate to make their works more accessible by having for example a subscription service like Spotify, but for academic papers – a single website or app where you could find every book/article from any publisher. But the publishers are incapable to agree on putting in common their works, even if it would benefit customers and themselves in the long run. They don’t care. They only think about short-term profits; the only time academic publishers seem to agree and to be capable of working together is when they’re lobbying Congress or when they’re suing websites such as Library.nu.

Without Library.nu, many researchers are now probably missing lots and lots of references for their works. Library.nu had a very powerful search engine, but now that it’s gone, looking for specific titles is a lot harder. If you don’t have access to a top university library and you’re searching for an out of print book, you’re basically stuck. And if you don’t have a lot of money, even if you find the book or article you’re looking for, you’re probably not going to spend $30 for an article or hundreds of dollars for a book just to see if it’s relevant to your research or to just read one chapter of it. Library.nu was incredibly useful for this kind of usage. There is no legal nor illegal alternative to it as of today.


Restricted access to knowledge is nothing new; it has always existed. Ancient greek erudite used to keep knowledge for themselves and transmit it to a selected few. In the Middle Ages, knowledge was tightly guarded by the Church. With the printing press however, knowledge could be reproduced at very little cost. New knowledge and ideas could spread like wildfire. But of course, the Church and governments restricted its use at first – censoring, according privileges to some printing houses and denying the use of a printing press to others. In France, on January 13, 1535, a law was enacted (at the request of the Catholic Church) which forced the closure of all bookshops and stipulated death penalty by hanging for anybody using a printing press. This was less than a century after the printing press had been invented. But thanks to pirate printers, books were still sold in France. The law was ineffective and was of course dumped eventually. The same thing is happening with the Internet today. We’re in the early days of this technology, and it’s allowing a massive sharing of knowledge and ideas. And just as they did with the printing press, governments are trying to pass laws restricting usage of the Internet.
SOPA/ACTA for example (this week marks the second anniversary of the repealing of the law) came very close to be enacted. Without the uprising of activists around the world, it might have been enforced, and would have restricted free speech and, of course, file sharing, increasing the legal sanctions against websites such as MegaUpload or Library.nu.
Russia has its own version of SOPA, and it has been enforced since August 2013.
And the TPP is the new, hardcore draft of SOPA. It would increase the monopolies copyright creates and could kill the Internet as we know it. Wikileaks released the draft of the chapter on Intellectual Property. For analysis of the leaked document, see The Guardian , The Washington Post, Concurring Opinions and KEI Online.
As for Library.nu, as Christopher Kelty in his op-ed for Aljazeera said: “The legality of library.nu is also not the issue: trading in scanned, leaked or even properly purchased versions of digital books is thoroughly illegal. This is so much the case that it can’t be long before reading a book – making an unauthorized copy in your brain – is also made illegal”.

These restrictions are intolerable and must stop. Scientific publications must be free to access – or very cheap. Open Access is the future of publishing. And Creative Commons Licences are the future of Copyright. These laws are “a dying industries’ last charge to save themselves from oblivion” as Reddit user Javier wrote about the legal actions against Library.nu.
They are due to the intense lobbying Hollywood and publishing houses are doing to protect their interests. The Authors Guild v. Google case is a good exemple of editors trying to protect themselves from fair use.

“The world, it should not come as a surprise, is filled with people who want desperately to learn. This is what our world should be filled with. This is what scholars work hard to create: a world of reading , learning, thinking and scholarship. The users of library.nu were would-be scholars: those in the outer atmosphere of learning who wanted to know, argue, dispute, experiment and write just as those in the universities do.” Christopher Kelty wrote. To complete what he said, I’d like to quote Denis Diderot, who, in his essay “Lettre sur le commerce de la librairie” (which doesn’t seem to have an english translation) wrote: “Entre les différentes causes qui ont concouru à nous tirer de la barbarie, il ne faut pas oublier l’invention de l’art typographique. Donc, décourager, abattre, avilir cet art, c’est travailler à nous y replonger et faire ligue avec la foule des ennemis de la connaissance humaine.” [Amongst the different causes which contributed to lifting us from barbarism, we must not forget the invention of the typographic art. Therefore, dispiriting, pulling down, degrading this art, it’s trying to replunge us in barbarism and ganging with the crowd of enemies of human knowledge.] Of course the “typographic art” refers to the printing press, but we could replace the term by “the internet” and it would be quite a powerful statement against lobbyists, lawmakers and publishing houses which try to restrain free circulation of knowledge on the internet.

Kelty ended his article with a touch of hope “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.”
Even if there is no real alternative to Library.nu two years after its destruction, it’s only a matter of time before we see it rising again from its ashes. Someone will eventually fill the gap the burning of Library.nu created. Publishing houses and their friends in power can’t put the genie back in the bottle. They’re fighting a war they already lost.

Do you have enough money to buy an iMac? If yes, you could build a universal library of science instead

The 27 inches new iMac is a killer, but for the same price...
The 27 inches new iMac is a killer, but for the same price…

Jacques Mattheij, the deutsch programmer who wrote the code for The Paper Bay as a tribute to the late Aaron Swartz, estimated in a blog post that one would need about 50-75Tb of storage to archive all the papers produced historically. That’s a very small amount of storage. Most laptops now come with 1Tb of storage and are about as thick as a small book. So for the «thickness of 75 books», which constitutes a rather small bedroom-library, you can get enough storage to host every scientific publications of all time. Let me repeat that: you can get enough storage to host every scientific publications of all time. I believe it’s fucking awesome.

The benefits of having a Universal Library of Science are obvious: fast scientific research, accessible knowledge, centralization of every ressources needed on every subjects, etc.

...38 HD like this one will give you a powerful knowledge transmitting machine, a bit like...
…38 HD like this one will give you a powerful knowledge transmitting machine, a bit like…

Just imagine what could the geniuses of our time do with such a powerful tool right in the palm of their hands. The teenager that discovered a new, super efficient test for pancreatic cancer, did all his research online, reading only Open Access papers, and probably missing many great but expensive articles, thus slowing down his work (you can watch his interview). Imagine also how easy it might be to fact check all the bullshit politicians, preachers, can say about global warming, history, etc.

If we take the high estimate of 75Tb, it’s affordable for many people to buy such a storage capacity nowadays. Take the Seagate Expansion Desktop External Hard Drive with a capacity of 2Tb. This thing costs a hundred dollars on Amazon , and you would need about 38 hard drives like this one to have the sufficient storage capacity, rougly 3800$, or the cost of a high end 27’ iMac. And, quite a lot of people seem to be able to afford a computer of that price range, since Apple is selling loads of it.

Once you’ve got your 38 hard drives, you’ll be able to store every paper ever written and thus have the capability of hosting the complete Universal Library of Science. Isn’t that cool? Just imagine that a few years ago it would have cost millions of dollars and only companies like Google could afford this! Even before that, when there were no computers, no internet around, having a «universal library» was even more difficult and expensive, since books were published by poorly know editors, in small quantities, and often lost or destroyed before reaching a great audience. Many attemps to build a Universal Library of any kind (the most famous being the Library Of Alexandria) failed, because of the high costs it implied at that time, and also because of the silliness of religious people (one of the main theory explaining the destruction of the Library of Alexandria being a conflict between Christians and Pagans around 250-300).

...The monolith in 2001, A Space Odyssey which in a way is transmitting the knowledge of an advanced civilization, helping the progress of mankind
…The monolith in 2001, A Space Odyssey which in a way is transmitting the knowledge of an advanced civilization, helping the progress of mankind
And the resemblance with the Seagate is really uncanny, isn’t it?
And the resemblance with the Seagate is really uncanny, isn’t it?

Now with the internet and cheap, enormous storage, we have what it takes to build a Universal Library of Science. Darwin, Einstein, (insert the name of a genius here), would have loved this kind of service, and maybe Darwing would have spent less time gathering facts to coin his theory of Evolution if he had access to powerful semantic search in texts, exactly the kind of thing a digitized text allows (Darwin spent more than 25 years gathering facts in books, but also by direct contact with other naturalists, farmers, etc.). Plus, mining the data inside the Universal Library could be very interesting in terms of data visualization (see initiatives like Paperscape).

The next thing you have to do is a little bit trickier and highly illegal [And to be clear, I’m not encouraging you to do it]. You have to find a way, write a script, hire a hacker, whatever, and download every papers and every books from Elsevier, Springer, Nature, and all the other big publishers (or you can legally buy all the publications, if you’re a billionaire). Find the list of all the publishers, then download massively everything they ever published. Aaron Swartz had written a script to download millions of papers from JSTOR, so this kind of webapp is needed if you want to succeed. Donwload everything that you can find. Oh, and try not to be detected. Remember how MIT, JSTOR, and the government acted like complete douchebags when Swartz did what he thought was civil desobedience? You don’t want that to happen to you. So, find a way to do all this undercover. Perhaps you want to teach yourself how to be completely anonymous and how to leave no trace behind you online (you really don’t want General Alexander or one of his fascist henchman to knock at your door).

That should make you puke
That could make you less shameful

And if you need additional motivation to start downloading, read the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, a great stuff Swartz wrote in 2008, a few years before putting it into practice at MIT. Or, if you feal shameful about «stealing» all these papers, you can just look at the profit margin of Elsevier, and the recent controversy over publishers like this one and their business model and attitude toward openness.

To sum up all this: Buy hard drives. Download. Enjoy the Universal stuff.

There. You have the Universal Library of Science. For the price of an iMac. But remember, it’s an illegal library. Who cares? A Universal Library of Science benefits all mankind. Well, only you for now. But put the content of these hard drives online, and let everyone enjoy the science.

How can a library be illegal anyway?BDDefinition-2001-4-1080

Images credits: Apple Inc., Seagate Inc., MGM Pictures/ Warner Bros. (2001 A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick), http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/pamphlet/files/2013/01/fig-margins.png, blu-raydefinition.com