Why the Big Shadow Libraries Are Russian

Monday, May 7, 2018

From Bodó Balázs‘ chapter on Russian shadow libraries:

In the immediate post-Soviet turmoil, access to print culture did not get any easier. Censorship officially ended, but so too did much of the state funding for the publishing sector. Mass unemployment, falling wages, and the resulting loss of discretionary income further undercut the shift toward market-based publishing models. The funding of libraries also dwindled, limiting new acquisitions (Elst 2005, 299–300). Economic constraints, in short, took the place of political ones. But in the absence of political repression, self-organizing efforts to address these constraints acquired greater scope of action. Slowly, the informal sphere began to deliver alternative modes of access to otherwise hard-to-get literary and scientific works.

Russian pirate libraries emerged from these enmeshed contexts: communist ideologies of the reading nation and mass education; the censorship of texts; the abused library system; economic hardships and dysfunctional markets; and, most importantly, the informal practices that ensured the survival of scholarship and literary traditions under hostile political and economic conditions. The prominent place of Russian pirate libraries in the larger informal media economy—and of Russian piracy of music, film, and other copyrighted work more generally—cannot be understood outside this history……

In the second half of the 1990s, the Russian Internet—RuNet—was awash in book digitization projects. With the advent of scanners, OCR technology, and the Internet, the work of digitization had eased considerably. Texts migrated from print to digital and sometimes back to print again. They circulated through different collections, which, in turn, merged, fell apart, and reformed. Digital libraries with the mission to collect and consolidate these free-floating texts sprung up by the dozens.

Such digital librarianship was the antithesis of official Soviet book culture: it was free, bottom-up, democratic, and uncensored. It also offered a partial remedy to problems created by the post-Soviet collapse of the economy: the impoverishment of libraries, readers, and publishers. In this context, book digitization and collecting also offered a sense of political, economic, and cultural agency, with parallels to the copying and distribution of texts in Soviet times. The capacity to scale up these practices coincided with the moment when anti-totalitarian social sentiments were the strongest, and economic needs most dire….

“Maksim Moshkov’s Library” was ground zero for this convergence and soon became a central point of exchange for the community engaged in text digitization and collection: One shadow librarian recalled this period as follows: “[At the outset] there were just a couple of people who started scanning books in large quantities. Literally hundreds of books. Others started proofreading, etc. There was a huge hole in the market for books. Science fiction, adventure, crime fiction—all of this was hugely in demand. Lib.ru was a large part of the response, and was filled with the books that people most desired and valued.”

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