Book Review: Shadow Libraries: Access to Knowledge in Global Higher Education » Open@VT

Shadow Libraries is a collection of country studies exploring “how students get the materials they need.”  Most chapters report original research (usually responses to student surveys) in addition to providing useful background on the shadow library history of each nation (Russia, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, India, Poland, and South Africa).  As editor Karaganis puts it in his introduction, the book shows “the personal struggle to participate in global scientific and educational communities, and the recourse to a wide array of ad hoc strategies and networks when formal, authorized means are lacking… ” (p. 3). Shadow libraries, sometimes called pirate libraries, consist of texts (in this case, scholarly texts) aggregated outside the legal framework of copyright.

Karaganis’ introductory chapter does an excellent job summarizing the themes connecting the chapters, and is worth reading by itself.  For example, the factors leading to the development of shadow libraries are common to each country covered: low income; a dysfunctional market in which materials either aren’t available or are overpriced; a rising student population; and easy access to copying and/or sharing technology. The student population boom in low and middle-income countries in the last 20 years is remarkable- quadrupling in India, tripling in Brazil, and doubling in Poland, Mexico, and South Africa.  At the same time, reductions in state support for higher education have exacerbated the affordability problem, leaving the market to meet (or more commonly, not meet) demand.  Add to this the tendency of publishers to price learning and research materials for libraries rather than individuals, and the result is a real crisis of legal access….”

Joseph Stiglitz, Knowledge as a Global Public Good (1999)

Abstract:  This chapter examines the worldwide trend toward increased privatization of both information and information and communications technologies, as well as the shrinking role of states and the effects on peoples’ access to adequate information goods and services. Publicness cannot be guaranteed unless users have low?cost access to the opportunities afforded by the new information technologies. Privatization of telecommunications carriers will not guarantee low?cost access and may actually impede it. In absolute terms, the prices of knowledge goods and services are higher in Africa than in high?income countries. In addition, even though information and communications technologies have public good attributes, they are embedded in power relationships. In particular, they are crucial for access to developing country markets, for intelligence purposes and for the transmission of ideas and ideologies. Most of all, they have the potential to widen the gap between haves and have?nots. Accordingly, the chapter calls for a renewed commitment to a public service agenda and, to that end, for increased cooperation between states on a regional basis.