The Shadow Library

In talking about libraries this week, one topic that keeps coming up is the cost of journals and access to them. What isn’t discussed is how users navigate these blockades. High quality research doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It’s informed by prior research. When a faculty member, researcher, or student is unable to access information does the search end? Or, does the researcher leave the institution’s library and pursue information through the shadow library? At this point you may be asking, what is the shadow library?

The shadow library is made up of people with access to information outside of your institution and articles (sometimes illegally) posted on author’s personal websites. How many librarians from research libraries have had friends contact them for an article? It often starts with an email that opens, “I found this really great article, but can’t access it. Can you get it for me?” Being a helpful librarian, you may find yourself searching through your subscription databases, downloading the article, and sending it to your friend. You’ve just become a point in the shadow library network. I experienced this a few times from friends in the private sector who didn’t want to pay for the opportunity to see if an article would be helpful or not.

When I administered an open access repository, I received emails from scholars outside of the United States thanking me for making the resources available. Sometimes, these emails would come with an additional request: Can you please send me this restricted article.

It’s an ethical dilemma that puts people in an awkward position. A librarian might do this for a friend, but not a stranger.

Speaking of ethics, is it ethical for a researcher at a small institution to hire a graduate student at a research institution to do library searches for them and open up access to materials, which they cannot access on their own? What is the price for a journal subscription or database compared to the cost of employing a student for five hours a week? Who is getting hurt in such a scenario?

The shadow library is a symptom of the current system. Information doesn’t want to be free. People without access want it to be free.

Should a librarian, or for that matter a faculty member, perform these actions for friends of strangers? Where’s the line drawn? How is it exacerbating the problem?

Timothy A. Lepczyk

Tim is an instructional technologist and former librarian. On the side, he writes fiction and poetry, and publishes the magazine Scintilla. You can follow him on Twitter at @thirdcoast.

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Aaron A.

Is it ethical for journal publishers to run their companies at 30-40% profit margins?

I would disagree. Information does want to be free. Think of information as waves coming to a beach. Someone can stand in the surf with their hands held out and stop some of the water, but most will still reach shore.

The paradigm has changed. Libraries can either adapt to the needs of users or become irrelevant to the academic community. This starts with a “let’s figure out how to do that” attitude, not a “that’s not how it works” approach, which I find is common in many libraries (and journals).

Timothy A. Lepczyk

The information wants to be free tagline breaks down for me because information has no wants or desires. I would say it’s difficult to restrict information and that fits with your water analogy.

Can you elaborate on the approaches or provide some examples on “let’s figure out how to do that” vs “that’s not how it works”?

Thanks for contributing to the conversation, Aaron.

Aaron A.

Without getting too metaphysical about it, information would be everywhere unless people restricted/controlled it. It is something that people impose on the system.

Ah, examples… they are numerous, but I will give a very simple one.

I wanted to “check out” a digital audio book from my local community library. I was told that “it wasn’t available because it was already checked out”.

I said, “it’s a download, are you telling me only one person can download it at a time?”


Sigh, an #epicfail. They are trying to mash a new paradigm in to the status quo.

What did I do? I checked out the CD version of the book and ripped it. I didn’t want to do that, but the in place system led me to that path and dare I say “made me do it”. You see the same thing happening right now with movies (and pretty much everything on bittorrent). Look at NBC’s handling of Olympic coverage in the US and attempts to block online streaming of event coverage, but all the while acknowledging that they never intended to air all of the events available online. People did all sorts of things to circumvent the attempts to regulate (and monetize).

Does that mean that file sharing sites are the future? I certainly hope not. Are libraries held to different standards and legal exposure, you bet. Are they IP and copyright challenges? Absolutely. But guess what, the community doesn’t care.

The reality is that the demand for data/information will be met whether not libraries continue to exist at all. The waves will reach the shore. The successful academic library of the future will find ways to work with the water and not try to build walls to keep it in the ocean.


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