This is a slightly modified version of the text (and slides) from my talk at Oh, the Places You’ll Know, a part of SFU’s Public Square on September 19, 2012. We were encouraged to put practical considerations aside, hence the “damn the lawyers; full speed ahead!” approach advocated within.
My big idea for public libraries is that they should embrace the role of “Your Friendly Neighbourhood Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy.”
To begin, and to situate us here, I agree with R. David Lankes when he says “the mission of librarians is to facilitate knowledge creation in their communities.” That’s a great mission, but I think it is very easy for us to mis-define our communities. I want my library (and this is a hypothetical library – I’m not representing anyone’s views but my own here) to serve the community it’s in and not the rules of publishers, movie studios or lawmakers.
I want librarians to talk like pirates. See, September 19th is “internet traditionally” known as International Talk Like a Pirate day. It’s a stupid internet thing, but I couldn’t pass up the connection. I want libraries to make it easier to share all sorts of electronic content and integrate better with how people actually use the internet. And that includes breaking all sorts of rules.
I’ll be talking about collections, programming and philosophy for the next four minutes.
First we’ve got the plunder of libraries, our collections. When we talk piracy I mean I want libraries to buy material and then share it as widely as possible instead of treating digital content like it’s physical. This is the kind of behaviour that content-providers don’t want from us so we are saddled with 26-checkouts-then-self-destruct kinds of ebooks or 3 downloaded songs per week. I want us to buy ebooks and crack the DRM on them so they can be used on any device. When we buy CDs/DVDs/Blu-Rays I want us to rip them to hard-drive arrays and seed the torrents ourselves. If we’re serious about “facilitating knowledge creation,” giving away electronic files is way more useful than making them hard to use.
The picture here is of a PirateBox and a model of what I want libraries to encourage. In that PirateBox is a battery-powered WiFi router (you can see the antenna on the right) and a USB stick full of download-only media (there’s also the more library-specific project based on the Pirate Box called LibraryBox which is what my project would be more directly based on). You can put that anywhere and someone can connect to its network and get information, connecting local space with electronic content. I love these things. They’re the electronic equivalent of Little Free Libraries.
But we’re here to talk about community. One of the things about internet media piracy is the isolation aspect of it. We know we’re not supposed to be downloading complete seasons of Clone Wars and feel a little ashamed, doing it by ourselves in the dark.
When I show people how easy it is to make their Kindle books readable on a Kobo, or strip the stuff from digital library content that returns it, people are amazed. We’re taught that we have to follow the rules, but when you talk about breaking the rules, you’re engaging people with a different kind of illicit connection.
I want the library to be a place where you can talk about this stuff freely, that it’s not some back-alley of information usage you should never mention to a fine upstanding librarian. I want librarians who are comfortable with 4chan and torrenting and can help their community members navigate some of those parts of the internet to have some fun or learn something or bring down an evil empire.
And here I like the parallel to sex education. You can teach a pirated media abstinence only policy and let your members pick up their knowledge piecemeal (from downloading porn and getting viruses), or you can say “downloading TV shows is fun, and here’s how to do it safely, thoughtfully and have a better experience.”
So my library project does programs teaching people about the processes and ethics of seeding and leeching torrents, about how to use Tor to hide what exactly you’re doing from people who might be of a mind to prosecute you, and using VPNs to get around location restrictions so we can watch shows on Hulu in Canada goddamnit.
Because I love the PirateBox thing we’d run workshops on how to build them and share their own content (stuff they’ve stolen or created themselves) outside of the library ecosystem. Because really, libraries aren’t the point here. We’re trying to facilitate knowledge creation, not pump up our circulation stats.
Establishing trust within your community that being an outlaw doesn’t make you a bad person plays into the whole idea that to live outside the law you must be honest. (I couldn’t find a Lego version of the Blonde on Blonde album cover, sorry.)
When we teach our community about those tools people use to engage in piracy we also get to talk about intellectual property rights and why people do Creative Commons and privacy and all that good Electronic Frontier Foundation stuff. We get to discuss the difference between giving money to record labels versus supporting local artists. And we get to do this not from a position of on-high false moral rectitude but from down in the muck, in a “we’re all in this together” kind of way. Loads of people aren’t going to buy media anyway, but that doesn’t mean the library can’t be a place to get them to share their knowledge.
So our final choice is to let people be bound by terrible rules *koff koff Access Copyright* enforced by publishing empires or we can become outlaws. At the opening gala last night Larry Beasley talked about how the law is a manifestation of us and we should be crafting new laws to build what we want.
I think librarians should be allying themselves with the upstarts in their seedy cantinas who might do some crappy things and occasionally shoot first, but end up changing the galaxy.
Thank you very much.