The term sounds like a fantasy novel institution: shadow library. To the extent that one provides access to large amounts of knowledge while lurking on the outskirts of mainstream society, on the brink—okay, over the edge—of what is legal, a shadow library is exactly like it sounds: a place to access books and media that might otherwise be inaccessible to you. However, rather than a structure built in the sewers of a city or in a castle on the edge of a cliff, these libraries exist in plain sight online. I first came across the concept while reading a Bloomberg Law article, which describes how sites drew attention recently on social media, particularly Tiktok (you can find examples here, here, and here) (Setty, 2022). The piece goes on to explain that the libraries are not protected under fair use law, as they allow permanent downloads, however bringing these cases to court proves to be difficult due to problems establishing jurisdiction and the evasive nature of shifting domain names (Setty, 2022).
In his article “Gamifying piracy: functions and users of the Z-library” (2022), Zakayo Kjellström, a doctoral student at Umeå Universitet in Sweden, discusses the role of aesthetics and gamification in the success of shadow libraries. Particularly, he focuses on the Z-Library. Kjellström argues that the professional appearance of the website—which lacks an obvious manifesto on the launch page that many other similar sites have—hides its illegality (p. 352). In this instance, indicators of legitimacy can look like operational search functions, semantic design, and even color implementation. The seemingly legitimate interface (p. 352) combined with elements of play he describes as the crowdsourced uploading, metadata tagging, and blog interactions work together to create an environment rife for user production—all without rewards beyond perpetuation of system engagement (p. 368). Kjellström’s piece fascinatingly explores how the design and familiarity of knowledge organization systems can be exploited.
This topic poses moral questions as well as grey areas for debate. While the law might be clear on where it stands when it comes to shadow libraries, rules ought to be carefully considered to ensure they represent the ideals of a society and why; where do we draw the line? These sites come with tempting manifestos that preach ideals like “knowledge to all” and “remove all barriers in the way of science” (Kjellström, p. 353, 2022). For populations that do not have access to public libraries, higher education, or the money necessary to buy knowledge, shadow libraries seem to fill a need. This need increasingly calls to be addressed as deadly misinformation permeates discourse, particularly when it comes to the fields of science. I acknowledge that the websites extend well beyond this ethical battle and can be used simply to illegally share the newest Ali Hazelwood novel and I also do not condone copyright infringement or the illegal sharing of content. However, the ideologies of profit as opposed to equitable access call out from the shadows to ask: which is more important?
Written by Autumn Brown
Angelica🤓. [@thatrelatablestudent]. (2021, Dec. 16). you’ll need to sign up to download it as PDF and that’s it, you’ll find all the best books out there!🥰 #freebooks #download #learnontiktok cr: @judyferas. Tiktok. https://www.tiktok.com/t/ZTRxu8ndR/
Cool Websites [@web_list]. (2022, July 19). LIbrary of scientific articles for free #powerfullwebsites #getthisviral #omg. Tiktok. https://www.tiktok.com/t/ZTRxmogjj/
Drew Ford • Think Better. [@Drewxford]. (n.d.). I put my fav shirt on so ik this video won’t flop. And my apologies if the sound is a little too loud/quiet in certain parts 😅#personaldevelopment #readmore #booktok. Tiktok. https://www.tiktok.com/t/ZTRxu6hUX/
Kjellström, Z. (2022). Gamifying piracy: functions and users of the Z-library. Journal of Documentation, 78(7), 351–370. https://doi.org/10.1108/JD-09-2021-0174
Setty, Riddhi. (2022, October 19). Rampant ‘Shadow Libraries’ Drive Calls for Anti-Piracy Action. Bloomberg Law. https://news.bloomberglaw.com/ip-law/rampant-shadow-libraries-drive-calls-for-anti-piracy-action