Until academics get their acts together and start using new modes of publication, we need to recognize that actions like Aaron Swartz’s civil disobedience are legitimate. They are attempts to liberate knowledge that rightly belongs to all of us but that has been acquired by academic publishers through tens of thousands of contracts of adhesion and then bottled up and released for exorbitant fees in what functionally amounts to an extortion racket.
When Swartz wrote his manifesto he pulled no punches, claiming that all of us with access to these databases have not just the right but the responsibility to liberate this information and supply it to those who are not as information-wealthy.
“Those with access to these resources—students, librarians, scientists—you have been given a privilege,” he wrote. “You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not—indeed, morally, you cannot—keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download requests for friends.”
The whole enraging tragedy of Aaron Swartz is something I haven’t known how to talk about. I still don’t. But here’s the core of my resonance around his death: He did a right thing, per my moral and philosophical code about and around information access. He did a right thing. And our legal justice system persecuted him for it, in my opinion, so that corporations could continue to profit.
I don’t want to live in that world.
And as I said at NLS6, I spent 11 years paying ACS invoices because in my case, at my institutions, my professional responsibility to do right by my users meant I needed to keep paying. Last year I encountered a rare moment in which my professional responsibility and my philosophical beliefs about my profession lined up, and I had the opportunity to not only continue doing my job well, but to do it right. We in libraries don’t have those moments all that often, those moments when we can do it right guilt-free, in a profession in which the rest of academia drives many of our decisions… and the rest of academia has been ignoring the reality Swartz saw and railed against. But maybe they’re seeing it. Maybe we’re all seeing it. Maybe, just maybe, they don’t want to live in that world either.
And so maybe, just maybe, we won’t have to.
Keep on believing. Keep on asking hard questions. Keep on challenging authority. Keep on fighting.
And, this I hope: May no more idealists be driven to suicide by an irrational, over-reactive, and hysterical government and industry response to challenge. EVER.