Digital libraries give a sharp rise to the disclosure and preservation of books and allow access to basic common knowledge. Apart from institutional book repositories, amateur librarianship involves non professional tools and independent practices with the aim of distributing rare scanned materials – for instance out of print books – and sharing recently issued copyleft publications. In the last decade several independent digital libraries spread and became the reference point in serving scholarly communities. Monoskop is a platform devoted to media, art and humanities, online since 2004 and focused on Central and East Europe in the beginning. It takes the form of a wiki, where everybody can contribute, and it is curated by Dušan Barok, a Slovak artist and cultural activist. In 2009, he initiated the Monoskop Log, which daily posts digital and scanned books about the subjects on the wiki. Each post carefully describes the book content, its bibliographic details and download links. Monoskop contributes to the ongoing debate around publishing, by stimulating new ways of thinking about distribution models, copyright and performative features.
DG/VN: Where would you locate the historical roots of Monoskop Log and other online libraries?
DB: In one way, Paul Otlet’s Mondothèque and Vannevar Bush’s Memex can be viewed as the conceptual basis. They both stand as new ways of thinking about text and print for the electric age. Then we have BBSes (Bulletin Board Systems), first computer networks in which people started to gather around digital texts. They were pretty much like mailing lists and the Web in one. It became possible to share texts electronically. Project Gutenberg started in the seventies, becoming the first electronic repository of texts. From today's perspective what has been great about it was the handmade and reliable OCR. Many more online libraries followed, notably around 2000 Sebastian Lütgert started his very interesting project Textz.com storing books as pure text – or ASCII files as they are sometimes called – in the lineage of BBSes. Later on, some online libraries, such as Gigapedia, took a more entrepreneurial direction, making money through banner ads. It is difficult to categorize because on the one hand you have Library Genesis which accepts donations to cover the costs and on the other business models like Gigapedia or more recently Ebook.farm, where you pay a small amount of money, it buys the e-book from Amazon and then sells it to users for a fraction of the original price. Then there is Aaaaarg, Monoskop, Ubuweb. What is crucial is that in these websites there are no money involved, we are against such advertising. This is in line with what is traditionally expected from a library – it is supposed to be a public service and not a business model.
The autonomy provided by digital tools and networks is shaping the publishing practice. How could it be improved?
There should be a way to think the book from the inside, because most text repositories are still built around books. The crucial difference between having a book on a shelf in a library and having it as OCRed text on a hard drive is that you can apply different algorithms to these electronic files. You work with what is inside. Indexes are present in publishing since the thirteenth century, and references even longer. Book references consisting of parameters such as author, title, publisher, year, and page, link one document to another. They are basically pointers, pointing to a particular section in a publication existing somewhere in the universe. We actually do the same now when linking one web page to another. What is surprising is that the connection between references in publications and hyperlinks on the web is still not so apparent. There are academic articles written in HTML, with notes, references and bibliography, which don't hyperlink anything, they are just plain text. They still operate in the domain of print, even when written for the web on the first place. The same goes for scanned books. They are actually online, they just have to be linked to each other, from inside. We have tens of thousands of texts online. Let us really make references active. They are begging to be turned into hyperlinks! Technically it is not impossible but we are far from a standard system. This is almost like a new phase in publishing.
Many scholars use Monoskop as a primary source for finding books on specific subjects. How does Monoskop relate to the publishing ecosystem?
In general, the relation between publishers and digital repositories such as Monoskop has always been ambiguous. To be sure, it is changing over the time. There are many online initiatives and we (Monoskop, Ubuweb, Aaaaarg and others) are attentive to an ongoing discussion in publishing. How to really embrace the web? For publishers this has been an issue for some while. There is a pack of questions coming with each new publication. Shall it come with an e-book or not, and if so, which formats to go with, how to price them, shall it have a DRM or not, shall it come with the printed book or separately, and if so, shall it appear at the same time or we should wait a bit, how long shall we wait, and so on. Another very important factor are commercial electronic repositories, such as Jstor and Elsevier. These kind of platforms are quite aggressive in their practices. They became an oligarchy and I think they are really exploiting the situation, because it is just designed that way, to exploit all involved parties – publishers, authors, libraries and users. More than that, locking up publications in these silos also means to make them accessible only through libraries that can afford it.
In the nineties the publishing market was still pretty much defined by the physical distribution network. One thing that dramatically changed this was the arrival of Amazon: suddenly everyone can buy anything published in the States. What has happened with the popularization of the e-book format is that now if a publisher does not release a book in an electronic format as well, people do it. Hence everything comes with an e-book version. A reader has now access from anywhere in the world to huge portions of the current book production. From the publisher’s perspective the competition is huge. It was never like this before. There is a lot of rethinking and debunking going on – on all sides actually – because we are learning much more about publishing, and publishers are learning much more about the Internet. So the situation is constantly changing. But unlike earlier, now it is possible to predict what will happen when you publish something. When an interesting book appears, you can be sure the next day it will be online somewhere. An interesting case happened with Verso, a leftist publishing house that five years ago insisted on Aaaaarg to take down their books. On the contrary, they are much more active in involving readers, having authors blog on their website, posting excerpts from books, having temporary sales, etc. They are coming to terms with the situation. It is important to keep people in the debate.
The activity of Monoskop is similar to the one of a publishing house, for distribution and promotion of contents. Would you define yourself as a ‘publisher’? Or would you rather go for ‘curator’?
Editor. But it is not the whole thing. I did not scan so many works, maybe fifty books in my lifetime. Not so many. If there is a book I really want to have on my computer I scan that one. But first I check whether it is already online. I deal with these materials and try to make sense of them. A librarian does something similar in a physical library. Imagine a librarian who has to deal with 25.000 books. How to keep track of them so that she can be helpful to a reader interested in let's say the use of architectural modeling in graphic design education? And what to throw out? What would you actually keep? You cannot do it just by algorithms.
How and where do you find publications online?
There are many sources, and two different processes along each other. The first one is my current reading or research interest, through which I find most of the titles that appear on the Log. I want to look up something, find it online, and if it is interesting and relevant for the existing context, it gets linked. The second process are my online routines:
Also about once a month I go through open access journals, they may have new issues;
And sporadically, I check emails from several mailing lists which I am subscribed to. Some things are sent to me by e-mail or chat, other things pop up on my Twitter feed.
There are more sources, but these are the most important.
What is the design’s role in a digital context, where it almost seems that the publishing act corresponds solely to a distribution process?
If we go on with the idea of finding new ways of working with e-books, then I would say that pure text in .txt or markdown formats is the best, or that HTML is the most flexible format for what you may want to do with texts, but then again with HTML and TXT you are giving up on design, which means (especially when using e-readers) that all the books in your library look like one long book, with different covers on top but the same layout. We should consider that perhaps 95% of the Western book production is electronic, books are made on the computer. Their native texture is script on the screen, and they are distributed around as e-books before being printed. They live as PDFs. An interesting initiative would be to reimagine this process through designing books for screen on paper or other material. If we take print seriously then this requires imagination and if there are decisions made in order to have the book look in a particular way, then the designer should know what makes this difference, what looks good on screen because it’s a screen and what instead is meant to look good on paper, that’s about the materiality of the medium. In this respect, PDFs and EPUBs are not yet books.
What about authors themselves? We know Alessandro Ludovico sent his book to you. Does it happen often? Could authors consider Monoskop as a promotional channel?
The promotional aspect is there, that’s for sure. There are no contracts, it’s unpredictable and I avoid things that may turn the site into mere channel for the wide reach.
What about the copyright issues?
There are some takedown requests coming and I respect them. But this happens rarely. Authors want people to read their books. If you don’t publish with the ‘big guys’, you can’t expect to have large income from selling a book. What you may rely on is the performative aspect of publishing, that means invitations to conferences, discussions, writing articles, giving opinion… I think that the majority of authors we are implicated with agree with this, it’s not about selling books but in the context around them, and the fact that their books are made more visible.
Performative aspects of publishing…?
Yeah! Performative aspects but also new technical ideas, like those things about indexes and references. Because all those repositories are already there, full of stuff nobody has lived long enough to read. This gathering of platforms creates a context which is implied already in writing; these texts were meant to be together. But the point is to work with these texts on the web, we need to develop interfaces around them, not just to try to smuggle them as drugs. So I would say that containers should definitely develop further from being mere containers of something. But maybe it’s just one phase in something that will take course none of us has imagined, and then Aaaaarg may go one direction, Monoskop a different direction, and then we may meet again in a totally different setting.
http://textz.com/ (Platform closed in 2002 after being sued by the Hamburger Stiftung zur Förderung von Wissenschaft und Kultur for publishing two essays by Theodor W. Adorno).
Original name of the Library.nu project, closed in 2012 after a combined legal action taken by seventeen publishers with the charge of copyright infringement.
http://aaaaarg.org/ (it is necessary to be invited to be allowed to download books)
Digital rights management (DRM) is a class of technologies conceived and used by copyright holders, publishers and individual with the intent to control the use of digital content and devices after sale.
Alessandro Ludovico, Post-Digital Print, The Mutation of Publishing since 1894, Ram Publications, Eindhoven, 2012, Link [PDF]
[All web links accessed on April 28, 2015]