‘Shadow Libraries’ Are Moving Their Pirated Books to The Dark Web After Fed Crackdowns

Academic repositories like LibGen and Z-Library are becoming less accessible on the web, but finding a home on alt-networks like Tor and IPFS.
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Screenshot: Library Genesis

Library Genesis (LibGen), the largest pirate repository of academic papers, doesn’t seem to be doing so hot.

Three years ago, LibGen had on average five different HTTP mirror websites backing up every upload, to ensure that the repository can’t be easily taken down. But as Reddit users pointed out this week, that number now looks more like two. After the recent takedown of another pirate site, the downturn has caused concern among “shadow archivists,” the term for volunteer digital librarians who maintain online repositories like LibGen and Z-Library, which host massive collections of pirated books, research papers, and other text-based materials.

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Earlier this month, the head librarians of Z-Library were arrested and charged in federal court for criminal copyright infringement, wire fraud, and money laundering. After the FBI seized several websites associated with Z-Library, shadow archivists rushed to create mirrors of the site to continue enabling user access to more than 11 million books and over 80 million articles. 

For many students and researchers strapped for cash, LibGen is to scholarly journal articles what Z-Library is to books. 

“It's truly important work, and so sad that such a repository could be lost or locked away due to greed, selfishness, and pursuit of power,” one Reddit user commented on r/DataHoarder. “We are at a point in time where humanity could do so very much with the resources and knowledge that we have if it were only organized and accessible to all instead of kept under lock and key and only allowed access by a tiny percentage of the 8 billion people on this planet.”

There isn’t one clear explanation for what’s happening with LibGen’s HTTP mirrors. However, we do know that maintaining a shadow library is time-consuming and often isolating for the librarian or archivist. It makes perfect sense why a shadow librarian involved in this work for years may throw in the towel. This could also be the seed of a recruitment effort underway, much like we saw several years ago when archivists enacted a rescue mission to save Sci-Hub from disrepair

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When news circulated that Z-Library was seized by the feds, some supporters stepped in with monetary donations to restore the repository. Members of the Z-Library team also expressed sadness about the arrests and thanked supporters in an official response, as reported by Torrent Freak.

“Thank you for each donation you make. You are the ones who making the existence of the Z-Library possible,” the Z-Library members wrote in the statement, which was posted to a site on the anonymized Tor network. “We believe the knowledge and cultural heritage of mankind should be accessible to all people around the world, regardless of their wealth, social status, nationality, citizenship, etc. This is the only purpose Z-Library is made for.” 

The usage of the anonymized network follows the movement of shadow libraries to more resilient hosting systems like the Interplanetary File System (IPFS), BitTorrent, and Tor. While there might be fewer HTTP mirrors of shadow libraries like LibGen, there are likely more mirrors on alternative networks that are slightly harder to access.

It’s unclear if LibGen will regain the authority it once had in the shadow library ecosystem, but as long as shadow librarians and archivists disagree with current copyright and institutional knowledge preservation practices, there will be shadow information specialists.

“Shadow library volunteers come and go, but the important part is that the content (books, papers, etc) is public, and mirrored far and wide,” Anna, the pseudonymous creator of Anna’s Archive, a site that lets users search shadow archives and “aims to catalog every book in existence,” told Motherboard in a statement. “As long as the content is widely available, new people can come in and keep the flame burning, and even innovate and improve—without needing anyone's permission.”

Anna says the job of shadow librarians closely follows the ethos “information wants to be free,” which was famously put into practice by information activists like Aaron Swartz

“Once the content is out there, it's hard to put the genie back in the bottle,” she added. “At a minimum, we have to make sure that the content stays mirrored, because if that flame dies, it's gone. But that is relatively easy to do.”