What is valuable about a library without copyright?

Wikisource describes itself as “the free library anyone can improve”. Like all wiki projects, it sets out to clearly define what it is and what it includes. As such, the terrain for this library is: Source texts, translations of original texts, historical documents, and bibliographies, all of which must be in the public domain. By establishing these kinds of requirements, Wikisource looks and feels different than many other libraries, be they digital or brick and mortar. Obviously what we don’t see are the majority of works in the last seventy/ninety years that have yet to move out of copyright into the commons. As a result Wikisource is not concerned with preserving or offering access to current contemporary literary thought or cultural works. This fact is important.

With the exception of a swath of twentieth and twenty-first century government documents, the majority of what Wikisource offers are works that could have been available to bibliophiles in 1922 (which I think is rather though-provoking). The library is interesting then, not by what it keeps but because of what is lacking. It brings to our attention the fact that these books are worthwhile in a different way than we are used to thinking. They are valuable because they have been freed from an enclosure enforced by capitalism. The missing pages indicate that the goal of a universal library still has a substantial obstacle to overcome.

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7 Responses to What is valuable about a library without copyright?

  1. margaret.milde says:

    I really like the idea that you posit about the books that “have been freed from an enclosure enforced by capitalism.” However, I think Wikisource is an idealistic space, and idealism doesn’t always work in practice (hello, communism! In our dreams we love you, in real life we loath you). And why is it better than a physical library? I can go and get a book still protected by copyright for free. I might even write in it (with pencil)! That’s not to say that I think Wikisource is a flop– it is incredibly useful– but I do think that you’ve introduced some very interesting questions about copyright and the monetary value of the written word.

    • steven.jankowski says:

      And why is it better than a physical library? I can go and get a book still protected by copyright for free.

      I’m not convinced that framing the discussion in terms of better is the right direction. I think what our discussion last week illustrated is that we can do different things with a digital file that we cannot do with a physical book. Likewise, there are aspects of the material book that cannot be replicated or understood in the digital space. It is a matter of purpose. A copyrighted book that I can get from the library is inefficient to me if I want to do a content analysis of all the instances of a particular turn of phrase. If it is a digital format with adequate OCR/collaborated proofreading, then my research can occur without the grunt work of finding those instances. But if I want to know something about how the book is produced, the aesthetic qualities of printing in the 1860s, then the physical copy may provide a better resolution.

  2. nlikarev says:

    I am very partial to your interpretation, Steven (socialism is very lovely in many ways). I would like to connect your idea about how pre-1925 texts are “freed from an enclosure enforced by capitalism” to what we’ve read.
    We’ve read about all the documents that were destroyed by librarians obsessed with freeing up space (I tried finding the exact article that discussed this but, alas, I have failed). In a library like Wikisource/Wikibooks the pressures the market/government places on physical libraries is not present, which helps decrease the chances of such a rash decision brought on by pressure from occurring.

  3. jason.boyd says:

    nlikarev, the book you are likely thinking of is Nicolson Baker’s polemic, Double Fold.

    To respond to the original post, one of the strange and problematic things that has happened with mass digitization in conjunction with the development of copyright law is that (and I’m thinking here about works that are primarily informational rather than creative in nature) the most recent and (one assumes) most relevant works of research/scholarship are digitally inaccessible to major segments of the public whereas older and obsolete scholarship is easily accessible, leading to the situation where an online version of book on Shakespeare from 1914 can have a larger readership today than a similar book from 2014!

  4. Claire Farley says:

    I’m interested in knowing how you think the copyright limitations of digitized work may effect research on a given subject, Jason (and anyone else)? I’m thinking particularly of research among undergrads who might be more likely to stick with scholarship they find online rather than make a special trip to the library.

    Sticking with the Shakespeare example: A couple of years ago, while in my undergrad, I wrote a paper about how literary criticism related to the same-sex relationship in Shakespeare’s Sonnets changed over time. The last book I looked at was Madhavi Menon’s ShakesQueer (published in 2011), which would not be eligible for Wikisource. Dealing only with publications pre-1922, a student would still be reading sources that use a fairly unhistorical lens to examine Renaissance same-sex relationships, which is clearly a problem.

    • nlikarev says:

      Wow, I cannot believe I never thought about the point you made about the lens. Yes, that would definitely be incredibly harmful to a student’s education! The study of history relies heavily on the most recent interpretations of an event/thing, etc… Pre-1922 historians and other scholars would not mind their heavy biases bleeding into their framing of a text!

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