To be a writer in the 21st century is to be caught between two conflicting concerns: the fear that one’s work will be stolen, and the fear that one’s work will be lost. These are the individual and personal expressions of the larger facts of our living amid an unprecedented availability of information, and of the unprecedented unavailability of that same information. Our knowledge and our work are caught up in rapid, unpredictable cycles of creation, dissemination, and destruction. Just as I was sitting down to write these thoughts, I discovered that a year’s worth of my own writing had been suddenly blocked from being read on the internet, the result of an expired certificate.
But I could still find it on the Internet Archive.
In the all-consuming tide of digital entropy, the Internet Archive brings some measure of order and permanence to knowledge. Out past the normal circulating lifespan of a piece of writing—or past the lifespan of entire publications—the Archive preserves and maintains it. It’s surprisingly hard, logistically and conceptually, to remember what 2008 was like, let alone 1998, but miraculously, the evidence still exists. If it’s not quite like achieving immortality, it’s at least no longer like being buried in an unmarked mass grave.
This is the work that libraries have always done. Deep in the stacks, you can physically take a book off a shelf that no one else has checked out in 20 years. You can semi-physically, or semi-virtually, flip through a long-gone newspaper with a spin of a microfiche reel. One of my greatest thrills, when I became an author, was hearing from someone that their ordinary public library in some ordinary city had a copy of my book—a thrill quite different from the regular good news of knowing that some person had spent money to put a copy on their home bookshelf. In the library, my book could be read by anyone.
Because I love libraries, I was happy to participate in the Open Library project, by putting my own work into an anthology to be published for digital lending. I understand—at a deep level, the level on which I wonder how I will pay the mortgage and what I will eat in my old age—how alarming the Open Library can sound to a writer. I feel that alarm: the sense that our already precariously remunerated work might be distributed for no money at all, that the greedy and impersonal culture of torrenting and piracy might be coming for us, too.
But practically, the Open Library does not dissolve or undermine the identity or ownership of a piece of writing. The idea is the idea of the library book. A single copy—bought and paid for—shared with one person at a time, and then returned to the shelf. The distribution may be virtual and seemingly unreal, but the digital copy behaves like a solid item. It behaves more like a solid item, in fact, than many provisionally available movies or texts on the consumer market, which act as your personal property for only as long as the underlying licensing agreement between the rights-holder and the seller lasts.
That sort of dissolving culture isn’t a renewable revenue source, it’s a path to scarcity and amnesia.