Guerrilla Open Access (Memory of the World)

Guerrilla Open Access: Terms of Struggle


In the 1990s the Internet offered a horizon from which to imagine what society could become, promising autonomy and self-organization next to redistribution of wealth and collectivized means of production. While the former was in line with the dominant ideology of freedom, the latter ran contrary to the expanding enclosures in capitalist globalization. This antagonism has led to epochal copyfights, where free software and piracy kept the promise of radical commoning alive.

Free software, as Christopher Kelty writes in his paper, provided a model ‘of a shared, collective, process of making software, hardware and infrastructures that cannot be appropriated by others’. Well into the 2000s, it served as an inspiration for global free culture and open access movements who were speculating that distributed infrastructures of knowledge production could be built, as the Internet was, on top of free software.

For a moment, the hybrid world of ad-financed Internet giants—sharing code, advocating open standards and interoperability—and users empowered by these services, convinced almost everyone that a new reading/writing culture was possible. Not long after the crash of 2008, these disruptors, now wary monopolists, began to ingest smaller disruptors and close off their platforms. There was still free software somewhere underneath, but without the ‘original sense of shared, collective, process’. So, as Kelty suggests, it was hard to imagine that for-profit academic publishers wouldn’t try the same with open access.

Heeding Aaron Swartz’s call to civil disobedience, Guerrilla Open Access has emerged out of the outrage over digitally-enabled enclosure of knowledge that has allowed these oligopolists to appropriate extreme profits in stark contrast to the cuts, precarity, student debt and asymmetries of access in education. Shadow libraries stood in for the access denied to public libraries, drastically reducing global asymmetries in the process.

This radicalization of access has changed how publications travel across time and space. Digital archiving, cataloging and sharing is transforming what we once considered as private libraries. Amateur librarianship is becoming public shadow librarianship. Hybrid use, as poetically unpacked in Balázs Bodó’s reflection on his own personal library, is now entangling print and digital in novel ways. And, as he warns, the terrain of antagonism is shifting. While for-profit publishers are seemingly conceding to Guerrilla Open Access, they are opening new territories: platforms centralizing data, metrics and workflows, subsuming academic autonomy into new processes of value extraction.

The 2010s brought us hope and then realization how little digital networks could help revolutionary movements. The redistribution toward the wealthy, assisted by digitization, has eroded institutions of solidarity. The embrace of privilege—marked by misogyny, racism and xenophobia—this has catalyzed is nowhere more evident than in the climate denialism of the Trump administration. Guerrilla archiving of US government climate change datasets, as recounted by Laurie Allen, indicates that more technological innovation simply won’t do away with the ‘post-truth’ and that our institutions might be in need of revision, replacement and repair.

As the contributions to this panel indicate, the terms of struggle have shifted: not only do we have to continue defending our shadow libraries, but we need to take back the autonomy of knowledge production and rebuild institutional grounds of solidarity.

Memory of the World


Laurie Allen is the Director for Digital Scholarship at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries. She and her colleagues collaborate on new forms of scholarship to support campus-wide open access publishing, data curation & management, digital humanities, and mapping and geospatial data efforts. A native Philadelphia, she also serves as Research Director for Monument Lab, a public art and civic research project in Philadelphia. In late 2016, Allen and colleagues in the Penn Libraries helped start Data Refuge by teaming up with the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities in an effort to help protect copies of federal environmental and climate data. Before joining the Penn Libraries, Laurie was the Coordinator for Digital Scholarship and Research at Haverford College. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from Bard College, and a Master’s of Library and Information Science from Simmons College.

Christopher M. Kelty is professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has appointments in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the Department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology.  Research interests center on social theory and technology; the cultural significance of information technology; the relationship of participation, technology and the public sphere; He is the author of the book Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences; participation as a political concept, open access in the academy, piracy, and the history of software.

Balázs Bodó is an economist and piracy researcher at the Institute for Information Law (IViR) at the University of Amsterdam. He was a Fulbright Visiting Researcher at Stanford University’s Center for Internet and Society in 2006/7 and a Fellow at the Center between 2006 and 2012. In 2012/13 was a Fulbright Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. Since 2013 he is based in Amsterdam, working as a socio-legal researcher and a Marie Curie Fellow at the Institute for Information Law (IViR) at the University of Amsterdam. Before moving to the Netherlands, he was deeply involved in the development of the Hungarian internet culture. He was the project lead for Creative Commons Hungary. He is a member of the National Copyright Expert Group. As an assistant professor at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics, he helped to established and led the university’s Masters Program in Cultural Industries. He has advised several public and private institutions on digital archives, content distribution, online communities, business development. His academic interests include copyright and economics, piracy, media regulation, peer-to-peer communities, underground libraries, digital archives, informal media economies. His most recent book is on the role of P2P piracy in the Hungarian cultural ecosystem.