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the free flow of information and ideas to present and future generations

Aaron Swartz. Photo taken by Quinn Norton at the Eremo (2008)

Aaron Swartz. Photo taken by Quinn Norton at the Eremo (2008)

When I became a librarian in 2005, most libraries were providing terrible online access to their collections, at least partly because library data itself was under questionable copyright. Everyone was afraid of being sued, and no one wanted to stick their necks out to test the law.

Aaron’s work with the Internet Archive and the Open Library played a major role in challenging and resolving that legal limbo we were all stuck in, and since that time there has been a renaissance in the world of free and open source software for libraries. We are revolutionizing library access, and Aaron’s work has been a huge part of that.

In 2008, Aaron wrote the Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto at a retreat in Italy hosted by eIFL, electronic information for libraries, an international library consortium that advocates for information access in countries with developing and transitioning economies. In 2008, I had just stepped down as the co-chair of eIFL’s free and open source software programme. I was thrilled that Aaron had joined eIFL, and although I was sad to step down, I was very happy to leave the cause I cared so much about in Aaron’s hands.

When Aaron published the Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto, the tactics he advocated gave me pause. I thought he was ethically right, but I was unwilling to put my own livelihood on the line with such strong statements. A librarian who issued a manifesto like that would be unemployable, and that’s something that should give us all pause.

I am ashamed that it took something like this to remind me to go back and read my own profession’s code of ethics. It reads, in part, “We [librarians] significantly influence or control the selection, organization, preservation, and dissemination of information. In a political system grounded in an informed citizenry, we are members of a profession explicitly committed to intellectual freedom and the freedom of access to information. We have a special obligation to ensure the free flow of information and ideas to present and future generations.”

Thank you, Aaron, for reminding me of my ethical duties. I am heartbroken that we no longer have your voice in this struggle. Thank you for reminding us that we answer to a higher purpose than license agreements.

eIFL’s official tribute to Aaron is at http://www.eifl.net/news/tribute-aaron-swartz.

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