Bodo Balazs and I wrote a short piece on the Russian history of shadow libraries for the Washington Post. Here’s an excerpt:

What will future historians will see as the major Russian contribution to early 21st-century Internet culture? It might not be troll farms and other strategies for poisoning public conversation — but rather, the democratization of access to scientific and scholarly knowledge. Over the last decade, Russian academics and activists have built free, remarkably comprehensive online archives of scholarly works. What Napster was to music, the Russian shadow libraries are to knowledge.

Much of the current attention to these libraries focuses on Sci-Hub, a huge online library created by Kazakhstan-based graduate student Aleksandra Elbakyan. Started in 2011, Sci-Hub has made freely available an archive of over 60 million articles, drawn primarily from paywalled databases of major scientific publishers. Its audience is massive and global. In 2017, the service provided nearly 200 million downloads. Because most scholars in high-income countries already have paid access to the major research databases through their university libraries, its main beneficiaries are students and faculty from middle- and low-income countries, who frequently do not.