Cory Doctorow (Librarians are Rockstars!)

This is Circulating Ideas, I’m Steve Thomas. This episode is a collaboration with Alison Tran, librarian and co-host of the Authors Are Rockstars podcast. This continues our Librarians Are Rockstars series where we talk to authors and they tell us about their experiences with libraries and librarians. We’re very pleased to announce that this episode features Mr. Cory Doctorow whom we spoke with at the ALA Annual conference this year in Chicago.

All right, so I am here with Alison from the Authors Are Rockstars podcast and I am Steve from the Circulating Ideas podcast and we are here at the ALA Annual conference with Cory Doctorow, author, blogger, journalist, activist, lots of other miscellaneous descriptions, and his newest book.

[Corey] Canadian.



And his newest book for young adults is “Homeland” which is the sequel to “Little Brother” and he is a co-editor at Boing Boing. Cory, Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.

It’s my pleasure, thank you for having me on.

[Alison] This is awesome, we’re so pleased to speak with you. So we are surrounded by 20,000 librarians who have a great passion for the profession and can see its future viability. What do you say to people who dismiss libraries in the 21st century?

I think that the job of librarians has only been secondarily to do with books and shelves and has really been about navigating knowledge, right, so all, all of this stuff, references and cataloging and so on, they’re all about navigating knowledge. Which is in part a question navigating authority, right, what do, what do you like and what do you not like and librarians are known, anyone who’s, anyone who’s ever weeded the collection for the book sale has always known that just because someone cataloged it, acquired it and put it in the collection does not mean that it is a good source of information.


And so the internet is full of sources of information that lack some of the traditional predictors of good sources of information, whether they’ve been acquired by a publisher and vetted and so on, but, but those were always our best rules of thumb and at any event, and they were always things that librarians could only use as partial reference in that you needed, you needed other ways of understanding and navigating the authority of those sources and today we are, all of us, in the position of having to acquire those librarianly skills and so one of the things that librarians stand to do and one of the reasons they’re as relevant as they are today is because they are the keepers of the skill set and the knowledge that we all need to acquire in order to successfully navigate the internet.

Wow, I love that and that really is something that I feel strongly about as a librarian, not just there to find information, organize it, but there to teach others those skills so thank you, I love it.

Yes, we’re definitely teachers too, so.


In your part of the newly announced ALA President Maureen Sullivan’s new Authors For Libraries e-books


Can you tell us a little bit about that and why you wanted to be involved in that specifically?

Well, I really feel like the deal that libraries have been offered on e-books has been very, very poor and it’s not just a cost question, although the cost question’s been dreadful, but it’s also questions about DRM and not just because patrons get locked into platforms, although they do, but also because the, in order for DRM to work, computers need to be designed so that they hide things from their owners, specifically they have to be designed so that they hide where the DRM is from their owners because nobody wants DRM on their computers and so if, if it’s possible to inspect what your computer is doing, find all the files on your computer, then it’s possible to disable the DRM. So, DRM is essentially been an arms race to design computers that can effectively hide secrets from their owners. This is a monstrous idea, right, this is the “I can’t let you do that Dave” school of computer design, right? Because once the computer has the generalized facility for obscuring its processes from its owner, then any bad guy, whether that’s a government, whether that’s a, a totalitarian police force, whether that’s an identity thief or a crook, or just a harassing bully, if they can figure out how to subvert that invisibility cloak in the computer, then they can hide themselves in it and the virus checkers and so on it don’t see and it. And so an example of this is when Sony shipped the Sony root kit on audio CDs, they, they put out 6 million audio CDs, 51 titles that automatically patched operating systems, so that if you put this in your, this CD in your computer CD drive, it would change your computer so that it could no longer see any file that started with $sys$ and so if you said tell me what all the files are in this folder and there was one that started with $sys$ it wouldn’t see it. In fact, if you were running a virus checker that was looking for a program that started with $sys$, you said are there any files that start $sys$ it couldn’t, the computer wouldn’t see them. If you said are there any programs running that start with $sys$ it wouldn’t see them. So as soon as this was infected on millions of computers, 300,000 militarian government networks in the US alone, virus writers, started pre-pending all their viruses with this magic cookie, right, because when you put holes in a, in a computer’s immune system, you’d be a fool to expect anything but a parasitic opportunistic infection and so that was bad enough in 2005 when computers were relatively primitive. But today, we’ve seen what people, when they exploit computers, there was several arrests of high profile, what they called sextortionists, and these are people who convince mostly young women to infect their computers called remote access trojans. They, over social media, dupe them into installing a piece of software and that allows them to remotely control the camera, the microphone, to read the keystrokes, to read the screen and they find or generate compromising photos of these women and then they try to extort them into performing sexually for them and these guys have had dozens, sometimes more than dozens of victims whom they called “slaves.” I mean how creepy does this get. So, librarians being party to a process that calls for computers that hide secrets from their owners is to be party to a process that gives rise to one of the most distopian things I can imagine, which is that our world made of computers suddenly out of our control, our world where the default posture of our, the networked fabric of our reality is, “Yes master but I can’t let you do that Dave,” that’s a terrible position to be in.

Do you think libraries should take a harder line against that kind of stuff, like not make these compromises like we’re doing? Cause, our patrons want e-books, but we can’t, there’s no way to provide them.

I know, I know. Well this goes back to your first question which is what are libraries are good for. Well they’re there to teach you to understand the nuances of information policy and I say this to librarians, the answer to this is “it’s not complicated. It’s just hard.” Right, that the uncomplicated truth is you’re not doing your patrons a broader service, you do them a narrow immediate service when you give them access to a DRM crippled e-book, but you don’t do them a broad service. You don’t do them a long-term service, you do them long-term harm by not awakening them to the problems that arise from, from DRM crippled e-books and the reason it’s hard is you want to serve your patrons, you want to be relevant, you don’t, you’ve got to answer to funders who want to know why it is you’re not providing patrons with e-books. You love books and you’ve probably got an e-reader because who’s the most early owner of an e-reader? Someone who already reads a lot of books and so you’re, you’re probably a bit compromised yourself because we all end up participating in DRM because it sometimes, ‘cause Netflix is so convenient even though they’re pushing for DRM in HTML5 at the World Wide Web consortium. It just feels like, “Oh, I just want to watch Breaking Bad,” and so it’s hard, but it really isn’t complicated. It really isn’t complicated to say, “If you’re, if you think that your long-term value to society is helping people to understand and navigate the nuances of information, you shouldn’t be rolling over and saying oh yeah, just, it’s just DRM, we’ll just roll with it for now.”

It really gives us a lot to chew on I think, thank you.


It’s really fascinating and I, I’m sure a lot of people aren’t even aware of this, so thank you for speaking out.

Oh well thanks, and I’m sorry that it’s such hard cheese because it really is not.

Yeah, it’s hard to be the messenger, but it’s, it’s, that’s a real problem.

Yeah, oh god and Harper Collins with their 26 circulations, this is madness. So, so, two things, right. First, I used to be a page at the Business Servant Affairs collection at North York Central Library in Toronto and we, we, our newspaper film came in 30 days, 30 day, monthly round-ups, right? So, I had to keep our newspapers circulating for 30 days and newspapers are not designed to circulate for 30 days, right. They would be more tape than cellulose by the time the, the film came in. But, I could do it, I could keep a newspaper, which is designed to be disposed of after one read, circulating 100 circs over 30 days. Meanwhile Harper Collins, who, they’re like my British publishers, those are very well made books and you should avail yourself of them. Those books do not fall apart after 26 circs, so for them to say that this has some, even if it were, even if we, if we are willing to stipulate the bizarre idea that the fact that books do start to fall apart if you circulate them enough is a thing that we want to carry with us into the digital world, that it’s a feature and not a horrendous bug. Even if you stipulate to that, it’s not in a faithful recreation of the life cycle of a book in a library, it’s a stupid idea.

Yeah, it, that’s a real tough one and as a librarian I understand HarperCollins needs to make money and [speakers overlap].

Not when Rupert Murdoch’s going to have to pay off that, his divorce settlement, and someone’s got to keep Bill O’Reilly in interns and paying off his lawsuits for the sexual harassment suits.


Oh dear, it’s a complicated web isn’t it.

Yeah, it is.

Well let’s go back to your history with the Toronto Public Library because I read that you dropped out of High School and spent your days at the public library in Toronto, so tell us a little about that. Why did you seek out the library as a refuge?

I did. so, when I dropped out of High School in grade 9, I was sent to a school that I really, it was, I’d gone to alternative schools that were really self-directed and self-starting and then I got stuck in this super-structured, advanced program that was all about standardized tests and all about cramming and so on and it didn’t suit me in the least. The only thing I liked was working in the library of the school. So, I dropped out and I just stopped going. But, of course, I was still interested in stuff and, and if there had been a web I would have been in a multi-week click trance, but because there was no web, the, the local equivalent was to go down to Metro Ref in Toronto, the big reference library and, and lose myself. Literally just walk down a shelf, see a spine, read for a while, follow a reference, grab another book and spend the afternoon raiding the, the film cabinets. Here’s a newspaper from 1885, here’s a subject index, go crazy, right. It was really like the most, it was, of all the experiences I had before the internet came along, it was the one that felt the most like the internet in retrospect.

Well, we mentioned in the introduction that you live in London now, do you think, in British libraries authors get paid a royalty and things, do you think that’s something libraries should be doing?

So, here’s what I think. If the state wants to subsidize writers, that is not on its face a stupid or wrong idea, it’s just an incredibly inefficient way to take state agencies and give them money in order to provide a subsidy to someone else and I think it’s, the, politically in the present day, its an imaginable state that would say, “Well we’ll just give monies straight to artists,” so it seems likely that it would, that it has to be laundered through libraries, but what a silly and inefficient way to do this. We’re going to give you this money to stick in your bank account for a while, with the understanding that you’re going to take it out of your bank account and give it to, to authors through a collecting society whose executive are completely opaque and paying themselves hundreds of thousands if not millions and through this process that’s like really weird and corrupt and. Surely we can design a 21st century collecting society that has all the analytical notes of Google and all the transparency of the new Linux instead of having this weird process whereby we have these 19th century quasi-mafia like guilds that collect money from libraries on our behalf that the state earmarks to us, but, for some reason, needs to put on the library’s balance sheet.

Yeah, I, I did read that, I think it was Philip Pullman recently wrote a thing for The Mail or something like that complaining that he wasn’t getting enough from, he wasn’t getting enough from libraries.

Was that Pullman? I thought that was the Horrible Histories guy.

No, I think it was, it was just last week, he was talking about they weren’t getting from e-books, cause e-books are not paying for them for these use that they’re already getting from print books and.

Oh, that’s bizarre.

Yeah, I mean, it’s a bit, if I were a library and paying six times over the odds for my e-books and then being told that I had to take some of my dwindling budget and hand it over, I mean I admire Pullman an awful lot, I love his books and I think his politics are amazing. He and I both spoke on a bill together at the convention on modern liberty in London a couple of years ago, but I think that’s a bananas prospect and I think it’s, I’m sure he doesn’t mean it in a way that’s hostile to libraries, in a way that the horrible histories guy did.

Yeah I know that was.

That was unfortunate, yeah.

Muck. It’s a term of art. But, but I think that is not a position that’s consistent with the kind of humanesque view of, a humane society that takes care of everyone and particularly in Britain where austerity has destroyed our public institutions. I think Philip Pullman deserves every penny he’s earned and more, but I’m the 1% and he’s the 1% of 1% of 1%.


Yeah, oh yes, different strokes for different folks, I guess. Alright, so, let’s switch gears. Do you have a library card on you right? Do you carry one at all times?

I do, it’s in my phone, it’s scanned in the barcodes, it scans at my local branch, mine and my daughter’s.

That’s very good, so do you, are you loyal to one library or do you?

Oh yeah, I’ve got my local library which is the Hoxen branch of Shortish Library in East London. Do you need to see my library card? You are an, a licensed librarian are you not?

We’ll, we’ll believe you [laughs]

Well here’s my daughter’s, she signed it.

Oh, that’s cute.

Oh that’s so cute.

With a heart.

All right, I, sorry listeners, you can’t see this, it would probably be some kind of invasion of privacy to take a picture, but I can vouch for it, it’s adorable and you’re missing it.

Yeah, yeah, probably, yes, yeah. [laughs] Now what you don’t know is that she’s 25… just kidding she’s five years old.

[laughs] [laughs]

So, when you were speaking at the Library of Congress last year, you said, one of the quotes that I thought was funny from that was that you said that information doesn’t want to be free, but people want to be free. The funny part was that you said something about information doesn’t want to be anthropomorphized either.

Yes, I’ve made a career out of this. This is my one great joke. Every dad needs one funny joke and that’s mine, I’m going to use it man and boy. Yeah, I know.

So can you, can you elaborate what you mean by information doesn’t want to be free.

Sure, so, information clearly doesn’t want anything. Information is, is an abstraction, right? But, our age is made out of networked information and without good access to good information, there are many ways in which we can’t be free. So, I have a friend who helped me write my last book “Homeland” who was someone who was really involved in this and who unfortunately was in the news a lot earlier this year in sports who killed himself, and Aaron’s career’s an interesting one to, to study, right? So, he started off, one of the things he did, he saw that the judge-made law, the courtroom decisions, all of the briefs, that they were locked up behind a paywall. Although they’re in the public domain, you still had to pay for every page and so he and some other people, Princeton researchers, they built this thing that, this system that it’s locked in is called Pacer, they built a system called Recap, which is an anagram of Pacer, where every day was a browser plug-in and every time you paid for a page, it copied it into a public repository and when you requested a page it would first pull the repository to see if it was there, so one payment paid for all. And he liberated 1.5 million dollars worth of the most widely cited.


That’s huge.

Which is prudent and they sent the FBI after him, right and they tried to get to talk, to get him to talk without a lawyer and he, he refused and it’s, and like a public servant announcement, if a cop wants to talk to you, you should have a lawyer present. Not because cops are bad people, but because that’s smart law hygiene and I said this at a talk I gave in Borderlands  Book Store in San Francisco and afterwards this woman came up. She said, “You know I work for the FBI,” and I said, “What do you think of my advice that people shouldn’t talk to the FBI without a lawyer present?” She said, “That is excellent advice.” So from the horse’s mouth, don’t talk to the cop without a lawyer. He didn’t talk to the cops without a lawyer, he walked away. But his next project was this, this other database where there were all these scientific articles, many of them in the public domain and many of them paid for at public expense and all of them representing the truth of the world as best as we understand it. That’s what science is, right? We, we take public funds and private funds, mostly public funds and we send people out to systematically mine crumbs of reality, right, away from the universe and organize them. And so there’s this database and it, it’s public domain, it’s publicly funded, but it’s locked up behind this very expensive paywall and if you’re at a fancy university you can get access to it, if you’re at a private research institution or a really good funded public, public school, private school you can get it, everyone else pays $50 a paper sometimes.

So, Aaron was a fellow at Harvard, he walked down to MIT and he started downloading millions of articles and they caught him at it and they charged him with the computer fraud and abuse act which was this 1986 law that says if you exceed your authorization on a remote computer system you are committing a felony and, and Aaron was authorized to download articles. A) he was a Harvard fellow and Harvard had a subscription, B) MIT’s entire network was, was cleared for it and C) MIT allows the public to use their network which is a really good policy.

That is.

And so he wasn’t, he was allowed to do this, but the terms of service said you couldn’t do it programmatically, so a term of service violation, right, like the long gnarly hairball of garbage with “I agree” underneath of us that the, that nobody reads, Consumers Union because it would take 27 hours a day to review all the rules you have to agree to in order to navigate the web and that is just garbage anyways. Basically they all come down to some local equivalent of “By being dumb enough to use this service you agree that we’re allowed to come over to your house and punch your grandmother and wear your underwear and make long-distance calls and eat all the food in your fridge.” Right?

I agree!

So nobody reads, “I agree and I am over 21!” and so the, the prosecutor said that they were going to put him in jail for 35 years. Now, why was Aaron doing this stuff? He wasn’t doing this stuff because information wants to be free. But people want to be free and if you don’t know what the law is and you don’t know what the law is unless you know what the duress prudence is, if you don’t know what the law is, you cannot obey the law and you can’t know when someone accuses you of violating the law, whether you violated the law and you can’t know whether a course of action will get you in trouble unto the law. So, good information makes people free because it gives them access to the law and then, then where do our laws come from? Well they come from congress and how does congress get elected? Well every couple of years, a whole group of people in suits stomp around and tell us they know what the truth of the universe is, right? Well, where is our co-nautical repository that truth of the universe in our science journals? Wouldn’t it be nice when someone said vote for me, I know what the theory, I know what the correct way to modify the truth of the universe is, if we could find out whether or not their theory conformed to our best understanding of the actual truth of the universe is that exists and, and objective reality, right? Information makes people free, people need information to be free, not because of anything information wants, but because of the fundamentals of a democratic transparent and just society.

I love that and I think that’s really a foundation of libraries, cause we are there to provide information, free, it’s out there.

Total, I’m not the first person to observe this, but that if there were no libraries and you proposed one in 2013, you would be called a terrorist or communist.


That’s a thought, that is, yeah, that is probably completely true. Are we, we’re already living in a dystopia [laughs]

Well, in the sense that there’s a bunch of stuff that’s squeaked in under the wire and that it’s hard to imagine and this is one of the reasons it’s so important to fight so hard for libraries now, cause if we lost them holy smokes and the Bodleian, they don’t just think of their mission as making sense of information, or being a deposit library, they see themselves as a storehouse of knowledge for rebooting civilization.

Wow. So fascinating. Well I have to ask, I’m a youth services librarian so I want to know what was the earliest thing you remember reading or having read to you that had an impact on your life or your way of thinking?

Wow. Well, I mean the first book that I read to myself which had this enormous impact on me because it told me that I could go and read more books to myself was Alice In Wonderland. And it was literally one of these cases where it, I’d read primas that I had read, had read to me enough that I’d sort of memorized them and so on, but literally one day it just snapped into place, I walked into my Grade 2 classroom, there is was, it was one of those double editions with Looking Glass on the other side, it was that library, the library editions, I forget what they were called, but they all had the same binding and there was a Tom Sawyer one and so on and they, so I picked it up off the shelf and I literally sat down in the 15 minutes after the bell rang, but before we all had to go and sit in a circle on the rug and started reading it and just kept reading and I had this amazing teacher, Beth Penaker, who had team talked with my mom who’s an early childhood ed teacher and she felt like my mom would be cool with it and then she, she proofed my mom later because I kept doing it, several days of just sitting behind the cubbies reading. She was, “Do you mind? Cory’s, he’s rocking it,” right and my mom was, “No, if he’s sitting there reading, let him read.” And it just snapped into place, it was really like all the pieces came together and I could not just sound out words, but I could actually read a book and from there I became one of these book a day kids, right and, and so there are other books that really impacted my life. Daniel Pinkwater, I’ve been plugging all through this conference and to the day I die, the back of my headstone, it’s going to say read more Daniel Pinkwater. But, but it, I, the, that first book, that was the gateway to just reading my butt off.

I love it.

Was there a specific book or a moment that you remember that you said, “Oh, I want to do that?”

That I wanted to write? Well, no, you know what it was, it was, it was actually before Alice In Wonderland. In 77 we went to Star Wars and it wasn’t that Star Wars was the best movie ever made. I liked Star Wars, but I think as an adult you go back and you watch it and the, it’s a pretty good movie, but it’s, it’s, but I think that one of the gifts that Star Wars got in 1977 was a young audience starved for complex narrative who had no access to it, that we, TV had become particularly insipid, there were still only three channels, there was no cable, there was no DVDs, there’s no C, there’s no VHS’s, there was no way to experience a complex narrative. It was all basically the equivalent of the Teletubbies and I used to watch David and Goliath. And so to just, to see a story that had multiple threads, that had reversals, that had fake-outs, that had non-chronological storytelling just blew my lid and when I got home I stapled some scrap paper up the side, trimmed it to the size of mass market and started writing out the stories over and over again the way I remembered it, like a kid practicing scales on the piano and the, the act of writing the story just felt very, very right and that was the first time I ever said I wanted to write. And obviously over the years I wanted to work in a candy factory and be a deep-sea diver and so on and wanting to be a writer is only slightly less ridiculous than any of those in any event. But, writing was the thing I kept coming back to, I started sending stories out to magazines when I was 16 and selling them when I was 17 and it’s something I’ve done my whole life.

That’s great. Well, speaking of your writing, I haven’t had an opportunity to read “Homeland” yet, but I did read “Little Brother” but without spoilers, is there more to this story? And is there going to be another book starring Marcus?

Well, no, because everybody dies at the end of Homeland. [laughs] [laughs] No, just kidding, just kidding. Yeah, there’s a novella that’s in the canon, should be coming out any day now, I actually got to write to the folks who commissioned it and find out what’s going on, but Intel and the White House commissioned a sequel to it called “Lawful Interception” They’re doing a bunch of technology challenges like the X-prize and they’ve commissioned writers to write essentially design fiction that helps engineers inform their, the thoughts better, so they sent us a bunch of prompts for things we could write about. One of them was people with superpowers and so I wrote a story about people who use technology, drones and network and ad hoc networks and little devices that vibrate on different sides of your ankles to tell you which way to go that allow large groups of people to school like fish to avoid police cordons and cattling and so it’s, the super power is that they can exercise their 4th amendment rights, their right of association in the face of aggressive policing. And it’s a technology fueled superpower, right, it’s good networked co-ordination with a centralized control, so it’s called “Lawful Interception and should be out really soon and will publish it and then it will be in Amazon’s single DRM-free as well.


Oh my gosh, that sounds amazing!

Thank you.

Well thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us, it’s been such a pleasure.

Oh, my pleasure, thanks, folks.

Yes, thank you.