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The Rise of Digital Learning, Shadow Libraries and the Fall of Bookstores

Shakespeare & Co, Hunter’s official brick and mortar bookstore.
Photo by Kaya Laterman

As more students and professors opt for digital course materials over physical textbooks, students’ backpacks are lighter and their wallets are fuller.

While professors continue their pandemic practices of providing students with online reading materials and coursework, bookstore Shakespeare & Co. may be feeling the burden of a lost revenue stream.

The longstanding bookstore at 939 Lexington Ave., was a pillar of Hunter College, where many students bought their textbooks before the pandemic. The store even added an Espresso Book Machine in 2015, allowing patrons and professors to print books in the store, on demand, in just a few minutes.

But in the digital era of learning, bookstores, however technologically advanced, have become obsolete in the face of online publishing companies and shadow libraries, or online databases of pirated articles and books.

“We have a lot of students still that come here, but not nearly as much as before the pandemic,” said Jessie Zike, employee at Shakespeare & Co.. “Before, we used to have a line all the way up the stairs around the store, and now it isn’t like that.”

The Espresso Book Machine is now stored in the back of the basement, only used about three or four times per semester – a significant drop from its 10 to 15 uses when it was first unveiled, said Zike.

Yet, what is a likely financial loss for the bookstore’s staff, reflecting the dwindling age of physical books, is a gain for some students and professors at Hunter.

For the Romance Languages Department, McGraw Hill Connect is an integral and required digital platform that provides students with access to an online textbook for readings, assignments, and homework.

Students in the Hunter College library access their textbooks online.
Photo by Nethya Samarakkodige

The platform initially received mixed reactions from the department, requiring all professors to adopt a new method of teaching, forcing digital engagement and limiting the amount of written assignments.

“At the end of the day, we’re trying to educate you to be able to produce, think and create using whatever means you have,” said Katherine Volkmer, Adjunct Lecturer in the Department of Romance Languages. “So I think we have to use both.”

Shadow libraries, such as Library Genesis and Anna’s Archive, have gained popularity amongst Hunter students.

“Everybody uses it, and in group chats, the pinned message is the textbook PDF,” said Seonin Lee, sophomore psychology major at Hunter. “I’ve had professors who gave us PDF links themselves.”

The sites allow students to download PDFs of textbooks and books for free without the consent of their original owners, posing copyright infringement as well as security risks to devices.

Still, it’s a risk most are willing to take to offset the costs of being “a broke college student,” according to Lee.

“I don’t have to pay for anything and I have them all in one place, compared to carrying textbooks around in my bag, so it’s convenient and cheap,” she said.

According to The Washington Post, Z-Library was shut down in 2022 by the federal government following its popularization on Tik Tok. Its founders were charged with copyright infringement, wire fraud and money laundering for operating the shadow library site.

Library Genesis was also sued and ordered to suspend their distribution of copyrighted material in 2017, according to The Guardian. Despite the legal action, the shadow library continued to operate under different domains, and is now facing another lawsuit from leading academic publishers including Cengage, McGraw Hill and Pearson Education.

The decline in the usage of books and the emergence of alternative, digital text highlights the transformative nature of education, not just in terms of modern learning tools but also of the adaptability and resourcefulness of students.

“We’re in a modern-day renaissance,” said Volkmer. “Things are changing – the way people write, learn and distribute material.”

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