THE JOURNAL OF EDUCATION, COMMUNITY, AND VALUES
by Matt Ernst <email@example.com>
Is a library a security threat?
It was with great surprise that I read the following e-mail message in early November:
Matt, an apparent [Jihadist] site has linked to several of your files, or so we were told by some unknown person, and the whole thing has been reported by him or her to, believe it or not, [Homeland Security] and we hurriedly took your directories down. If you can purge them of hands-on sorts of directions for building stuff, then we will happily put them back ASP. You have good traffic, were up way before the critical dates of changes such as even the development of the above office, and we have no way of knowing about that site, but we are getting it translated now to see how serious they may be, the entire thing could be some sort of spoof for all we know. ...
I immediately knew the site he was talking about. My information-rich homepage with ugly Spartan links at http://bcis.pacificu.edu/~polverone/ had been serving archived material about chemistry for a few years, since I first made the heroic effort to scan an entire chemical encyclopedia from 1860 and put it on the Web in mid-2002. One thing followed another and before I graduated from Pacific I was hosting a variety of scanned old books on my site, on topics ranging from perfumes to poisons.There were no "how to improvise bombs" documents or other fringe literature on my site; everything was a faithful electronic reproduction of legitimate scientific and technical books. As a favor to me, the personal site was left alive after I graduated and its popularity only continued to climb. For the search 'practical organic chemistry' on Google (with or without quotes), my site is the third result. It's number one for 'war gases chemistry', number four for 'plant alkaloids'. From examining my logs I see that my site has been linked to on blogs, numerous message boards, several personal web pages, and perhaps now "Jihadist" sites.
Odd Arabic-language pages had been linking to my site for a while. I say "pages" but there is really only one page, cloned over and over to new hosts (mostly under new Geocities accounts) as old copies of it are deleted. Its links are all titled in Arabic but point almost exclusively to English-language materials. It seems to be weapon-oriented, but its links are so thematically scattered as to encompass commercial navigation systems, amateur rocketry, fireworks, guns, and explosives all on one page. Is this page seriously intended as a resource for Arabic-literate, would-be jihadists? If so, why bother attracting attention with the Arabic text when all the link targets are in English? Is it a genuinely frightening page, or menacing only because Arab extremism is the current flavor of fear?
The page's authors may or may not have seriously intended to provide informational resources helpful to would-be jihadists. If they were serious, they have failed in a significant way. They have interspersed rarefied academic treatments of explosive phenomena with practical information about firearms. They have served up information on fireworks along with brochures on flight guidance. This is little more useful than going to a search engine and typing in any one of a dozen search terms! The problem with trying to find information on the Internet is getting information relevant and specific enough to be useful. This problem is exacerbated when you search for topics heavily tainted by online misinformation or low-quality information, like explosives or medical advice. A short page of links to high-quality practical information on improvised weapons or explosives would be indicative of a page creator who actually knew what he was trying to educate others about. The long page of links I've actually seen indicates that the creator cast his net wide because he didn't understand what is useful and what is not when it comes to improvising weapons, and his site is of marginal use as a result. The blind have a hard time leading the blind out of darkness.
Healing historical blindness
As a system, the internet suffers from a blindness of its own. Anyone can publish, and sorting the published wheat from the chaff is a monumental task. Google is impressive compared to the search engines that came before it, but even mighty Google cannot rank pages by trustworthiness, research or professional credentials, or truthfulness. It can only examine simple things like keywords and hyperlink patterns. Searching for credible, verified information on topics can be very difficult, especially if one has not acquired background information offline before jumping onto the net. For all but the fastest-changing and most computer-centric information, a book is almost certainly a better way to learn about scientific and technical topics. Trying to find books reveals a second blindness of the Internet: the world before 1995 does not exist. You may hear of it, like Atlantis, but finding documents from that distant past is rare. Although there is nothing in theory to prevent solid, edited, credible books whose copyrights have expired from appearing on the net, it has been slow to occur.
While I was yet at Pacific earning my BS, I grew frustrated with and inspired by the vast amount of knowledge sitting on library shelves, so much better than what the Internet already offered but inaccessible to computer users. It's easy enough to find cutting-edge information about the sciences on the public Internet or through subscription services. It's much harder to find thorough coverage of the basics, or of historical information. This is somewhat a feature of modern science textbooks too, which usually gloss over the past and over practical examples, focusing on instilling the paradigms that students will need to use in research. If you rely on general chemistry textbooks, you might think that little of significance happened before 1920. It's the Internet's myopia pushed back 75 years. Before I seriously considered doing something about the problem, I spent a lot of time in the library acquainting myself with all the riches it had to offer.
I had initially wanted to find solid foundations to explain how modern industrial and academic chemistry developed, without the pedagogically expedient fables of science textbooks or the unverifiable scribblings of the Internet. What did chemists do before they bought all their reagents from Sigma-Aldrich? How did the chemical industry get its start? Where did chemistry find applications? Armed with a library card, I found many answers in Pacific's own book collection and in the regional ORBIS system. One of the first books I found was a large two-volume chemical encyclopedia from 1860 called Chemistry as Applied to Arts and Manufactures. It surprised me with its sophistication and broad practical advice; I was too accustomed to thinking of historical chemistry as "alchemy, gas experiments, atomic theory, and then nothing until quantum mechanics." I wanted a copy for my own, but I couldn't afford to buy it from a rare book dealer. I really wanted it for myself, but it was only a little extra work to make it available to millions of others at the same time. Armed with a flatbed scanner and enthusiasm, I scanned over 2000 pages one at a time, shrunk the images, created an HTML index, and put the entire thing online at http://bcis.pacificu.edu/~polverone/muspratt.html. This early effort was partially documented in an older BCIS tech column where I introduced the Python programming language and showed how I had used it to automate some tasks in preparing the scans for the Web.
Further book scanning and digitization projects were not far behind. Later, I even hosted a few books that had originally been scanned and shared by others but that had no permanent home. The catalog grew to eventually include The Chemistry of Essential Oils and Artificial Perfumes, The Plant Alkaloids, Some aspects of the chemistry and toxic action of organic compounds containing phosphorus and fluorine, The war gases: chemistry and analysis, Fundamental Processes of Dye Chemistry, A text-book of practical organic chemistry, including qualitative organic analysis, Practical Organic Chemistry, The Chemistry of Powder and Explosives, and Military and Civilian Pyrotechnics. The pyrotechnics book never became a part of the permanent, public collection because I was concerned about copyright. Though the book was out of print and hard to find, it was published in 1968, not old enough to be guaranteed in the public domain. All of the other books, originally published before 1964, were certainly out of copyright or appeared from electronic US Copyright Office records not to have had their copyrights renewed recently enough to keep them out of the public domain. Though it seemed unlikely that hosting Pyrotechnics would lead to any trouble, I chose to terminate public access to it after a short time to avoid possible legal difficulties.
By the time I stopped adding books to the site, I had done a small but satisfying thing to marry the accessibility of the Internet with the high quality and credibility of published scientific books. I hoped that I had worked to heal a bit of the blindness that comes from focusing on the present, whether "the present" is on the Internet or in the pages of a textbook. A number of books that are still considered classics in their respective niches were made available, and this has (potentially) saved millions of people a trip to a rare book dealer or large library. My server logs and steadily increasing Google rankings showed that I was attracting numerous visitors and getting new links too. I started to see my books being hosted on other sites, often with no attribution, but I was not bothered. The credit for these fine books belongs to the now-dead authors and editors who created them long ago. It was a privilege of to be the first to set them free. I wanted these books spread to everyone and anyone who would take the time to read them.
Eyes wide open
A few months ago I actually passed jihadist links page along to an Arabic-literate online acquaintance to see what he thought. His conclusion was that the page was not created by serious jihadists, but somebody Western doing a shoddy imitation of them. He concluded this from the colloquialisms and phrasing of the language, and agreed that the links were too broad to be really useful. I cannot verify his conclusions because I don't understand Arabic or know someone else who does and could help me out. In the end, I don't care that much. All these books have already been scattered across the Internet. If it's important to keep information about chemistry and explosives away from potentially hostile Arabs, it's about 500 years too late. Even World War II didn't demand censorship of long-ago-published technical information. The Chemistry of Powder and Explosives, one of the books linked to on the jihadist page, was openly published, sold, and distributed in the middle of that ferocious war and still has an entry in thousands of card catalogs. That's far better redundant distribution than I have achieved. The vast body of information available on weapons and their components will not be destroyed en masse or collectively unlearned and rendered harmless. I'm not even going to try participating in such a distasteful fool's errand. The will to commit violence cannot be neutralized or turned aside by enforced ignorance. The freedom to say that nitric acid forms explosive compounds with alcohols may not be as utterly fundamental as the freedom to say that 2+2=4, but it is a freedom in the same vein, and one that I will always fight to preserve.