The athenaeum is a private club which is also a library. As an idea and an institution, it is largely defunct — I am familiar with it due to the presence in Providence of a still-extant example. Before the public library’s arrival in the United States, almost all libraries were private, and most were quite small. John Harvard’s library, bequeathed to the grateful university that now bears his name, was a scant 400 volumes. The athenaeum (besides sounding like a delightful place to hang out, combining the retrograde, cigar-smoking, brandy-swilling pleasures of the Drones with the opportunity to settle down with a really good book) was an early, privatized attempt at making large libraries available to the less-than-spectacularly rich. Notorious libertine and rabblerouser Benjamin Franklin’s library was a cross between the private and public models; non-members were allowed to borrow if they bonded themselves by leaving a sum of money to be returned when the book was. Copyright libraries tend not to allow borrowing; university library policies differ, but use of the library is often restricted to the community of scholars that the university serves. An excellent MetaFilter thread calling for "digital samizdat" got me thinking about the athenaeum. (Samizdat was the term for the underground publishing network in Stalinist Russia; since much important work was forbidden, a method had to be developed to keep it in print and keep those who read it out of trouble. It’s quite a leap from the gulag to the clubby confines of a building on College Hill in Providence, but I think the essential goal — to keep books available — is the same. Currently, the peer-to-peer model of content sharing is something like samizdat. Among the many, many differences is the fact that I’m dependant on the whim of other members of the network. Since the things I’m looking for tend to be out of print or otherwise unavailable — or else I’d go to the library or record store or what have you — this isn’t always the best model; as Sturgeon’s Law suggests, 90% of what people make available is going to be crap. I’m interested in what I think is good stuff that I don’t already have access to, which, almost by definition, will be scarce. (While I’m thinking of it, if anyone knows where I can obtain a copy of John Keir Cross’ The Other Side of Green Hill, please email me. I’ll also note that at least two of my college courses used a Xeroxed manuscript as the textbook due to the unavailability of copies.) The folks at OpenCola have given this problem some thought and I look forward to playing with OC, but I still want to know where the reward is, for both the provider and the creator, for making scarce content available. Is it solely in building up reputation amongst one’s peers? Is it solely in the public good of making knowledge free? Or can athenaeum model, where I pay a certain amount of money for shares in a cooperative that seeks out, legally obtains, and holds the content, be made to work?