Imagine you’re able to download any book for free, anywhere in the world.
The good news is that several such websites exist. The bad news is that they are, of course, illegal—they’re filled with pirated volumes. Recently, Z-library, one of the largest, went offline, and feds in the U.S. seem to be responsible.
While there are other ways to access pirated materials, Z-library is especially popular with college students and academics for several reasons. Now, the shutdown has left many students, particularly in the global south, scrambling for access to research and educational materials.
For Giir Joseph Henry, a 21-year-old medical student in South Sudan, Z-library was a crucial resource for accessing medical textbooks including Gray’s Anatomy: The Anatomical Basis of Clinical Practice, which is widely regarded as the bible of human anatomy.* Not everyone is able to afford textbooks like Gray’s Anatomy, says Henry, “because they are really expensive.” The book easily costs up to $200, plus shipping costs.
Henry says he doesn’t have any real access to public libraries from which to borrow books. In fact, the first public library in South Sudan was established in 2019. Even if he were able find the textbook in a library, the number of copies typically pales in comparison with the number of students who need to use it, he points out. There can be “a ratio of 135 students to one book,” he says. With Z-library, Henry says all he needed to download the book was 100 MB of free space on his device.
Even if a student has library access, that doesn’t necessarily mean they can get the books they need. Chaithanya, a Z-library user who requested we refer to her by her first name, is doing her Ph.D. at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in India, whose parent organization is a world-class university. But even in her relatively well-funded university library, not all books are available, she says. A single book can cost her half of her monthly salary—a price that seems particularly unreasonable when she needs to read only one chapter. “We are just on our stipends,” she says. “I was heartbroken when I heard they are shutting down Z-library.”
This is about more than just books, too—Z-library also offers academic papers. Students in the global north often have access to academic papers through their institutions, which subscribe to journals. That’s in sharp distinction with the global south, says Khaled Faisal, a Ph.D. student who is doing fieldwork at the Bangladesh University of Professionals, where institutions in developing nations often can’t afford the cost. He feels platforms like Z-library bridge the knowledge gap between the global north and the global south.
Faisal uses Z-library to help him access research articles that are behind a paywall without subscribing to all journals he might need papers from. The average cost of a journal article is around $30. Additionally, it can be hard to know from reading just the abstract (a summary of a paper that is available for free) if the study will be relevant to your work. This requires academics and students to shell out money before even knowing if they really need access to the paper at all—unless they find another way.
Faisal acknowledges that pirated book websites like Z-library undoubtedly hurt book and journal publishers—and, of course, authors. But he also thinks it’s on them to consider the impact of steep price tags. “Publishers really, really need to think that they need to make their work easily accessible and affordable.” In addition to his own research, he is also a lecturer in the same university. “My students need resources,” he says.
Students adept at using the pirated book platform have become resources for their fellow students. Lucky Luffy, who lives in Kenya and studies environmental science, will often help friends out with Z-library. “I have like over 30 friends who like just reach out from time to time and like, ‘Dude, can you find me this book?’ ”
But Z-library is for more than just studying. Luffy enjoys reading fiction and thrillers translated from different languages. It can take months after their publication date to be available at the local library—but they are on Z-library immediately.
There are other collections of pirated e-books online, like Library Genesis. But Luffy says that he has never been to a library—real, or virtual—that has a collection of books this comprehensive, particularly when it comes to new or recent editions of books.
Chaithanya praised Z-library’s user-friendly interface. The website has a section called “related books,” she says, which suggests other books that the user might not come across . “Suppose, if I search books about Black feminism, Z-library might show me a book that’s more useful that what I originally looked for,” she says.
Though Z-library has been seized officially, it seems to still be available on Tor, a browser that enables anonymous web surfing. People are posting the steps they followed to access the library database via Tor. On platforms like Reddit, users are helping one another out if they get stuck in the process of downloading.
For his part, Faisal now relies on his friends living in the U.S. and U.K. for journal articles that he’s looking for, sending them huge lists. It’s a more rudimentary form of file sharing than Z-library—but for now, it works.
Correction, Nov. 15: This piece has been updated to clarify that Khaled Faisal is doing fieldwork at the Bangladesh University of Professionals. He is a student at Ruhr-Universität Bochum, in Germany. This article also misstated that Giir Joseph Henry is a student in Sudan; he is a student in South Sudan.