Hackerspace Project: Build A PirateBox / LibraryBox

This article originally appeared as Hackerspace Project: Build A PirateBox or LibraryBox at Cosplay, Comics, and Geek Culture In Libraries.

PirateBox / LibraryBox

Not everything needs to be on the Internet. Sometimes what you want is just a place to store your files that doesn’t require you to go back and forth between computers, transferring files by flash drive or through the tedious process of having each computer configure itself for your phone or tablet or other device so that it can transfer data across. Sometimes you don’t want to deal with restrictive licensing requirements, or hate granting another company permission to use your stuff for their own purposes if they want to. Maybe where you're going, there isn't Internet access at all, but you have to be able to have computers connect to a shared space and get files or documents for a program to work. Or maybe you just want a private network that’s not connected to the Internet, where teenagers (or your staff members) can hang out, be themselves, and talk with each other without prying eyes looking at them from afar.

Depending on your needs, you may be able to achieve your desired results with either the PirateBox or the LibraryBox, both of which take an inexpensive router, a USB flash drive, and a little know-how around the use of a Secure SHell (SSH) session to set up, but once set up, will provide you with a wireless network to connect to, apart from the Internet, where files can be downloaded from the Box to a computer (LibraryBox/PirateBox) or uploaded from a computer to the Box (PirateBox only).

The PirateBox also ships with the ability to have message boards, imageboards, and a chat function enabled so that in addition to sharing files between themselves, people on the network can post, discuss, and have conversations with other people nearby. Planted in your Makerspace, it could become a place where works-in-progress are stored, conversations specific to the space are conducted, or pictures of what went on in the space that don’t make it out to the wider world are posted.

The primary stated purpose of each of these projects is to provide a way for people to access files without needing to communicate with an Internet or network server to get to those files. Privacy-conscious teens, users, and librarians can use the Box to work on projects and share materials - but only if the computer is physically close enough to the Box to connect to it.

So, say, you’re going out from your building to a farmer’s market, fair, or other place where people are going to have digital, wireless-capable devices, but you don’t have Internet access to your website, where all the nice guides for using devices with the library are. In addition to taking your paper copies with you, if you had a LibraryBox loaded with digital copies of your guides, you could just have them connect their device and download the guide for later.

No chance of the papers getting lost in the excitement of the day. If you have recorded performances of rhymes, fingerplays, or other early learning demonstrations, those could be made available through the Box for parents to download and take with them. If you have teen-created content, like poetry slams, booktalks and reviews, artwork, or other items that they give you appropriate permissions for, they could also be included for reaching a wider audience. You could even offer, say, free or public-domain electronic books along with your library-created materials, so that someone looking for a work to read on their devices can walk away with something right then and there.

The possibilities of the Box aren’t limited just to library-related materials and communications. Perhaps some of your local artists or music-makers could be signed to a contract allowing you to distribute their album (or selected songs) for free to people who come and physically visit close enough to your library to connect their device to your Box. Local authors could be convinced to offer chapters of their books (or the books themselves) for download from the Box, making it easy to drum up support or increase awareness of the author in their community and to keep your library relevant in the community.

Fans of Cory Doctorow’s work in Little Brother (which you can download, in its entirety, for free, at the link – thanks, Cory! – but is good enough that you might want the dead-tree, digital, or audio versions as a bought copy anyway) might recognize another possibility for the Box – the fictional game Harajuku Fun Madness that w1n5t0n was pursuing at the beginning of the book used something like a LibraryBox placed near another wireless signal that had to be found and then its contents deciphered to provide the way to the next checkpoint. So if you want to put up your own Alternate Reality Game around town, as part of a bigger program (like Summer Reading) or just in the library, these could get you well on your way there, too.

Putting together a Box is even easier now than before, as the process of installation has been refined significantly from earlier incarnations. For the “classic” box, you’ll need a compatible router, a good-sized USB drive (8GB and 16GB drives are inexpensive these days), and a computer that has a program installed on it that will be able to connect to the router using SSH (Secure Shell). Most computers either have that ability or can gain it with free programs. You can also use a Raspberry Pi computer as a PirateBox, and rooted Android devices have an app that can be installed to create a PirateBox as well.

This type of project could be the cornerstone of a workshop talking about modifying technology for new purposes, opening with discussion on the idea of Keep Circulating The Tapes in relation to file-sharing and the copyright treaties that intend to stomp on any sort of sharing ever, and how software and hardware both fall prey to age and being abandoned, even if there still exists a sizeable amount of people who like that technology and use it. You could also talk about software End User License Agreements (EULAs), free and/or open source software, and the grey legal ground of processes like rooting or jailbreaking your phone so as to assert control and do things like install customized software on your devices or to remove software that you believe compromises your privacy or allows entities you don’t want access to the device you paid for. After talking about some of those things and issues, you can move on to the assembly and set-up of a Box.

The putting-together of a Box means your attendees get an opportunity to work with shell access and commands, the process of updating firmware on a wireless router, and the file structure of Linux-type filesystems, which will be very helpful if they ever host their own website or blog installation on a server somewhere, or if they get into coding applications or scripts for the Internet, as they will be able to navigate and upload/download files with ease. It also presents an example of how technology can be repurposed with new software, which could include a mention of Linux and its ability to breathe new life into old technology as well.

This project can be put together quickly, so long as the instructions are followed and the right equipment obtained. After that, it’s up to the creators to figure out what they want to do with their own private network and storage. For libraries, it’s a possible way of extending the reach of digital materials and guides to places where they might not normally go and possibly adding programming or communication options that weren’t available before, as well as an introduction to many of the issues that surround libraries and consumers regarding what they can and can’t do with the things that they own, and the ways that technology and the law sometimes collide hard on what something can be used for.