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Aaron Swartz

Posted By Brett Bonfield On February 20, 2013 @ 6:00 am In Uncategorized | Comments Disabled

Aaron Swartz, holding a knife pointed at the camera, in Florence / CC-BY

A photo of Aaron Swartz by Quinn Norton entitled, “Florence” / CC-BY

In Brief:This article discusses Aaron Swartz’s life and legacy, especially his contributions to libraries. Via video, narrative, and archived email discussions, it conveys a sense of Swartz’s values and conversational style. It concludes with a detailed timeline of his life.

This is a living article about someone who died. This version is complete, but it’s not finished because I’m not yet ready for it to be finished.

I want to write about Aaron Swartz now because of what libraries meant to him and because of what he means to people who care about libraries. As much as has been written about Aaron since his death, I don’t think that story has been fully told.

I think it may be best to start with a video. There are no images of Aaron in this video, just his voice. We had a camera pointed at him as he delivered this presentation on Saturday, January 12, 2008, at the American Library Association Midwinter meeting in Philadelphia, but this is the version he liked best.

The talk is called “Picking Winners,” a topic my colleagues and I from ACRL’s University Libraries Section “Current Topics” committee requested, and he used it as a chance to talk about technologies and other projects he cared about, including Open Library. This video was never posted anywhere because neither of us could get the slides and the audio to line up. I’ve gotten the video to the point where it’s mostly watchable, but it’s still kind of a mess in terms of synchronization. If you’re a Keynote expert and want to give it a shot, I’d be happy to share the .key file with you.

A few weeks later, on Wednesday, February 27, 2008, he gave a different talk about Open Library at the code4lib 2008 conference hosted by Oregon State University.


I’ve been writing about Aaron and his connection to libraries since I was in library school. On July 17, 2007, for LISNews, I wrote a post called  “Aaron Swartz Announces the Open Library.” Here’s how it began:

What are you supposed to feel about Aaron Swartz? He co-authored RSS, served on the W3C’s RDF Core Working Group, helped the wonderful John Gruber design the amazing Markdown, and developed and gave away software like rss2email that many of us use every day… and then he graduated high school. He went to Stanford, naturally, at which point his already fascinating blog, Raw Thought, began alternating even more maddeningly between precocious, annoying, honest to the point of painfulness, and legitimately brilliant.

Aaron’s comment on the post: “Thank you for the kind words. And I’m sorry for the annoying blog posts.”

The fact that I’ve been writing about Aaron for years1 is not intended to give me credibility. As has become obvious since his death, a lot of people admire Aaron and a lot of us believe he had the capacity for greatness. I was consistently surprised and delighted by his thought processes and how he chose to spend his time. His curiosity, idealism, charisma, and productiveness gave me hope.

Maybe that explains the overwhelming sense of sadness I feel several times each day, and expect to for a long time. I also feel a lot of anger at the decisions made by MIT and the prosecutors who were responsible for his case, and expect to live with that anger for a long time as well.

It hurts to read that some people feel the memorials to Aaron are canonizing him or treating him as a martyr. I feel like those characterizations question the sincerity of those who knew him or admired him or agreed with him or simply believe he was mistreated. It represents a callousness that I hope people can allow themselves to leave aside. It would be awful for me to tell anyone else how to feel about Aaron’s death. I think those of us who are mourning are owed that same level of respect.


I met Aaron in person for the first time on January 12, 2008, when he presented at ALA. And I saw him in person for the last time the next night. The two of us got together at the Convention Center and talked for a couple of hours, then I drove him to West Philadelphia, where he was staying with friends. A couple of days later, he emailed to make sure he had the correct reference for a book I had recommended about nonprofit management and a week or so later we resumed our conversation via email.

I’ve uploaded our email correspondence (direct link to the PDF) to the Internet Archive’s Aaron Swartz Collection. At the time, Aaron was beginning to assist with the formation of Change Congress (now called Rootstrikers), an organization that sought to end corruption in the U.S. congress by reducing the influence of lobbyists and PACs, ending earmarks, supporting public finance for political campaigns, and promoting transparency. I was in favor of making it easier to prosecute corrupt officials by creating technology that ensured anonymity for whistleblowers and helped bring attention to the most credible and useful tips.

There are a few things our email exchange illustrates:

  • The nature of our in-person conversation that preceded this exchange. We were looking for practical ways that we, or a few people like us, could change the world for the better. Which is not what I had planned to talk to him about. I wanted to know more about the diet he’d recently used to lose weight. I wanted the inside story of his time at Reddit. I wanted to know what it felt like to leave Stanford after a year. I wanted to know what Paul Graham was like once you get to know him. But I didn’t drive the conversation, Aaron did. And he did it by asking questions. This style comes through in the emails he sent as well.
  • It should be obvious how hard I’m working to keep up with him, to come up with ideas that he has not already thought of and dismissed. I can usually at least hold my own in these kinds of conversations. But I was badly outclassed, in person and via email, by someone roughly half my age. For instance, my case is centered around the idea that corruption would end if it were easier to report and more frequently prosecuted. Aaron’s response:

    “I tend to disagree with the if-only-they-knew-the-truth school of thought. Watergate happened not because the story came out — COINTELPRO started in 1956; stories like this came out all the time in the independent press — it was because Nixon went after someone powerful (the DNC) who could fight back. Had it been Nixon burglarizing the Socialist Worker’s Party offices again, the Post never would given the story such attention and Woodward and Bernstein would have been stayed on the cub beat. So airing the stories is good, but it’s nowhere near enough. We need an alternate system for making them interesting and getting them to people. And that’s much harder.”

  • He took me and my ideas seriously. Because Aaron seems to have known everyone who was anyone, it can be easy to think of him as someone who had no time for you if you were less accomplished than Tim Berners-Lee or Paul Graham or Lawrence Lessig or danah boyd. That wasn’t the case. When we met, I was a recent library school graduate working part-time at a couple of libraries, a guy in his late thirties struggling to find my way in a new profession. It didn’t matter. He wanted to figure out what he could learn from talking to me or exchanging messages. And also what he could help inspire me to do. For instance, he suggests that I help make the nascent Wikileaks website easier to use.
  • There is foreshadowing in this exchange. His connection to Wikileaks is rumored to be one of the reasons the prosecutors were so keen on a conviction in the JSTOR incident. And I display a great deal of naivete about prosecutors as well, which Aaron doesn’t really call me on.

That conversation ended, but we continued to correspond. He served as a reviewer for one of my first Lead Pipe articles before it went live. When the Lead Pipe editorial board was first discussing the possibility of a Lead Pipe 501(c)(3), I asked Aaron for advice, and he put me in touch with his friend SJ Klein. I sent Aaron the MARC records for the Collingswood Public Library, which he described as being received by his colleagues at the Open Library with “much rejoicing” during their annual meeting. When my friend Gabriel Farrell and I created a website to promote the HarperCollins self-destructing ebook boycott, Aaron made some suggestions on how we could improve it. Aaron was an ally, one of the first people I would go to for advice on some of the projects I cared about most deeply.


Though we met that one time in person, Aaron was really just an Internet-friend. We were friends on Facebook, contacts on LinkedIn, and shared a few songs with each other on Spotify. The last thing he listened to on Spotify, the day before he died, was a Flying Nun-era Sally Field singing a song called, “Optimize”:

That song breaks my heart. I can’t help but attach a narrative to it. I picture him feeling down. I picture someone trying to do something to pick him up. That’s what this sort of song is best at. Find a goofy song, send it to Aaron, brighten his day. It always worked until it didn’t.

When the only explanation anyone seemed to have for Aaron’s death was that he was clinically depressed, I tried to accept that idea. It fit with the David Foster Wallace narrative. At the time of his death, Aaron was writing a summary of Wallace’s masterpiece, Infinite Jest. He’d blogged about it in two separate posts, “What Happens at the End of Infinite Jest?“ and “On Finishing Infinite Jest.” Wallace was clinically depressed. Aaron, like Wallace, chose to hang himself.

Many of the things I’ve read about him since his death cite his short story about suicide as evidence of his clinical depression, his disinterest and lack of participation in Reddit’s success as evidence of his selfishness and melodramatic tendencies, and his Guerilla Open Access Manifesto as evidence of his intention to distribute the JSTOR database online.

When it seemed like it was the only narrative available, I tried to make it fit with my limited understanding of Aaron as a person, with what I knew about his behavior leading up to his death. This narrative might be the most accurate one we will ever have, but I hope not.

We all contain multitudes. That’s obvious, perhaps trite, but it’s also something we tend to forget when we follow our natural tendency to explain why others behave the way they do. Which is why the portrait of Aaron that Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman is creating on Tumblr feels more believable, on an emotional level, than anything else I’ve read about him since he died. For instance, she doesn’t think he was clinically depressed. I wonder if she’s right, and what else she will be right about in the days ahead.


We know there are going to be books about Aaron Swartz. The story of his death has been too big, and his life has been too well documented, for there not to be multiple biographies. I wouldn’t be surprised it there were a few already being seriously negotiated.

I hope one of these biographies gives him the No One Here Gets Out Alive treatment, something like what Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugarman did for Jim Morrison, the lead singer of the Doors, in their 1980 biography. It might be nice to see Aaron’s life turned into a series of melodramatic anecdotes that appeal to adolescents and inspire a decade or two of dorm room posters (assuming there are still dorms and posters in the years 2023 through 2038). I want to live in a world in which disaffected teens are at least as interested in coding and activism as they are in loud music and flattering pants.2

Even more than that, I hope one of these biographies gives Aaron his own Robert Caro, a biographer whom Aaron held in great esteem; he called The Power Broker, Caro’s biography of Robert Moses, “one of the very best books ever published,” and he admired Caro’s four-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson as well. Aaron’s life was far shorter than that of Robert Moses or Lyndon Johnson, but he was present as history was being made, and he collaborated with many of the people who I believe will define our present age. I think his life is worthy of the Caro treatment.

The question I have is whether the world Aaron helped to create will be a world without Caros or, for that matter, without his other favorite authors, including David Foster Wallace and Noam Chomsky. These writers and their works have been heavily subsidized by the education and publishing industries. Much of Aaron’s work threatened the publishing industry and, given that he dropped out of both high school and college, he also embodied a threat to traditional education. While he loved books, I have yet to see how he reconciled that love with his desire to make information open and accessible. I’m sure Creative Commons was part of that vision. I wish I could ask him if there was more to it.

Assuming traditional education and publishing continue to struggle, assuming a void develops where they have prospered for the last century or so, we have no way to know if anything will replace them. That may be good, on balance, just as an increasing number of teen activists seems likely, on balance, to be more beneficial than harmful. Yet its seems that some of the things we love about education and publishing may soon become anachronisms, if they are not already.

So it’s possible that the best we will ever get is a web-based article. Fortunately, we already have a very, very good one: on February 7, 2013, Slate published “The Idealist: Aaron Swartz wanted to save the world. Why couldn’t he save himself?” by Justin Peters. At least for now, I think this is the closest we have to a definitive telling of Aaron’s story.


Since Aaron died, I’ve been trying to figure out how to honor him in a library-centric way. Many of the other ways that people have chosen to honor him overlap with libraries. For instance, at his memorial in New York City on January 19, 2013, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman said that a way to honor Aaron is that “All academic research from all-time should be made public and free and open and available to anybody in the world.” I want to see that happen, and I intend to help with that process, but I also want something more immediately achievable. And what I’m good at, as a librarian, is organizing information.

Justin Peters did a good job, for Slate, of creating a basic timeline of Aaron’s life. My plan is to expand on that project, to create a much more detailed timeline.

This project is not intended as an end unto itself. I see it as a resource for subsequent researchers, as a way to make Aaron’s “Robert Caro biography” just a little bit easier to write.  Like any library, it will always be complete, but also unfinished. As I learn more about Aaron’s activities or come up with more illustrative or stable links, I’ll add them to the timeline below.

At present, the timeline is just well formatted HTML. Once I have a better sense of what else should be added, I hope to publish it in a format that’s more conducive to being remixed, and perhaps host it in a way that makes it easier for others to contribute, perhaps as a Git repository or as a wiki. For now, I want this to be like John Mark Ockerbloom’s Online Books Page, my own to edit, but something I hope everyone finds useful.

Aaron will never respond to another of my emails. But he may still have answers to questions I never got to ask him directly. For me, this timeline has a second purpose. As I read more texts he wrote, learn about additional conferences in which he participated, and discover additional projects he found compelling, it’s my way of having the conversation end later, when I’m more ready for that to happen. I’m not yet ready.

Thanks to Laura Quilter, and to Lead Pipe colleague Erin Dorney, for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article.


Aaron Swartz: A Timeline

1999

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2003

2004

2005

2006

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

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  1. The LISNews post was picked up, with permission and supporting documentation, by ACCESS, Asia’s Newspaper on Electronic Information Products & Services, which republished it in September 2007. Here are a few other times I’ve referenced Aaron in library-related publications:

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  2. As one of my readers noted, this reads like a reference to Cory Doctorow’s novel, Little Brother, and its sequel, Homeland, which was released on February 5, 2013 and for which Aaron wrote the afterword and made suggestions while it was in progress. The only reason it isn’t a reference is because I still need to read both books, something I plan to do soon. []
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