The Internet Archive has announced the closing of the "National Emergency Library", an online resource for access to books owned by institutions participating in IA's Open Library program. Here's an excerpt from the press release - see the complete version online.
Within a few days of the announcement that libraries, schools and colleges across the nation would be closing due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, we launched the temporary National Emergency Library to provide books to support emergency remote teaching, research activities, independent scholarship, and intellectual stimulation during the closures.
We have heard hundreds of stories from librarians, authors, parents, teachers, and students about how the NEL has filled an important gap during this crisis.
Ben S., a librarian from New Jersey, for example, told us that he used the NEL "to find basic life support manuals needed by frontline medical workers in the academic medical center I work at. Our physical collection was closed due to COVID-19 and the NEL allowed me to still make available needed health informational materials to our hospital patrons." We are proud to aid frontline workers.
Today we are announcing the National Emergency Library will close on June 16th, rather than June 30th, returning to traditional controlled digital lending. We have learned that the vast majority of people use digitized books on the Internet Archive for a very short time. Even with the closure of the NEL, we will be able to serve most patrons through controlled digital lending, in part because of the good work of the non-profit HathiTrust Digital Library. HathiTrust's new Emergency Temporary Access Service features a short-term access model that we plan to follow.
The press release states that the closing was moved up because four commercial publishers filed lawsuits against Internet Archive.
It could well be that provoking a lawsuit was part of IA's intent. It is unlikely that the suits will be dropped just because the NEL has closed. Publishers want to punish IA for allowing free access to their copyrighted works, and IA likely wants a test case that would pave the way for general acceptance of a more constrained form of controlled digital lending.
Controlled digital lending is how many libraries have been providing access to digitized books for nine years. Controlled digital lending is a legal framework, developed by copyright experts, where one reader at a time can read a digitized copy of a legally owned library book. The digitized book is protected by the same digital protections that publishers use for the digital offerings on their own sites. Many libraries, including the Internet Archive, have adopted this system since 2011 to leverage their investments in older print books in an increasingly digital world.
Two phrases I've used in recent months both apply to this episode: "Never let a good crisis go to waste" and "Crises have a way of accelerating the inevitable".
Internet Archive helped homebound readers and researchers while at the same time forcing publishers to take legal action; meanwhile, digital lending has already been done by libraries for many years in a very limited way; Internet Archive has stretched the boundaries to the breaking point, but in the end hopefully there will be a settlement that all sides will be able to (or forced to) live with, and there will be an accepted framework for libraries (including hobby organizations like the American Numismatic Association, American Numismatic Society and American Philatelic Society) to make their vast book collections more readily accessible to members and users.
To read other articles on the topic, see:
Internet Archive Will End Its Program for Free E-Books
Internet Archive ends "emergency library" early to appease publishers
To read the earlier E-Sylum article, see:
NATIONAL EMERGENCY LIBRARY ANNOUNCED
Wayne Homren, Editor
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