A call for help was sounded when it became clear that libraries were going to close indefinitely worldwide. The International Coalition of Library Consortia warned that the current system most libraries operate under was grossly insufficient to meet the crisis. We were in a unique position to respond and offer emergency relief to teachers and students around the world, so that’s what we did. We opened the National Emergency Library (NEL) on March 24, at a time UNESCO was reporting over 390 million students were being impacted. Today UNESCO reports that over 90% of the world’s student population is affected by school closures.
We were operating on pandemic time, but knew it wasn’t going to be the end of the conversation. Three days after we opened NEL, the Association of Research Libraries again urged publishers to maximize digital access. At this time we were busy providing this access to the best of our ability while beginning to respond to legitimate concerns from non-library stakeholders. We had designed an opt-out system for authors from the beginning, and our next big hurdle turned out to be working with university presses — many of whom we partner with — to address their concerns.
University presses react to NEL
In the hectic times of universities closing, we emailed our university press partners of the upcoming launch of NEL. The weekend after launching the NEL, we got a message from colleagues within the university press community saying some were not pleased with the NEL and the use of their published works within it. Responding quickly, we held an open community call the following Tuesday to hear from directors and other members of the university press community.
There’s no way around it – it was a tough call. While challenging, it also provided an opportunity for the Internet Archive to clarify why we had released the NEL—namely, to support students and educators with temporary access to a digital library while their schools and libraries are closed and their print collections are unavailable. We believed that NEL was necessary to provide educational access to teachers and students who were not in a position to double buy the books their communities had invested in but could not safely distribute. We have since had numerous teachers reach out to us and confirm that this is the case.
However, that doesn’t mean that other stakeholders do not matter to us. We listened to the concerns, and frankly displeasure, of important members of the university press community. John Sherer, Director of UNC Press, was one of these critics and was unhappy with what he and many within the university press community saw as a unilateral move by the Internet Archive.
But something changed during the community call. In hearing our openness to listen to the community and their concerns, Sherer saw a common path forward. “The goals you had articulated aligned so closely with many of our goals and the sense of mission that drives us at UNC Press. Namely, making high quality scholarship as widely available as possible.” Never one to rest idly, Sherer seized the moment, calculating that “if you all would consider a methodology I believe to be more equitable…I would pitch you on it and see if we could get to the common goal.”
And pitch he did. Along with Dean Smith, Director of Duke University Press, John drafted a Statement of Cooperation to help put structure around a publisher’s participation in the National Emergency Library. Both presses released blog posts (UNC Press here, Duke University Press here) to help contextualize why they disagreed with the process that the Internet Archive took in launching the NEL, and to describe why they ultimately decided to create the Statement of Cooperation so that they could support the National Emergency Library in a way they felt comfortable.
We appreciate the hard work of these university presses to find solutions to work together to provide students and researchers the resources they need during this difficult time. The statement they drafted is intended to be flexible and reusable. We hope that other publishers and presses will follow suit and sign on.
Why are university press books so important?
We consider our partnerships with university presses as a major milestone in making the NEL work for everyone to meet the immediate educational needs of those suffering from the pandemic. The Internet Archive has a long history of collaboration with the university press community, working with MIT Press, Cornell University Press, and others to digitize titles from their backlists.
We believe that university press books are a cornerstone of the NEL. University press books are evergreen, well-cited in Wikipedia, and are the foundations of much scholarship.The materials published by university presses represent the preeminent scholarly output of America’s research universities. They present peer-reviewed research and analysis of use to policymakers and scholars, and provide materials that help shape and inform a literate and informed culture. In short, university press books are exactly the kind of content that people need access to right now.
The road ahead
It is our wish that the NEL only last as long as it is needed, and that’s why we gave ourselves an end date. We will continue to work with stakeholders during this time to find solutions to make the NEL work the best it can under these emergency conditions. We are proud of our work on the NEL, but not so proud as to not accept thoughtful criticism. We encourage university presses, as well as other stakeholders, to work with us to continue to improve the NEL.
We also know that there are many difficulties facing all stakeholders due to the pandemic. Financial hardships are already being reported across the nation’s universities. University presses face challenges ahead in fulfilling their mission, but do so with an eye towards change. In considering the future, Sherer reflects, “UNC Press has survived world wars, depressions, recessions…and our building even burned to the ground once. We will endure. What we’re working on now is trying to understand what that new landscape might look like and to see if we can help define a values-driven publishing model that can thrive in that new reality.”
As Sherer later told us, “while we’re pleased that the NEL is making our books available at no cost to readers, I hope that the readers can remember that it wasn’t cost-less to produce those books.” We understand this concern. The Internet Archive uses a system called Controlled Digital Lending which leverages the number of loaned copies to the number of committed uncirculating physical copies and protects against redistribution by using the same digital rights management tools that publishers use; the temporary National Emergency Library, while using the same protections was built to address the suddenly and temporarily uncirculating books locked up in closed libraries. The original purchase of these books is the traditional way libraries support publishers and authors while also retaining the freedom to decide how to best serve our patrons. The NEL is a short term measure to meet the emergency needs of those impacted by school and library closures. We also welcome a continued dialog with publishers and authors on this issue.
The NEL will soon close and the world will continue to evolve. We need to look forward to how we can help meet the informational and educational needs of this changing world. The Internet Archive will continue to work with university presses and other stakeholders as we all adjust to a dominantly digital world. The Internet Archive is committed to working with presses and publishers to help describe and implement new values-driven publishing models that will be needed in this new world. The world’s digital learners need us all to succeed so they get to read the best humanity has created.
If you are an academic press or commercial publisher and would like to make your collections available through the National Emergency Library or work together to define a values-driven publishing model, please consider the Statement of Cooperation and reach out with additional questions.