The books of the 20th century are largely not online. They are mostly not available from even the biggest booksellers. And, libraries who have collected hard copies of these books have not been able to deliver them in a cost-efficient, simple, digital form to their patrons.
The way libraries could fill that gap is to adopt and deliver a controlled digital lending service. The Internet Archive is trying to do its part but needs others to join in.
The Internet Archive has worked with 500 libraries over the last 15 years to digitize 3.5 million books. But based on copyright concerns the selection has often been restricted to pre-1923 books. We need complete libraries and comprehensive access to nurture a well-informed citizenry. The following graph shows the number of books digitized by the Internet Archive, binned by decade:
Up until 1923 the graph shows our collection increasing and mirroring the rise in publications.Then it dips and slows because of concerns and confusion about copyright protections for books published after that date. It picks up again in the 1990s because these books are more readily available and separate funding has helped us digitize some recent modern books Nevertheless, the end result is that the gap is big – the digital world is missing a huge chunk of the 20th Century.
Users can’t even fill that gap by buying the books from that time period. According to a recent paper by Professor Rebecca Giblin, the commercial life of a book is typically exhausted 1.4 to 5 years from publication; some 90% of titles become unavailable in physical form within just two years. Most older books are therefore not available to be purchased in either physical or digital form. The following graph, pulled from a study by Professor Paul Heald, shows books by decade that are available on Amazon.com. It shows that the world’s largest bookseller has the same huge gap – the 20th century is simply missing.
The 20th Century represents a significant portion of published knowledge – approximately one-third of all books – as shown in the graph below. These books are largely unavailable commercially, BUT they are not completely lost. Many of these books are on library shelves, accessible only if you physically visit the library that owns those books. Even if you’re willing to visit, those books might still not be accessible. Libraries, pressed to repurpose their buildings, have increasingly moved volumes to off-site storage facilities.
The way to make 20th Century books available to library patrons is to digitize those books and let every library who owns a physical copy lend that book in digital form. This type of service has come to be known as controlled digital lending (CDL). The Internet Archive has been doing this for years. We lend out-of-copyright and in-copyright volumes that we physically own. We’ve reformatted the physical volume, produced a digital version and lend only that digital version to one user at a time. Our experience shows that this responds to a real demand, fills a genuine need satisfactorily, gives new life to older books, and brings important knowledge to a new audience. Check out this case study for CDL involving the book Wasted which figured prominently in the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination hearings.
Our experience has been replicated by other early adopters and providers of a CDL service. Here’s a list of some of them. We believe every library can transform itself into a digital library. If you own the physical book, you can choose to circulate a digital version instead.
We urge more libraries to join Open Libraries and lend digitized versions of their print collections, making more copies of books available for loan and getting more books into the hands of digital readers everywhere.