At a time when every day can feel like a month, it’s hard to believe that the National Emergency Library has only existed for two weeks. Recognizing the unique challenges of connecting students and readers with books now on shelves they cannot reach, the Internet Archive loosened the restrictions on our controlled digital lending library to allow increased lending of materials. Reactions have been passionate, to say the least—elation by teachers able to access our virtual stacks, concern by authors about the program’s impact, and fundamental questions about our role as a library in these dire times when one billion students worldwide are cut off from their classrooms and libraries.
For those of you who are being introduced to us for the first time due to the National Emergency Library: Welcome! The doors of the Internet Archive have been open for nearly 25 years and we’ve served hundreds of millions of visitors—we’ve always got room to welcome one more. And for those of you who have tracked our evolution through the years, we know you have questions.
When we turned off waitlists for our lending library on March 24th, it was in response to messages and requests we’d been getting from many sources—librarians who were closing their doors in response to lockdowns, school teachers who were concerned their students could no longer do research and discovery through the primary sources they had on campus, and organizations we respected who knew we had the capability to fill an unexpected gap. A need that we knew we could provide quickly in response.
We moved in “Internet Time” and the speed and swiftness of our solution surprised some and caught others off guard. In our rush to help we didn’t engage with the creator community and the ecosystem in which their works are made and published. We hear your concerns and we’ve taken action: the Internet Archive has added staff to our Patron Services team and we are responding quickly to the incoming requests to take books out of the National Emergency Library. While we can’t go back in time, we can move forward with more information and insight based on data the National Emergency Library has generated thus far.
The Internet Archive takes reader privacy seriously, so we don’t have specific analytics or logs to share (we took the government to court to assure we didn’t have to do that,) but we do have some general information that may be of use to authors, publishers and readers about the ways patrons are using the National Emergency Library. We will be sharing more in the coming weeks of this crisis.
Majority of books are borrowed for less than 30 minutes
Even with a preview function where readers can see the first few pages of a book, most people who go through the check out process are looking at the book for less than 30 minutes, with no more interactions until it is automatically returned two weeks later. We suspect that fewer than 10% of books borrowed are actually opened again after the first day (but we have more work to do to confirm this). Patrons may be using the checked-out book for fact checking or research, but we suspect a large number of people are browsing the book in a way similar to browsing library shelves.
The total number of books that are checked out and read is about the number of books borrowed from a town library
Trying to compare a physical check-out of a book with a digital check-out is difficult. Assuming that the number of physical books borrowed from a library corresponds to digitally borrowed books that are read after the first day, then the Internet Archive currently lends about as many as a US library that serves a population of about 30,000.
Our usage pattern may be more like a serendipitous walk through a bookstore or the library stacks. In the real world, a patron takes a book off the shelf, flips through to see if it’s of interest, and then either selects the book or puts it back on the shelf. However, in our virtual library, to flip fully through the book you have to borrow it. The large number of books that have no activity beyond the first few minutes of interaction suggest patrons are using our service to browse books.
90% of the books borrowed were published more than 10 years ago, two-thirds were published during the 20th century
The books in the National Emergency Library were published between 1925 and 5 years ago, because books older than that are in the public domain—out of copyright and fully downloadable. Books newer than 5 years are not in the National Emergency Library. Unlike the age of most books in bookstores, the books readers are borrowing are older books, with 10% being from the last 10 years. Two-thirds of these books were published during the 20th century.
And when people find what they need, it solves a problem, such as this subject librarian who found a book published in 1975:
I just found a book that student was looking, for as an ebook on the National Emergency Library ‘Indeginous African Architecture’ https://t.co/Hina7QqvuG#architecture @UniLincolnArts pic.twitter.com/9p8KjGBoMK— Oonagh🧜♀️ (@GCWOonagh) April 6, 2020
A bit of Fun: Some of the least common subject catagories of borrowed books
These subject tags come from library catalog records and other annotations by organizations such as ISKME has done with the Universal School Library collection, assigned to aid search and discovery of resources for educators.
- Cookery (Oysters)
- Oysters — New York (State) — New York.
- Counterrevolutions — Cuba — History — 20th century
- Biological warfare — United States
- Korean War, 1950-1953 — Biological warfare
- Religion — Controversial literature
- Mental illness — In adolescence
- Tohono O’Odham Indians — Folklore
- Pima Indians — Folklore
- Saratoga Campaign, N.Y., 1777
- Job analysis
- Bible. English Revised – Texts
- Missing women
- Amnell, Kahlen (Fictitious character)
- Women amnesiacs
We’ll continue to glean and share what we can as this project continues and we hope that the needs that gave rise to the National Emergency Library come to an end soon.