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.
We moved up our schedule because, last Monday, four commercial publishers chose to sue Internet Archive during a global pandemic. However, this lawsuit is not just about the temporary National Emergency Library. The complaint attacks the concept of any library owning and lending digital books, challenging the very idea of what a library is in the digital world. This lawsuit stands in contrast to some academic publishers who initially expressed concerns about the NEL, but ultimately decided to work with us to provide access to people cut off from their physical schools and libraries. We hope that similar cooperation is possible here, and the publishers call off their costly assault.
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.
We are now all Internet-bound and flooded with misinformation and disinformation—to fight these we all need access to books more than ever. To get there we need collaboration between libraries, authors, booksellers, and publishers.
Let’s build a digital system that works.