What Do Libraries Have To Do With Building a Better Internet?

When thinking about how to build a better internet—one that is focused on the public interest and promoting meaningful participation for everyone—libraries are key players. And to fulfill that role, libraries need to have policies that allow them to thrive online. 

Just how to achieve that was the focus of a webinar sponsored by the Internet Archive and the Movement for a Better Internet on December 8, moderated by Chris Lewis, president and CEO of Public Knowledge. 

Watch session recording:

At the event, library and internet policy experts discussed the recently released report, “Securing Digital Rights for Libraries: Towards an Affirmative Policy Agenda for a Better Internet.” Lila Bailey, senior policy counsel at the Internet Archive, and Michael Menna, policy fellow at the Internet Archive from Stanford University, coauthored the paper after consulting with thought leaders from libraries, academia, and civil society organizations.

“Libraries and the internet are both all about access and culture,” Bailey said. “They serve as democratizing forces in society, getting information to people and promoting robust and diverse participation in society.”

But libraries enjoy far higher societal trust in terms of providing access to reliable information, and the internet—and all who use it—could benefit from updated policies that support libraries operating more effectively in the digital space. Bailey said the library community and digital rights groups are worried about mandatory filtering proposals and publisher tactics that limit access to digital materials and lawful library functions like lending. “The seismic shift in the ecosystem is that publishers don’t sell ebooks to libraries, they only rent them on limited terms,” Bailey added.

To address these challenges, the report concludes that libraries must maintain four rights: to collect digital materials, preserve them over time, lend them to users, and cooperate with other libraries to share digital materials through standard library practices. Learn more about the report & findings in our previous post.

“The rights that libraries have always enjoyed offline, which align with the functions that they have played, need to be translated, protected, and clearly delineated online,” Bailey said.

Here’s how you can help libraries build a better information ecosystem in the 21st century:

  1. READ & SHARE the report, “Securing Digital Rights for Libraries: Towards an Affirmative Policy Agenda for a Better Internet.”
  2. JOIN the Movement for a Better Internet.
  3. SIGN UP for the Library Week of Action in 2023.

Katherine Klosek, director of information policy for the Association of Research Libraries, said the library community is deeply concerned about the potential impact of mandatory filtering on removal of content, censoring, and erosion of fair use. There is clear alignment with the new report and the ARL advocacy agenda, particularly in regard to copyright, said Klosek, highlighting her association’s Know Your Copyrights resource for library leaders.

“A lot of the challenges that libraries and cultural heritage institutions face today is due to the fact that copyright laws haven’t kept pace with the evolution of how people like to share on the internet,” said panelist Brigitte Vézina of Creative Commons. “They’re outdated. They’re unfit for the internet and sometimes they are just unclear.”

If copyright laws are not balanced and don’t contain enough exceptions, the repercussions go beyond the walls of the library, Vézina said. Limiting educational use of content impacts the public’s ability to access their fundamental right to cultural heritage, partake in creative endeavors, and infringes free expression. Indeed, solving the world’s biggest problems such as climate change and health issues, requires access to knowledge and fostering collaboration, Vézina added. Equitable access is key to ensuring that everyone can participate in solving these grand challenges.

As to how library rights affect the rights of authors and creators, the panelists were clear that balance was needed. “Author rights and library rights are not oppositional…they have worked together for centuries,” Bailey said. Libraries buy books, whether they are popular or not, which supports authors and allows future authors access to the resources they need to become readers and then writers. The key is finding compensation strategies and policies that actually benefit artists, rather than just enriching the platforms that control access.

“Building a better internet that is focused on public interest values is going to require making sure libraries function and thrive online,” said Bailey. To move the positive rights agenda for libraries forward, Bailey encouraged anyone interested to download, read and share the free, openly-licensed report here; get involved in the  Library Week of Action planned in early 2023 and join the Movement for a Better Internet.