From Brewster Kahle—I Set Out to Build the Next Library of Alexandria. Now I Wonder: Will There Be Libraries in 25 Years?

Editorial note: This op-ed first ran in Time Magazine in 2021. We are reposting it here with permission as we head into oral argument for our appeal in the publishers’ lawsuit against our library, scheduled for next Friday, June 28, 2024.

When I started the Internet Archive 25 years ago, I focused our non-profit library on digital collections: preserving web pages, archiving television news, and digitizing books. The Internet Archive was seen as innovative and unusual. Now all libraries are increasingly electronic, and necessarily so. To fight disinformation, to serve readers during the pandemic, and to be relevant to 21st-century learners, libraries must become digital.

But just as the Web increased people’s access to information exponentially, an opposite trend has evolved. Global media corporations—emboldened by the expansive copyright laws they helped craft and the emerging technology that reaches right into our reading devices—are exerting absolute control over digital information. These two conflicting forces—towards unfettered availability and completely walled access to information—have defined the last 25 years of the Internet. How we handle this ongoing clash will define our civic discourse in the next 25 years. If we fail to forge the right path, publishers’ business models could eliminate one of the great tools for democratizing society: our independent libraries.

These are not small mom-and-pop publishers: a handful of publishers dominate all books sales and distribution including trade books, ebooks, and text books. Right now, these corporate publishers are squeezing libraries in ways that may render it impossible for any library to own digital texts in five years, let alone 25. Soon, librarians will be reduced to customer service reps for a Netflix-like rental catalog of bestsellers. If that comes to pass, you might as well replace your library card with a credit card. That’s what these billion-dollar-publishers are pushing.

The libraries I grew up with would buy books, preserve them, and lend them for free to their patrons. If my library did not have a particular book, then it would borrow a copy from another library for me. In the shift from print to digital, many commercial publishers are declaring each of these activities illegal: they refuse libraries the right to buy ebooks, preserve ebooks, or lend ebooks. They demand that libraries license ebooks for a limited time or for limited uses at exorbitant prices, and some publishers refuse to license audiobooks or ebooks to libraries at all, making those digital works unavailable to hundreds of millions of library patrons.

Although we’re best known for the Wayback Machine, a historical archive of the World Wide Web, the Internet Archive also buys ebooks from the few independent publishers that will sell, really sell, ebooks to us. With these ebooks, we lend them to one reader at a time, protected with the same technologies that publishers use to protect their ebooks. The Internet Archive also digitizes print books that were purchased or donated. Similarly, we lend them to one reader at a time, following a practice employed by hundreds of libraries over the last decade called “controlled digital lending.”

Last year,* four of the biggest commercial publishers in the world sued the Internet Archive to stop this longstanding library practice of controlled lending of scanned books. The publishers filed their lawsuit early in the pandemic, when public and school libraries were closed. In March 2020, more than one hundred shuttered libraries signed a statement of support asking that the Internet Archive do something to meet the extraordinary circumstances of the moment. We responded as any library would: making our digitized books available, without waitlists, to help teachers, parents, and students stranded without books. This emergency measure ended two weeks before the intended 14-week period.

The lawsuit demands that the Internet Archive destroy 1.4 million digitized books, books we legally acquired and scanned in cooperation with dozens of library partners. If the publishers win this lawsuit, then every instance of online reading would require the permission and license of a publisher. It would give publishers unprecedented control over what we can read and when, as well as troves of data about our reading habits.

Publishers’ bullying tactics have stirred lawmakers in Maryland, New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island to draft laws requiring that publishers treat libraries fairly. Maryland’s legislature passed the law unanimously. In those states, if an ebook is licensed to consumers, publishers will be required by law to license it to libraries on reasonable terms. But lobbyists for the publishing industry claim even these laws are unconstitutional. This is a dangerous state of affairs. Libraries should be free to buy, preserve, and lend all books regardless of the format.

Suing libraries is not a new tactic for these billion-dollar corporations and their surrogates: Georgia State University’s law library battled a copyright lawsuit for 12 years; HathiTrust Digital Library battled the Author’s Guild for five years. In each case, the library organization won, but it took millions of dollars that libraries can ill-afford.

Libraries spend billions of dollars on publishers’ products, supporting authors, illustrators, and designers. If libraries become mere customer service departments for publisher’s pre-packaged product lines, the role that librarians play in highlighting marginalized voices, providing information to the disadvantaged, and preserving cultural memory independent of those in power will be lost.

As we shift from print to digital, we can and must support institutions and practices that were refined over hundreds of years starting with selling ebooks to readers and libraries.

So if we all handle this next phase of the Internet well, I believe the answer is, yes, there will be libraries in 25 years, many libraries—and many publishers, many booksellers, millions of compensated authors, and a society in which everyone will read good books.

*Editorial note: This op-ed was first published in 2021.

6 thoughts on “From Brewster Kahle—I Set Out to Build the Next Library of Alexandria. Now I Wonder: Will There Be Libraries in 25 Years?

  1. Kelsey

    To Mr. Kahle: I certainly hope that libraries can still exist in some way in the future.
    What you’ve made has touched the hearts, minds and souls of dozens of millions of people.
    There are so many people that love your work through your brain child and many people will support you.
    And if i must be the first one to say it on this blog post then so be it: #longlivetheinternetarchive.

    May your reign be eternal and all the opportunities and gifts you’ve given us live forever in our hearts.
    So please, stay determined and keep doing your best everyday and night, once more: #longlivetheinternetarchive.

  2. David Sterkenburg

    I noticed this too. Nore and more scanned books and manuscripts from pre-1800 (so no copyright) are now behind paywalls where before they were freely available. It’s a sad state of affairs and governments should step in to protect our free access to our shared heritage.

  3. Robin

    The Internet Archive allows me to enjoy novels from the ’80s and ’90s. I even read some young adult books from those years. (Try re-reading some books as an adult. You might notice interesting points that you missed when you were younger, or have a whole new perspective on a story.) I think modern novels are too fast-paced, “moody”, crammed with too many twists, and lack detail.

    Resources like this should be available for everyone.

  4. Kelsey

    To Mr Kahle, I hope you and everyone else does your best all the time.
    Please promise me that you and your team will do your best regardless of whatever situation comes your way, there are countless people who love and support you, good luck and remember everyone who loves you all.

  5. Gökhan Ersan

    Dear Mr Kahle, my students flourished thanks to the access provided my the Internet Archive to a wealth of knowledge. I want the publishers to understand this : many of my students were seduced by the books they were exposed to them by the archive, and became book buyers for the first time. Dear Hachette, the internet archive is not stealing from you, it is exposing these books to new generations, many of them would never even think about, It is making book buyers out of former internet scrollers. Same goes for me. I just perused a book on proverbs that I was on the fence of buying. After perusing, I was satisfied enough to order a copy from Amazon.

  6. todd

    I’m leary for the future of free academic access as its almost terrifying what might be in store…. as one who was relegated to special ed… Its clear to me from a young age that there are those that get the ladders and those that get the snakes… This said I’m glad to have found IA for its a college and we can learn at our own speed… I personally like the books and oldtime radio for hockey as its been my passion all my life and I never was a part of a team so here I think there is potential to join the team and enjoy what i couldn’t as a child in stress… So IA is a blessing and I wish I wasn’t poor so I could donate… I’d like to read for audio books as the reader in IA is too much of an android so its stop and go as we go along. So I end up reading but would rather lay back and hear and put the visions in my head and not have to deal with the monitor… Books are always better to read than the monitor maybe its eye fatigue… so its not enjoyable, But if it’s a movie i’m happy… I think the aging members would surly appreciate the human tone with an audiobook…so I’ll look into this cause i like to help them special people because I know how they would appreciate the effort. As I would.

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