It is a moment for making choices by which we may be measured for decades, or more.
In the face of the coronavirus pandemic that is gripping the world, that has ground the global economy to a stuttering halt with grievous consequences, infected hundreds of thousands at this writing and killed tens of thousands with numbers sure to mount exponentially, what choices will we make, and what values will guide our decisions?
Last week the Internet Archive (IA), a non-profit entity dedicated to “Universal Access to All Knowledge” decided that its answer to this clarion call is to open what it termed a “National Emergency Library.” The service is based on IA’s earlier efforts to offer “controlled digital lending,” the idea that IA loans one digitized version at a time for every print copy it sequesters — a concept based on fair use doctrine, but without legal standing. Through this model, the IA has for some time been offering access to a massive quantity of digitized – including still in-copyright — materials. Now, for the duration of the US national emergency, IA is offering access to its digitized books without any limitations based on sequestered print copies and doing so globally. “It is meant,” the IA has asserted of the National Emergency Library, “to meet a very specific, extraordinary need” as university, school and public libraries around the world have shuttered.
From some quarters, there were huzzahs. In the New Yorker Jill Lepore declared the emergency library “a gift to readers everywhere.” Uncharacteristically breathlessly, Lepore compared the IA’s action to the World War II “Council on Books In Wartime,” which sent books to service members around the world and “created a nation of readers.” NPR lauded the IA for “Lend[ing] A Hand — And Lots Of Books! — During Pandemic.” From these initial reactions, and from the IA’s own materials, the focus is very clearly on access.
The Author’s Guild and the Association of American Publishers see the emergency library differently. “…appalled by the Internet Archive’s (IA) announcement that it is now making millions of in-copyright books freely available online without restriction on its Open Library site under the guise of a National Emergency Library,” the AG argues that the “IA has no rights whatsoever to these books, much less to give them away indiscriminately without consent of the publisher or author.” The statement from AAP’s president and CEO Maria Pallante left no doubt about her organization’s views: “We are stunned by the Internet Archive’s aggressive, unlawful, and opportunistic attack on the rights of authors and publishers in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic.”
Individual authors, librarians, and publishers, on social media and in interviews, expressed skepticism, or anger, or both. Lisa Lucas, Executive Director of the National Book Foundation, tweeted that “this is…not a gift for authors or publishers or indie booksellers many of whom are struggling quite a bit.” Author Alexander Chee tweeted that “As a reminder, there is no author bailout, booksellers bailout, or publisher bailout. The Internet Archive’s “emergency” copyrights grab endangers many already in terrible danger.” John Sherer, Director of the University of North Carolina Press, shared that he had asked the IA to take down UNCP books (disclosure: the Omohundro Institute is a publishing partner with UNCP so this request included our books). “If they had asked,” Sherer noted, “I would have gladly given them permission to open them up for a period of time. Interestingly, their response was not, “great, we’re now asking for your permission.” It was essentially, send us your ISBNs so we can remove them. Makes you think that the hill they’re dying on is not making books open, but on making them open using the method they’ve chosen.” Writer T.J. Stiles echoed Sherer. Having previously asked the IA to withdraw his books from their circulation, “under the cover of the pandemic, it has acted exactly as I feared it would…it is showing exactly why we need to defend copyright even when violators assure us all will be well. This isn’t a slippery slope — it’s a landslide.”
Given the extent of library e-book lending, and the intensive efforts of scholarly publishers to open content through JSTOR and Project MUSE, for example, HathiTrust’s Emergency Temporary Access Service and other initiatives, I wondered whom might this “emergency library” be helping? I asked some local experts, namely my graduate students. These two dozen students, doctoral advisees and students enrolled in my graduate seminar this semester, all find themselves at the mercy of digital content availability. Our university library is doing a terrific job of trying to match faculty and students with resources, but for graduate students in the humanities, the books in a library are, as one colleague put it to me, like milk from the grocery store. You can find substitutes, but they won’t work as well, or at all. If they require a specific book, a related book won’t do. Still, all but a few of the approximately 60 books we are discussing in the seminar are available through our library. A small number of books students needed for research that were not available either through one of the digital collections from our library or via a short view on Google Books were indeed in the IA. Following the IA’s process of creating a login, students reported that they were able to “check out” books that they needed for checking citations, or for background research.
I tried it out myself. A regular user of the IA’s regular business of offering a quite good platform and downloadable PDFs of out of copyright work, I often rely on it for nineteenth-century local histories and genealogies I use in my research. I have relied heavily on the IA’s copies of an indispensable resource, Max Ferrands’s 1911 edition of the Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, a far superior platform than the Library of Congress’s. But the emergency library was a lot clunkier. And it made me wonder just how useful it was going to be. Perhaps we’ll get some numbers? The sign-in is more laborious. To borrow a book you must have an Internet Archive account, and agree to the 2014 terms of service. To download and read on your own screen you must also acquire an Adobe account, and then download Adobe Digital Editions (4.5). In the ritual unhindered by coronavirus, I created a new account at the Internet Archive, having failed to locate a saved password, and, same for my Adobe account, and proceeded to borrow a book for 14 days. It was Robert Gross’s 1976 The Minutemen and their World, a mainstay of undergraduate history education for more than four decades. The platform is awkward, and the reading experience is, to put it mildly, not conducive to intensive reading. Presumably my borrowed copy, via the Adobe platform, will disappear like Cinderella’s pumpkin 13 days hence. I was not overwhelmed. My students’ response to the IA Emergency Library, their expression of relief at having something to tide them over until they could get physical books from our library and through interlibrary loan – the format they consistently prioritize — suggests that the language of an emergency library was effective even if, in practice, it is more of a supplement to other digital resources.
The intense reaction to the IA from authors and publishers — and even some librarians — suggests that the language and the premise of the emergency library rankled them as much as it relieved my students. Mary Dudziak, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Law at Emory University, put her finger on it. Appreciative of how her law students are able to access some books in digital form through IA, she called the emergency library move a “godsend.” But then, having read the IA’s founder Brewster Kahle on “Universal Access to All Knowledge,” she feels less sanguine. In addition to her concerns about the sustainability of knowledge production, especially for nonprofit presses, as a historian of wartime exigencies Dudziak knows very well that action taken in the name of emergency can be opportunistic, and emergencies are rarely finite. She said she is “highly skeptical” that, given Kahle’s expressed commitments, the IA will close its “emergency” library with any alacrity.
What seems most discordant to me is that, if there is a theme to the coronavirus crisis, it is the recognition of integrated social systems. We are more aware of, and more articulate about, our interdependence. The news is more attentive to supply chains and the people who staff them, from food suppliers and retailers, medical providers including hospital janitorial staff, and public school counselors and teachers. It is this human infrastructure that is, as should have been obvious all along, irreplaceable. The dramatic loss of income in the food service, hospitality and travel industries, and the crushing blow to small businesses that make up our communities, from bookstores to nail salons, is flashing red lights around the importance of fair, regular and reliable paid labor for the skills and to the people that make up the fabric of society.
Thus it does seem supremely odd, and quite out of step with the moment, for the Internet Archive to prioritize the needs of readers as if they can be disaggregated from the systems in which reading material is produced. If you think something should be free, you likely don’t have a very good grasp of what it costs to produce — and who needs to be paid in the course of that production. Knowledge is not found under a tree. It is not a natural but a human product, born of labor but also of talent and training. It requires investment, often from individuals, but almost always from organizations.
To isolate readers from the systems of which they are one part is to ignore this interdependence. To elevate the needs of the reader above all others is to dismiss the compensated labor of archivists, authors, compositors, designers, editors, librarians, marketers, metadata creators, and all the other myriad people involved in bringing knowledge into being and into the marketplace. We can be consumers for free, but not compensated producers.
The Internet Archive is not breaking the glass to save anyone but rather seems to be just… breaking glass. It is not meeting the moment of crisis; it is missing the moment to learn and to teach the interdependent production of humanity’s greatest work: collaborative knowledge.