Public and university libraries have paid hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars, to own, catalog, and preserve print books, only now to be rendered utterly incapable of providing access to them. That is a massive waste of public funds and decades of work by librarians.
Start with that Constitutional argument of public investment for the public good, and the protestations of for-profit publishers and the Authors Guild against the National Emergency Library fall flat and ring hollow.
Many national copyright experts and Library Deans have signed off on Controlled Digital Lending as legally sound and solid. Given the current and ongoing unavailability of print books from thousands of university and public libraries, it makes perfect sense why copyright experts such as Kyle Courtney at Harvard are very confident of the National Emergency Library as a legitimate application of Fair Use law.
For those of us who have had the benefit of Kyle’s Copyright First Responders training, we understand how deeply unfortunate and even tragic it is that libraries are paying more and more for us to have less and less digital rights. With print books, libraries retain our full bundle of ownership rights, including fair use applications such as making preservation and replacement copies, lending (physical and digital), etc. But whenever we merely subscribe to digital/electronic resources, we retain a minuscule amount of rights in comparison, rights that are largely dependent on publisher whims in the management of their packages and platforms.
Now publishers are using temporary free access during COVID as an opportunity to hook library users on content that they almost certainly plan to charge us to use at a later date.
What public, university, and even private libraries should be doing at this particular moment in time is entering into complete solidarity with the Internet Archive, its Open Library, and its National Emergency Library.
UCSF, LA Public Library, Boston Public Library and others have shown the way as pioneering Open Library Partners. Now it’s time for the rest of us to step up, not just for the digital availability of our general print collections, but also for the digital accessibility of our print reserve collections which our students—many of whom cannot afford textbook access—need now more than ever.
COVID is not a moment to back down and cower at the power of commercial publishers. This crisis is a unique opportunity to transform the fundamental structures of academic publishing, which is largely public- and grant-funded, to become just, equitable, and open to all.
Libraries hold the physical collections, the rights, the power, the purse-strings, and the bargaining leverage in negotiations with publishers. It’s up to us to make the difference.