With schools and libraries across the United States shuttered, educators and readers alike have turned to online resources to fill gaps. Citing this need, the Internet Archive launched a “National Emergency Library,” stocked with over 1.4 million books now accessible online for free.
As part of the initiative, the nonprofit online archive suspended the waitlists for its lending library, granting immediate access to titles. The program — set to run through June 30 or the end of the national COVID-19 crisis (“whichever is later”) — is open to both the casual reader and the academic.
The library also houses 2.5 million public domain books, which are available for free and fully downloadable. These books will remain accessible at no cost after the “National Emergency Library” concludes its run.
“The library system, because of our national emergency, is coming to aid those that are forced to learn at home, ” said Brewster Kahle, digital librarian of the Internet Archive, in the announcement Tuesday. “This was our dream for the original Internet coming to life: the Library at everyone’s fingertips.”
The program sprung from an outpouring of inquiries into the nonprofit’s capability to meet classroom demands, according to the statement. The archive stated that its decision to lift the waitlist for the lending library ensures the widest possible collection of people can access the resources.
Several individuals, libraries and universities (including Boston Public Library and Massachusetts Institute of Technology) have shown support for the project, though others have expressed early concern about rights.
“In a global pandemic, robust digital lending options are key to a library’s ability to care for staff and the community, by allowing all of us to work remotely and maintain the recommended social distancing,” Chris Bourg, director of MIT Libraries, said.
The collection draws from donations and acquisitions. School libraries, including Phillips Academy Andover and Marygrove College, have contributed a significant amount of titles, which were all scanned and uploaded with original notations from donors.
“We understand that we’re not going to be able to meet everyone’s needs; our collection, at 1.4 million modern books, is a fraction of the size of a large metropolitan library system or a great academic library,” the Internet Archive said, noting the focus of the archive has been on digitizing works published in the 20th century that may otherwise only be accessible by hard copy.
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The announcement of the “National Emergency Library” garnered backlash from members of the literary community, citing copyright issues. On Friday, the Authors Guild released a statement condemning the project.
“[Internet Archive] has no rights whatsoever to these books, much less to give them away indiscriminately without consent of the publisher or author,” the statement read. “We are shocked that the Internet Archive would use the Covid-19 epidemic as an excuse to push copyright law further out to the edges, and in doing so, harm authors, many of whom are already struggling.”
The letter contends that many of the titles included in the “National Emergency Library”‘s offerings fall within copyright restrictions and that making the works available for free without compensating the authors or publishers endangers incomes. The letter goes on to say that the emergency library was founded under a false pretense of student need, stating that students affected by the coronavirus are “indeed facing major challenges during this period, but access to books is not one of them.”
In 2019, the Authors Guild and the United Kingdom’s Society of Authors separately issued open letter complaints against the Internet Archive’s Open Library program, arguing that the organization’s scanning of books and subsequently lending them constituted copyright infringement. The Authors Guild and Society of Authors took aim at the Internet Archive’s Controlled Digital Lending language, which, according to the Author Guild’s letter in 2019, “allows libraries to justify the scanning (or obtaining of scans) of print books and e-lending those digital copies to users without obtaining authorization from the copyright owners.”
The Controlled Digital Lending theory operates under certain restrictions, such as lending only one copy of a work for a limited amount of time. In the frequently asked questions section of the “National Emergency Library,” the organization notes that the new iteration of the library is not operating under these guidelines.
“This library is being mobilized in response to a global pandemic and U.S. national emergency,” the page states. “It shares aspects of controlled digital lending by controlling the physical book that was scanned and the redistribution of files through digital rights management software, but differs by having no waitlists for users borrowing books. Once the U.S. national emergency is over and waitlists are back to their normal capacity, the service will return to full controlled digital lending.”
The page also explained that authors who want their books to be removed from the “National Emergency Archive” can do so by emailing a URL for the book to email@example.com with “National Emergency Library Removal Request” in the subject line.
This article was updated to include a statement from the Authors Guild and clarification on copyright concerns.