“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….
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….
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….”