Today, I want to spotlight the Internet Archive and its fight for the libraries’ right for digital lending, something that is at risk right now. In a nutshell, as the Fight for the Future’s page on the situation says, major publishers don’t allow libraries to purchase permanent digital copies of their books – the given only option being renting the digital copies for high fees, meaning that things like censorship are veritable risks – forcing libraries to instead scan physical books so they can be loaned digitally while the physical copy is kept in storage and the digital copy’s loaning is limited to just one file per book – a practice known as Controlled Digital Lending. The nonprofit Internet Archive and more traditional libraries like the Boston Public Library preserve their books digitally this way. The publishers sued the Internet Archive for doing this and on March 24th, a lower court judge ruled in the publishers’ favor, which puts not just the Internet Archive but libraries like the aforementioned Boston Public Library at risk as well.
For someone with an interest in the history of and preserving digital artifacts like games and websites, Internet Archive is a treasure trove filled with many things that, without the efforts of archivists, would have disappeared forever. I have discussed the importance of IA’s Wayback Machine, which has preserved more of the late website platform Suntuubi’s pages that I used to frequent than I expected, and the importance of backing things up and archiving things. Wayback Machine even saved me and many of my fellow students a lot of headaches and time on a course where exercises – which had to be done to pass the course – involved links that had become nonfunctional. Being able to jump into Wayback Machine to check what those pages said was invaluable.
More recently, as I have sought out and read books for my master’s thesis, IA’s Controlled Digital Lending has been a godsend – at times when crucial sources that I have needed have already been borrowed by someone else from my university’s library, being able to borrow a digital copy from IA for long enough to find, read and reference what I need and then return to book with a click of a button has helped me remain on schedule with my work. It has also saved me from having to risk injury in the slippery, icy conditions or spend an hour of precious working time walking to, in and from the library.
While right now the court ruling affects the USA, the people elsewhere like myself must not leave it ignored because it does not affect our areas, even if we don’t make use of IA’s services. Why? Because it sends a dangerous precedent for publishers and libraries elsewhere in the world. If the libraries’ work of preserving digital books is halted, readers will be reliant on the offerings of those who have something to gain in censoring books in one way or the other. Just days ago, I read an article on HarperCollins censoring the language of new editions of Agatha Christie’s books (the article I read is in Finnish, but here’s a link to an English article on the matter). Mind you, these are not children’s books, meaning that in my opinion there is no valid argument for censoring instead of adding a foreword that discusses the inappropriate language used. Without preserving uncensored copies, a window into the language of the time Christie wrote the books in could be lost at some point. While this case may seem to be of little importance, its surface-level insignificance hides more concerning questions: if something like this gets censored, what’s stopping publishers from doing far more, should they so be persuaded? If digital books are not preserved in a way that keeps them available for the public, what’s stopping publishers from pulling them out of the market at the insistence of book banners? What’s stopping publishers from capitalizing on their monopoly on digital books and disregard the privacy of users, especially those trying to circumvent their area’s censorship?
The answer is: nothing is stopping them. If history is not preserved, its portrayal can be altered until no one knows what actually happened and what is the truth.
That’s why this attack on the libraries’ right for digital lending is so severe in its repercussions.
So, a judge ruled in favor of the publishers. Now what?
The Internet Archive keeps fighting for the libraries’ rights by appealing this judgment. What each and every one of us can do is spread the word and sign the petition on https://www.battleforlibraries.com/. For this purpose, in addition to signing the petition and writing this post, I have changed my profile picture on my most active platforms to help spread the word. If nothing else, I encourage you to share a link to something that discusses this topic, whether it’s this post you’re reading right now, the Internet Archive’s blog post on their fight, Fight for the Future’s petition or anything else that supports #DigitalRightsForLibraries on social media. The more voices speak up, the bigger the effect we’ll make.
Thank you for reading – and keep on reading books.
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