The coronavirus pandemic has affected our lives in countless ways. One of its unfortunate effects was the unavoidable closure of public libraries. Many people rely on public libraries for many different things, including free access to books. When public libraries closed, many people lost access to books, especially new books.
In response, the Internet Archive created the National Emergency Library to make digital copies of books more accessible. The Internet Archive's Open Library is a free digital lending library founded in 2006 that provides digital access to the books in its collection. Currently, the Open Library holds about 4 million books, about 1.4 million of which are protected by copyright and subject to lending restrictions. The Open Library only lends digital copies of copyrighted books to one person at a time, as if it were lending the physical copy of the book. The National Emergency Library suspended the waitlist for borrowing digital copies of certain copyrighted books in order to provide access to more people.
The National Emergency Library wasn't a perfect solution to the closure of many public libraries. The Open Library collection is already relatively modest in size when compared to many research libraries, and the National Emergency Library is only a small subset of the entire collection. In order to avoid competing with publishers, the National Emergency Library only included books that were more than 5 years old, which rarely have substantial commercial value. In addition, the formats provided by Open Library are less convenient and accessible than commercial ebooks.
Still, something is better than nothing. More than 100 libraries and archives signed a public statement supporting the National Emergency Library. You would think everyone would applaud the Internet Archive's heroic effort to provide underserved populations with access to information during a national emergency, as an example of a charitable organization doing what charities do best: stepping up to meet a pressing need. You would be so wrong.
Frye, Brian L., "Literary Landlords in Plaguetime" (2021). Law Faculty Scholarly Articles. 730.