In late March, just as the lockdowns started to hit people and businesses across the US, the Internet Archive launched its National Emergency Library to allow online, digital access to some 1.4 million books, for the duration of the crisis.
The idea behind the project was to allow people to immediately check out books that were otherwise physically unavailable to them in libraries (funded by taxpayers) – which were ordered to shut down during the pandemic.
The project helps those who would be deprived of access to physical libraries, not have to go without during lockdowns.
Soon enough though, the project – based on Open Library that saw the Internet Archive collaborate with physical libraries for many years to scan books – provoked critical reactions, including those questioning its very legality.
On May 20, The Authors Guild sent an open letter to the Internet Archive and its founder Brewster Kahle, stating that it spoke on behalf of “6,000 authors, readers and book lovers.”
Even though readers and book lovers are mentioned, the 6,000 figure likely mostly pertains to published authors, who are hardly neutral parties, who feel that libraries should suddenly start asking permission to lend books.
For one thing, the letter argues – without elaborating on this point – this is not really a library. And more importantly, according to The Authors Guild – this library doesn’t pay license fees for psychical and e-books “like a real library does.”
The letter says that the 1.4 books scanned by the Internet Archive are illegal copies, and challenges Kahle’s statement that readers could not otherwise access books during coronavirus shutdowns.
That’s because, the letter continues, physical libraries have acquired (i.e., paid for) licenses to “thousands” of e-books that users have been able to access digitally even though libraries had shut down. (But “thousands” is still less to what those readers seem to be entitled to – and that’s some 1.4 million titles.)
But the Guild’s executive director Mary Rasenberger then goes on a full-on rant, describing the expanded version of Open Library as “no different than a rogue pirate site at a time when scores of authors are losing work and income.” The Author’s Guild is obviously not interested in using this time to build up any good will.
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