I Set Out to Build the Next Library of Alexandria. Now I Wonder: Will There Be Libraries in 25 Years? 

The Internet Archive was founded 25 years ago. I wanted to focus our non-profit library exclusively on digital collections. I also wanted it to preserve web pages and archive television news. Internet Archive was viewed as unusual and innovative. All libraries have become increasingly digital, which is a good thing. Digital libraries are essential to fight disinformation, serve pandemic readers, and be useful to 21st century learners.

But just as the Web increased people’s access to information exponentially, an opposite trend has evolved. Global media corporations—emboldened by the expansive copyright laws they helped craft and the emerging technology that reaches right into our reading devices—are exerting absolute control over digital information. These two conflicting forces—towards unfettered availability and completely walled access to information—have defined the last 25 years of the Internet. This ongoing conflict will determine the future civic discourse of 25 years from now. If we fail to forge the right path, publishers’ business models could eliminate one of the great tools for democratizing society: our independent libraries.
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These publishers aren’t just small independent publishers. They control almost all aspects of book distribution and sales including ebooks, trade books and text books. These corporate publishers may make it difficult for libraries to have digital texts within five years or even 25 years. In the near future, libraries will become customer service reps in order to rent bestsellers from a Netflix-type rental catalogue. It’s possible to replace your library card and get a new credit card in the event that this happens. That’s what these billion-dollar-publishers are pushing.

My childhood libraries would purchase books and preserve them to lend their patrons. If my library didn’t have the book I needed, it could borrow one from another library. Many commercial publishers have made it illegal to allow libraries to borrow, buy, and preserve ebooks. Libraries are required to licence ebooks only for a short time, or at a very low price. Some publishers also refuse to license audiobooks and ebooks to libraries, rendering them unavailable for hundreds of millions.

Although we’re best known for the Wayback Machine, a historical archive of the World Wide Web, the Internet Archive also buys ebooks from the few independent publishers that will sell, It really does sellWe will give you ebooks. These ebooks can be loaned to readers one at a while, using the same technology that ebook publishers use to protect them. Also, the Internet Archive digitizes printed books donated or purchased. Similarly, we lend them to one reader at a time, following a practice employed by hundreds of libraries over the last decade called “controlled digital lending.”

Four of the largest commercial publishers sued the Internet Archive last year to end a long-standing practice in libraries of controlling the lending of scanned books. They filed the lawsuit before the outbreak of pandemic. This was just after schools and public libraries had closed. Over 100 shuttered libraries submitted a support statement asking for the Internet Archive’s assistance in meeting the exceptional circumstances. Our response was the same as any other library: we made all our digitized books accessible, with no waitlists to assist teachers, parents, students, and others who were left without books. Two weeks prior to the 14-week deadline, this emergency measure was over.

The Internet Archive is required to destroy the 1.4 Million digitized books. We legally acquired these books and had them scanned with our library partners. The lawsuit would mean that every online reading activity will require permission from a publisher if the publishers prevail. This would allow publishers to have unprecedented control over the content we read, and how it is published. It also provides troves of information about our reading habits.

Publishers’ bullying tactics have stirred lawmakers in Maryland, New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island to draft laws requiring that publishers treat libraries fairly. Maryland’s legislature passed the law unanimously. The law states that ebooks are licensed to consumers will require publishers to license them to libraries at reasonable terms. However, lobbyists from the publishing industry say that these laws do not conform to law. It is dangerous to be in this situation. Library owners should have the right to acquire, store, and lend any book regardless of its format.

Suing libraries is not a new tactic for these billion-dollar corporations and their surrogates: Georgia State University’s law library battled a copyright lawsuit for 12 years; HathiTrust Digital Library battled the Author’s Guild for five years. The library won in each instance, although it was expensive, as libraries cannot afford to spend millions on legal representations.

Libraries spend billions of dollars on publishers’ products, supporting authors, illustrators, and designers. If libraries become mere customer service departments for publisher’s pre-packaged product lines, the role that librarians play in highlighting marginalized voices, providing information to the disadvantaged, and preserving cultural memory independent of those in power will be lost.

When we move from printed to digital we must and can support the institutions and practices that have evolved over many centuries, beginning with ebook sales to library readers.

So if we all handle this next phase of the Internet well, I believe the answer is, yes, there will be libraries in 25 years, many libraries—and many publishers, many booksellers, millions of compensated authors, and a society in which everyone will read good books.


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