Digital ILL and the Open Library

Today the New York Times has a story (“Libraries Shun Deals to Place Books on Web“) reviewing the various positions that libraries hold on the digitization of their collections. The story, in part, was occasioned by a recent convening of the Open Content Alliance (OCA), an initiative launched in 2005 by Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive. The NYT article canvassed the diversity of opinions, but its most important notice was left dangling unadorned at the end of the article, without commentary or discussion.

On Wednesday the Internet Archive announced, together with the Boston Public Library and the library of the Marine Biological Laboratory and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, that it would start scanning out-of-print but in-copyright works to be distributed through a digital interlibrary loan system.

The article’s construction is unfortunate, because this service — digital ILL — against this particular body of content (out-of-print works) is a noteworthy announcement.

This interesting initiative is organized as part of the OpenLibrary effort. Quoting from the OCA’s press release at length:

Our libraries hold in-print, out-of-print, and out-of-copyright books. Open Content Alliance libraries are scanning out-of-copyright works while in-print books are starting to be made available from publishers’ websites and retailers. But to build a complete library we need the out-of-print works which may represent as much as 50% of our library collections.

Today we are announcing that several libraries will work together to scan out-of-print books and offer these to users through the interlibrary loan system. We believe this can be a tremendously valuable way to increase scholarly and public access to hard-to-find resources.

Out-of-print books can represent huge portions of library collections. Bernard Margolis of the Boston Public Library estimates that several million of the eight million volumes in the BPL collection are out of print. By scanning these volumes, libraries will be better able to fulfill their mission of providing access to scholars and the public. For every librarian who has received a request for a book that is out-of-print (as opposed to out-of-stock), this initiative will provide a mechanism to meet the library patron’s needs.

In the coming year, the Boston Public Library, the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Universidad Francisco Marroquin of Guatemala, and the Internet Archive are pioneering a digital interlibrary loan service around out-of-print books.

This is noteworthy — it proclaims library rights to engage in the restricted distribution of a digital facsimile of an analog copy of out-of-print (and potentially in-copyright) works, using inter-library loan terms as the foundation, recast with appropriate protections. IANAL, but this could be reasonably understood to be a re-assertion of inter-library loan rights under the first-sale doctrine.

This uniquely defined service allows us to add these volumes under restrained but eminently useful terms to the steadily growing corpus of volumes published between 1923 and 1963 whose copyright was never re-registered, and therefore in the public domain, for which we can provide full access. Strategies such as digital ILL help unlock our past, providing us with more complete access across the greatest range of information.

The OpenLibrary will have to engineer technical and policy systems which acceptably minimize risk of digital abuse; e.g., a watermarking system on the distributed copy with the borrower’s name and due date. Pragmatic Programmers has done this for the PDF books that can be purchased from their website. Obviously, watermarking could be circumvented with modest effort, but by definition, any DRM – including far less human-friendly instantiations — can be subverted unless it operates within a formally-defined closed system, something that is extremely difficult to engineer.

For the great mass of extremely valuable out-of-print works to be brought to light and enter circulation, it is urgent that we explore as many models as possible, as quickly as possible. Brewster Kahle is right: through such efforts, we can build a publicly accessible digital library that anyone can enjoy, with books from any available source.