Like every other major institution operating during the coronavirus pandemic, research libraries are confronting sudden and radical shifts in their daily realities. Foremost among these challenges is the near-total loss of access to paper books and other physical library holdings. As of today, nearly every ARL member in the United States and Canada has closed its brick-and-mortar facilities and discontinued or severely limited access to print collections. The same is true for most other types of libraries—both local public libraries and school libraries are widely shut down. This emergency is truly unprecedented in modern times, even during times of war.
In response to unprecedented exigencies, more systemic solutions may be necessary and fully justifiable under fair use and fair dealing. This includes variants of controlled digital lending (CDL), in which books are scanned and lent in digital form, preserving the same one-to-one scarcity and time limits that would apply to lending their physical copies.
Whether or not one believes that the National Emergency Library falls within the scope of fair use, the underlying need and urgency is undeniable. Many individual librarians have endorsed the National Emergency Library (NEL) on this basis. The major lobbying groups for authors and publishers have expressed “outrage” at the initiative, though some individual authors have been much more charitable. In reacting to either the NEL or any other adaptive measures, we hope that copyright owners will take a full and public-spirited view of the current crisis. The pandemic has not suspended copyright law or contracts, but our collective focus should remain on finding solutions to the most urgent practical challenges, so that we may sustain teaching, learning, and scholarship in these uncertain times.
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