The National Emergency Library is closing, and the lawsuit behind the closure may be affecting all digital lending libraries.
In March of 2020 The Internet Archive, the organization behind websites like The Wayback Machine decided to launch the temporary National Emergency Library. The Internet Archive has claimed that the National Emergency Library was intended to help those who couldn't get access to library books during the current pandemic.
Normally, digital libraries work under a system of digital lending that is more or less analogous to physical lending. If a library owns a single copy of a book, it can be either loaned out physically or loaned our digitally. But not both.
Technically, any digitally copied book could be lent out, or given away for that matter, an unlimited number of times. There is no marginal cost to producing and distributing digital copies of a book beyond the bandwidth to transfer them. And the National Emergency Library loans out its books in unlimited numbers.
This may have been an overreach by The Internet Archive, though, because in early June, four commercial public publishers launched a lawsuit against The internet Archive, and possibly the entire idea of digital libraries. The Internet Archive claims that the complaint attacks the entire concept of a library owning and lending digitally.
The use of the phrase 'unrestricted' is a somewhat misleading description of what The Internet Archive is doing. The reference is to how many people can borrow the book at once, rather than the book being given as a restriction-free copy forever. Books loaned out by The Internet Archive are limited in duration to two weeks and digitally restricted to one user. But it is true that an unlimited number of people could check it out at once, and that is what the publishers are attacking.
Hopefully, the two sides can back down from an actual court case that might affect other digital libraries, and digital lending in general. The Internet Archive National Emergency Library may have a defense, though, in that this is a temporary and exigent circumstance. And some have argued that it is also fair use. Regardless, The Internet Archive is shutting down National Emergency Library on June 14th, ostensibly in hopes that the publishers will stop their action.
The idea of digital lending is a valuable one, in that vast swaths of the country are not within close range of a physical Library but do have internet access. Further, The Internet Archive has access to over a million books, whereas many local libraries have nowhere near this. Combine that with the transportation, and the potential loss, and other difficulties moving physical copies of a limited number of books around, and you can see that The Internet Archive is clearly providing a public service.
It is understandable, on the other hand, that publishers would be threatened by what they call 'unrestricted' lending of their books, and based on the trends in publishing they do need to protect the markets that they have left. But in this case it seems but in the end both sides ought to be able to take a step back and stop, rather than needing to find a resolution in the courts.
Based on The Internet Archive's records of how their books have been used during this period, they claim that the vast majority of the use in the National Emergency Library could continue in the same manner, even with more restrictive rules and individual checkouts. They will be following the same short-term lending model that the nonprofit HathiTrust Digital Library has been using already.
Other Online Lending Libraries
HathiTrust Digital Library
The HathiTrust Digital Library has the goal of preserving access to the over 17 million digitized titles in their collection. They offer the ability to read and borrow these works "to the fullest extent allowable by U.S. copyright law". Some features do require institutional access, but you can sign up for a free guest account as a private person as well.
The Open Library
The Open Library is The Internet Archive's normal lending operation. "The Internet Archive and participating libraries have selected digitized books from their collections that are available to be borrowed by one patron at a time from anywhere in the world for free." This is the same stance that the National Emergency Library is returning to now.
The OverDrive eBook Library is part of Rakuten. They are committed to sharing "the industry’s largest catalog of ebooks, audiobooks and other digital media to a growing network of 45,000 libraries and schools in 78 countries." All you need to participate is a library card and a device that can run their Libby app.
Kindle Owners' Lending Library
The Amazon Kindle Owners' Lending Library is a purely commercial endeavor, unlike the others in this list. But if you are already an Amazon Prime member, as many are, there are thousands of books available to read. In the search, there is a check box to limit to results to eligible books. It can be somewhat confusing, but the check box is not 'Kindle Unlimited' but rather 'Prime Reading'.