Braille Monitor                                    February 2018

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The Library Leadership Forum: An Introduction to Open Libraries

by Amy Mason and Anna Kresmer

Anna KresmerFrom the Editor: Readers will know this dynamic duo from other articles, the longest and most recent being a fictional visit from the future by a ship of curious aliens happening upon the Jernigan Institute. Their work is stellar, and so too is this article:

The National Federation of the Blind was recently invited to participate in the Library Leaders Forum of 2017, a two-day conference bringing together librarians, lawyers, educators, technical experts in accessibility, and representatives of the print-disabled community, which was hosted by the Internet Archive. The Internet Archive is a San Francisco nonprofit with lofty goals. It is working to create a comprehensive digital library. According to its website, “Our mission is to provide Universal Access to All Knowledge.”i It pursues this ambitious goal by working to preserve the artifacts of multiple spheres of culture in digital form, including software, audio and visual news clips, music, video games, and even the internet itself through the Wayback Machine. In addition to all of this, the Internet Archive has now turned its sights toward the humble print book.

The Internet Archive has a dream. It wishes to ensure that everyone in the United States and the world can access all the paper books in libraries, many of which are out of print. Unfortunately, the vagaries of US copyright law have left a gaping void in the availability of books in digital format which extends through most of the twentieth century. Due to public domain laws, a large portion of the surviving materials published before 1923 have already been digitized, and the majority of books published since the late 1990s have been “born digital,” meaning that they were initially created in an electronic format. However, those books published in the span of years between 1923 and about 1995 are largely unavailable due to copyright concerns, low commercial interest for republication, and outright confusion. Effectively this locks the knowledge they contain between their covers. Many of these books now reside only on the shelves of libraries, and in the current digital-minded world, if something isn’t available online, it is effectively invisible. This is the enormous problem that the Internet Archive wants to solve and the reason for hosting the Library Leaders Forum.

Of course, gaining access to print books has always been of interest to blind people, and the NFB has long been a leader in tackling this challenge. Over the years, the Federation has been instrumental in the work of ensuring access to information in both print and electronic form. Projects in this space have included:

Therefore, it is clear that although the project championed by the Internet Archive may be a new way of looking at the problem, its efforts are an obvious extension of the work the NFB has been doing for decades.

In addition to the Federation’s already lengthy history of work in this area, the NFB has also collaborated with the Internet Archive through our Jacobus tenBroek Library. From 2010 to 2012, the tenBroek Library worked with the Internet Archive to digitize all issues of NFB publications that had previously been unavailable online, as well as a significant portion of our main research library collection. Titles digitized during this project, which were either published by the NFB or were already in the public domain, were made available to all users immediately and can still be accessed in multiple formats including plain text and DAISY. However, about five hundred digitized titles still subject to copyright (or with unclear statuses) were largely kept hidden and only made available to patrons who could prove that they were eligible for an accessible copy through the Chafee Amendment. At the time, the Internet Archive had no system for making copyrighted titles available to patrons. In fact, the mainstream library profession is still working out how best to make digitized library materials available to all users. But today, the work of the Internet Archive has progressed, and solutions that were previously unclear or unattainable are coming to fruition.
The Internet Archive has always been at the forefront of dealing with the issues of digitization, preservation, and information sharing. And the Open Libraries project is both the result of its work so far and the roadmap for the work that still lies ahead. The best description of this potentially world-changing venture comes directly from the Open Libraries website:

“At the Internet Archive, we believe passionately that access to knowledge is a fundamental human right. Knowledge makes us stronger and more resilient; it provides pathways to education and the means to secure a job. But for many learners, distance, time, cost, or disability pose daunting barriers to the information in physical books. By digitizing books, we unlock them for communities with limited or no access, creating a lifeline to trusted information. The Internet Archive’s Open Libraries project will bring four million books online, through purchase or digitization, while honoring the rights of creators and expanding their online reach. Working with US libraries and organizations serving people with print disabilities, Open Libraries can build the online equivalent of a great, modern public library, providing millions of free digital books to billions of people.”ii

To date, Open Libraries has digitized and made available approximately 2.7 million books through its online lending platform. It has seen over 3 million downloads in 2017 alone and has partnered with over 270 libraries around the globe. Even without results like this, no stretch of the imagination is required to understand why the NFB has chosen to participate. President Riccobono himself explains that, “The Internet Archive’s proposal to digitize four million books would constitute the greatest single increase in accessible materials for the blind since the passage of the Pratt-Smoot Act, which created what is now the NLS, in 1931. It would benefit millions of blind people, both in the United States and around the world.”iii

The purpose of the Library Leaders Forum was to gather together the groups who could benefit the most from this endeavor, as well as provide the most support for it. This included early adopters, partners, and stakeholders as diverse as educators, legal and copyright experts, the print disability community, and librarians of all stripes who were tasked with helping to lay the groundwork for the next phase of Open Libraries. Attendees participated in working groups which focused on curation and collection development, legal topics, service plan and sustainability, and, of course, accessibility. The two-day conference stimulated much discussion and enthusiasm among those present, and many, including the NFB, pledged to continue contributing to the working groups going forward. After all, just as the library in Alexandria was not built in a day, Open Libraries will require time to grow into the accessible, comprehensive information resource that we know it can become.

Even so, there are benefits to be enjoyed today. Most excitingly, the tenBroek Library is now a full partner in the Open Libraries lending platform with over 1,000 digitized titles (regardless of copyright status) available for circulation freely to any user who signs up for an Internet Archive account. Further, a large portion of the materials available from Open Libraries, including those pulled from the NFB’s own collection, are available in text DAISY format for use by those with print disabilities. Unfortunately, at present there are some limitations in how these files can be accessed. Titles which are still subject to copyright have been encrypted with the same key used by the NLS. Therefore, users must have a compatible hardware player which is capable of displaying text DAISY content which has been unlocked for use with NLS materials. This has obvious drawbacks, and the NFB is currently working with the Internet Archive to find a solution that protects copyright holders and provides meaningful access to all members of the print-disabled community, not just those with access to the appropriate hardware. We will keep the members of the Federation apprised as this work develops.

In the end, the Library Leaders Forum of 2017 was only one of many milestones in the shared journey of those organizations devoted to ensuring equal access to information. However, we believe we will reach this destination, and the NFB is proud to make this journey together with our partners and friends from the Internet Archive. We look forward to the adventures ahead.

For more information on the NFB titles now available for digital lending, please visit https://archive.org/details/NationalFederationoftheBlind. Titles can also be found by searching in the tenBroek Library’s Blind Cat database at www.nfb.org/theblindcat. If you have any questions or need assistance accessing these books, please send an email to jtblibrary@nfb.org.


i. “About the Internet Archive,” accessed December 6, 2017, https://archive.org/about/.

ii. “Open Libraries: Everyone deserves to learn,” accessed December 6, 2017, http://openlibraries.online/.

iii. “Open Libraries: Accessibility for all,” accessed December 6, 2017, http://openlibraries.online/accessibility/.

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