Today I want to talk about one of the greatest services academic libraries offer to scholars, one that is absolutely essential for any sort of advanced scholarship, and one that is facing the biggest obstacle of its 140-or-so-year-old existence. I’m talking about interlibrary loan (ILL) and the threat it faces from ebooks.
In the very first issue of Library Journal in 1876, Samuel Swett Green, the director of the Free Public Library in Worcester, MA, made an innovative proposal for American libraries. “It would add greatly to the usefulness of our reference libraries if an agreement should be made to lend books to each other for short periods of time.” Green was concerned with public libraries, and public libraries do participate in ILL arrangements. But I think it’s fair to say that, over the past few decades, academic libraries have come close to perfecting ILL, to the point where almost anyone affiliated with an academic library can secure a copy of almost anything that’s been published and made available in even just a handful of libraries.
Ebooks, and the digital rights that make what should be a great advancement into a tedious exercise, have the potential to destroy ILL for books. Librarians are certainly aware of this, and 66 library directors in the Oberlin Group, a consortium of liberal arts colleges, have signed a letter suggesting “that libraries and presses work together to make material available to all who need it—to use digital technology cooperatively to promote rather than constrain the dissemination of scholarship.” They make what they hope is a good faith proposition that benefits both libraries and publishers: “We affirm libraries’ obligation to buy books central to their institution’s curriculum and research. And we oppose piracy and illegal file sharing in all forms. We expect in return that publishers work with us to realize our shared mission: making good scholarly literature available to everybody who needs it.”
Surprisingly enough, the news is reaching the general public as well. Spiegel Online International just published a call for copyright change that would allow the digital lending of ebooks between libraries. That article shows how we’ve gone backward since the advent of ebooks. A 19th-century scholar would have had to travel to a library to access a book. A 20th-century scholar could acquire the book through ILL and not have to travel. But a 21st-century scholar might well have to travel to access a book from a different library if that book was available only as an ebook. A German librarian points out what he calls “digital absurdities” even for borrowing an article: “If, for example, [a scholar] wants to read an essay from an American library via interlibrary loan, ‘they will print it out on paper and send it over by fax—and I will then scan it into our computers here.’ Sending it as an email attachment is forbidden.”
How realistic is it to expect any change in copyright, at least in the United States? Even if we had a functioning Congress, the history of copyright legislation over the past 20 years suggests that the interests of corporate copyright holders trump everything else, in perpetuity. Despite the Constitution’s claim that “the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries” of authors and inventors is secured “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts,” current copyright and patent law actively discourage the progress of science and the useful arts. Why innovate when you can be a patent troll? Why promote the progress of science when you can lobby Congress with lots of money to have your cartoon mouse protected?
As for working with publishers to effect change, that’s a likely possibility only if libraries have something to bargain with, and the only thing libraries have to bargain with is the ebook contracts. The “digital absurdities” involved with lending digital articles through ILL don’t point to much promise with ebooks, but unlike electronic journals, ebooks aren’t yet the only book format in academic libraries. It’s still possible to negotiate good contracts, but libraries have to be willing to forgo them if the terms aren’t sufficiently friendly to ILL. That ebook sales to academic libraries continue to increase without ILL-friendly conditions doesn’t bode well for the future.
The somewhat good news is that some libraries and publishers are making small steps in this direction. For example, a couple of months ago, Springer and the Greater Western Library Alliance (GWLA) announced a new pilot for the consortial lending of ebooks through a tool called Occam’s Reader. With Occam’s Reader, 33 libraries will be able to “lend” Springer ebooks to one another, and the goal is to broaden the use of Occam’s Reader until it becomes a widespread platform for ebook ILL. (The demo at the site seems easy enough to use, although I found the print of the sample article too blurry to read.) It’s not the broad system of ILL we have now, but it’s a start.
Libraries that progress toward an all-ebook future without solving these problems risk destroying the ILL arrangements that benefit all of our users. Those that do so but continue to rely upon ILL for print books also become free-riders on a system that can probably only tolerate so many. I’ve seen it argued that librarians are responsible for purchasing resources for their own users, and they can’t be concerned with the users at other institutions. That’s a shortsighted view that ignores that schemes of cooperation like ILL are necessary for everyone and that contributing to its demise will harm everyone’s users, including your own.
This is a prime example of a problem we still have time to solve if we constantly keep in mind, as GWLA and the Oberlin Group have, that we’re all in this together.