Forging a Cooperative Path Forward: University Presses & the National Emergency Library

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A call for help was sounded when it became clear that libraries were going to close indefinitely worldwide. The International Coalition of Library Consortia warned that the current system most libraries operate under was grossly insufficient to meet the crisis. We were in a unique position to respond and offer emergency relief to teachers and students around the world, so that’s what we did. We opened the National Emergency Library (NEL) on March 24, at a time UNESCO was reporting over 390 million students were being impacted. Today UNESCO reports that over 90% of the world’s student population is affected by school closures.

We were operating on pandemic time, but knew it wasn’t going to be the end of the conversation. Three days after we opened NEL, the Association of Research Libraries again urged publishers to maximize digital access. At this time we were busy providing this access to the best of our ability while beginning to respond to legitimate concerns from non-library stakeholders. We had designed an opt-out system for authors from the beginning, and our next big hurdle turned out to be working with university presses — many of whom we partner with — to address their concerns.

University presses react to NEL

In the hectic times of universities closing, we emailed our university press partners of the upcoming launch of NEL. The weekend after launching the NEL, we got a message from colleagues within the university press community saying some were not pleased with the NEL and the use of their published works within it.  Responding quickly, we held an open community call the following Tuesday to hear from directors and other members of the university press community.

There’s no way around it – it was a tough call. While challenging, it also provided an opportunity for the Internet Archive to clarify why we had released the NEL—namely, to support students and educators with temporary access to a digital library while their schools and libraries are closed and their print collections are unavailable. We believed that NEL was necessary to provide educational access to teachers and students who were not in a position to double buy the books their communities had invested in but could not safely distribute. We have since had numerous teachers reach out to us and confirm that this is the case.

However, that doesn’t mean that other stakeholders do not matter to us. We listened to the concerns, and frankly displeasure, of important members of the university press community. John Sherer, Director of UNC Press, was one of these critics and was unhappy with what he and many within the university press community saw as a unilateral move by the Internet Archive.

But something changed during the community call. In hearing our openness to listen to the community and their concerns, Sherer saw a common path forward. “The goals you had articulated aligned so closely with many of our goals and the sense of mission that drives us at UNC Press. Namely, making high quality scholarship as widely available as possible.”  Never one to rest idly, Sherer seized the moment, calculating that “if you all would consider a methodology I believe to be more equitable…I would pitch you on it and see if we could get to the common goal.”

And pitch he did. Along with Dean Smith, Director of Duke University Press, John drafted a Statement of Cooperation to help put structure around a publisher’s participation in the National Emergency Library. Both presses released blog posts (UNC Press here, Duke University Press here) to help contextualize why they disagreed with the process that the Internet Archive took in launching the NEL, and to describe why they ultimately decided to create the Statement of Cooperation so that they could support the National Emergency Library in a way they felt comfortable.

We appreciate the hard work of these university presses to find solutions to work together to provide students and researchers the resources they need during this difficult time. The statement they drafted is intended to be flexible and reusable. We hope that other publishers and presses will follow suit and sign on.

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