Every book its libraries: or, Taking care in withdrawal

The question of when to withdraw materials from libraries has gotten heightened attention lately.  Everyday readers may not always realize it, but most libraries get rid of books and other materials on a regular basis.  Libraries typically have limited space, but keep acquiring new materials to serve their audience’s needs.   As they acquire new materials, they typically make room by getting rid of materials that no longer serve their audience as well; this is variously known as “withdrawing”, “deaccessioning”, or “weeding”.

Some libraries weed more aggressively than others.  School and public libraries tend to turn over their collections more quickly than academic research libraries.  There’s not much value a middle-schooler can get out of an outdated science book, for instance, compared to a current one.  And a public library user looking for a book on how to use their new Windows 7 computer shouldn’t have to wade through stacks clogged with TRS-80 programming guides and the like.  You can find amusing anecdotes about books that have outlived their usefulness in these kinds of collections in the blog Awful Library Books, one of the blogs on LISNews’ 10 Librarian Blogs to Read in 2010.

Academic libraries typically don’t weed as aggressively.  The larger research libraries aim to have a broad selection of thought on subjects from various points in history, as well as whatever happens to be of current interest.   A book on science that no longer reflects current scientific understanding may still be useful for researchers that want to look at the history of science, or at how science interacted with culture at the time.  Even the peripheral details can be of interest; for instance the photographs in an obsolete computer guide can tell us what what the computers looked like, and how they were expected to be used.  The most interesting aspect of many old periodicals nowadays is often the advertisements, rather than the editorial content.

Especially when they’re digitized, large corpuses can also be of major interest even when the individual items might not be particularly noteworthy.  They can help you track the use and evolution of language, for instance, or quash unwarranted patents.  I’ve talked before about the great potential of Google Books and similarly comprehensive corpuses.

Even so, research libraries still get rid of materials, or move them to offsite warehouses, when space is short.  As more users access materials online instead of print, we often ship out print volumes that have online surrogates.  Recently Ithaka published a report called What To Withdraw that recommends gives guidelines for withdrawing materials that are online in sustainable archives (such as Ithaka’s own JSTOR), and that have a few physical copies in print archives somewhere.  Doing this responsibly may help many research libraries grow their collections, or repurpose their spaces, in useful ways.  Selling particularly valuable items to more appropriate libraries can also help fund additional library acquisition and activity.

Carefully considered, then, withdrawal can greatly benefit libraries and their users.  But libraries need to think not only about their own collection’s purposes, but about the systemic risks of individual library collection decisions.  For instance, many of the “Awful Library Books” justifiably withdrawn from public libraries might still be of historical research interest to someone.  Even if academic research libraries would keep them, many of the books intended for popular or specialized non-academic audiences were not collected by academic libraries in the first place.  If all the public libraries with these books simply throw them out, and no copy gets transferred to a library or archive with a longer-term interest, the materials may disappear forever.

Online access, as an alternative to retaining print copies, may not be as reliable as one expects.  Recently, the archives of many popular magazines that were available through various subscription databases became part of an exclusive deal from one database vendor.  This is likely to raise the costs of access to many libraries, both because they may have to subscribe to a new database to keep providing these magazines, and because the price of the new exclusive bundle is likely to increase.  But even if vendors keep prices reasonable, libraries’ own situations may change.  Here in Pennsylvania, funding to libraries has been cut severely enough that many now have to cancel subscriptions to heavily-used databases. The linked story has a heartbreaking quote from one of the public librarians that’s had to drop their formerly free Power Library subscription: “I got rid of [our old magazines] because everything was in the database.”

How can we insure against these sorts of cultural loss, even as we withdraw items?  A key principle is replication.  In the words of one well-known digital preservation program, “Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe”.  When we consider withdrawing something, we stop to think if some other library or institution might find it of value. If we’re considering dropping print originals for digital surrogates, we check to see if other institutions we trust are keeping the originals safe, or would be willing to do so.  We also make digital copies of print materials that may be at risk, and we try to spread around these copies as widely as practicality and copyright law allows.  And we develop and support efficient inter-library transfer networks so that we can quickly move locally deaccessioned materials to where they’re needed or valued.

Many librarians have a philosophy of public service that draws on Ranganathan’s famous set of Five Laws of Library Science, which includes principles like “every reader his book” and “every book its reader”.   As we try to preserve our broad cultural heritage in the midst of withdrawal, loss, and replication, a related principle, “Every book its libraries”, is a useful one to keep in mind.

[Edited slightly 4:12pm Jan 28, in response to a comment below: deleted struck-through text, and added italicized text]

Public domain day 2010: Drawing up the lines

As we celebrate the beginning of the New Year, we also mark Public Domain Day (a holiday I’ve been regularly celebrating on this blog.)  This is the day when a year’s worth of copyrights expire in many countries around the world, and the works they cover become free for anyone to use and adapt for any purpose.

In many counties, this is a bittersweet time for fans of the public domain.  For instance, this site notes the many authors whose works enter the public domain today in Europe, now that they’ve been dead for at least 70 years.  But for many European countries, this just represents reclaimed ground that had been previously lost.   Europe retroactively extended and revived copyrights from life+50 to life+70 years in 1993, so it’s still three more years before Europe’s public domain is back to what it was then.  Many other countries, including the United States, Australia, Russia, and Mexico, are in the midst of public domain freezes.  For instance, due to a 1998 copyright extension, no copyrights of published works will expire here in the US due to age for another 9 years, at least.

In the past, many people have had only a vague idea of what’s in the public domain and what isn’t.  But thanks to mass book digitization projects, the dividing line is becoming clearer.  Millions of books published before 1923 (the year of the oldest US copyrights) are now digitized, and can be found with a simple Google search and read in full online.  At the same time, millions more digitized books from 1923 and later can also be found with searches, but are not freely readable online.

Many of those works not freely readable online have languished in obscurity for a long time.   Some of them can be shown to be in the public domain after research, and groups like Hathi Trust are starting to clear and rescue many such works.  Some of them are still under copyright, but long out of print, and may have unknown or unreachable rightsholders.  The current debate over Google Books has raised the profile of these  works, so much so that the New York Times cited “orphan books”, a term used to describe such unclearable works, as one of the buzzwords of 2009.

The dividing line between the public domain and the world of copyright could well have been different.   In 1953, for instance, US copyrights ran for a maximum of 56 years, and the last of that year’s copyrights would have expired today, were it not for extensions.  Duke’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain has a page showing what could have been entering the public domain today— everything up to the close of the Korean War.  In contrast, if the current 95-year US terms had been in effect all of last century, the copyrights of 1914 would have only expired today.  Only now would we be able to start freely digitizing the first set of books from the start of World War I.

With the dividing line better known nowadays, do we have hope of protecting the public domain against more expansions of copyright?  Many countries still stick to the life+50 years term of the Berne Convention, including Canada and New Zealand.  In those countries, works from authors who died in 1959 enter the public domain for the first time.  There’s pressure on some of these countries to increase their terms, so far resisted.  Efforts to extend copyrights on sound recordings continues in Europe, and recently succeeded in Argentina.  And secret ACTA treaty negotiations are also aimed at increasing the power of copyright holders over Internet and computer users.

But resistance to these expansions of copyright is on the rise, and public awareness of copyright extensions and their deleterious effects is quite a bit higher now than when Europe and the US extended their copyrights in the 1990s.  And with concerns expressed by a number of parties over a possible Google monopoly on orphan books, one can envision building up a critical mass of interest in freeing more of these books for all to use.

So today I celebrate the incremental expansion of the public domain, and hope to help increase it further. To that end, I have a few gifts of my own.  As in previous years, I’m freeing all the copyrights I control for publications (including public online postings) that are more than 14 years old today, so any such works published in 1995 and before are now dedicated to the public domain.  Unfortunately, I don’t control the copyright of the 1995 paper that is my most widely cited work, but at least there’s an early version openly accessible online.

I can also announce the completion of a full set of digitized active copyright renewal records for drama and works prepared for oral delivery, available from this page.  This should make it easier for people to verify the public domain status of plays, sermons, lectures, radio programs, and similar works from the mid-20th century that to date have not been clearable using online resources.  We’ve also put online many copyright renewal records for images, and hope to have a complete set of active records not too far into 2010.  Among other things, this will help enable the full digitization of book illustrations, newspaper photographs, and other important parts of the historical record that might be otherwise omitted or skipped by some mass digitization projects.

Happy Public Domain Day!  May we have much to enjoy this day, and on many more Public Domain Days to come.

(Edited later in the day January 1 to fix an inaccurately worded sentence.)