Digital Preservation, Banned Books, and Controlled Digital Lending

Posted March 16, 2022
Photo by Freddy Kearney on Unsplash

Authors Alliance thanks our research assistant, Derek Chipman, for his contributions to this post.

Recently, it was revealed that a school board in Tennessee had banned the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus, a work about the Holocaust, from being studied in the district. The news was met with outcry by many in the knowledge ecosystem and education communities, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, interest in the book soared in a version of the phenomenon known as the Streisand effect. Some readers interested in Maus accessed the work using the Internet Archive’s controlled digital lending platform. Then, the work’s publisher’s asked the Internet Archive to remove Maus from digital circulation, apparently motivated at least in part by a desire to maximize profits. Libraries are essential for preserving our cultural heritage and vital to the preserving right to read, and digital libraries are no exception. Limiting access to knowledge by removing books from library shelves spurs every-day people into action, including high school students. This shows preserving the right to read, including the right to read works that have been banned from some uses, is an issue near and dear to the hearts of many. So why then have efforts to preserve banned books in digital libraries been met with resistance?

Digital libraries like the Internet Archive preserve and loan works, including banned books, via controlled digital lending, or CDL: a program by which physical books are purchased and scanned, whereupon the scan is available to borrow in place of the physical book. CDL loans come with strict time limits, just like traditional print lending, and a library is only permitted to loan out the number of digital copies matching the number of physical copies in its collection (known as the “owned-to-loaned” ratio). CDL is considered to be a fair use within many library communities, and it is an increasingly common practice for libraries. But publishers have taken aim at CDL in recent years, issuing statements against CDL and initiating a lawsuit against the Internet Archive opposing the practice.

It is important to note that the Internet Archive’s CDL program allows a rightsholder to opt out and request that their work not be made available via CDL, regardless of the motivation for doing so. While the Internet Archive understood the publisher’s motivation to be a desire to profit from Maus‘s renowned popularity, the publisher argued that its request was based on the author not authorizing digital editions of the work in the first place. Regardless, these issues shows that CDL is not a perfect tool for ensuring access to banned books. Still, efforts to preserve books in digital libraries when they are banned, and make them available to borrow via CDL where possible, as the Internet Archive did here, are commendable, and these efforts help keep culture and knowledge from disappearing into obscurity.

In general, digital libraries and controlled digital lending present exciting opportunities for authors who wish to see their works be read by the broadest possible audiences. The internet has been a vital tool that has allowed readers globally to evade censors and access knowledge freely, and digital libraries provide an important means of achieving this. However, the digital age also comes with unique challenges. If digital libraries were to cease operations, certain “born digital” works could be lost forever in a handful of years due to internet decay and format obsolescence, in what some digital preservationists call a “digital dark age.” As history has shown, industry efforts at self-preservation can be disastrous, with movies being forever lost to history in the 1937 Fox Fire and 1967 MGM Fire or music recordings lost forever in the more recent 2008 Universal Fire. Storing everything in one physical vault can lead to catastrophic loss and to adequately preserve our culture and allow for equitable access, and consequently, we should be encouraging the growth of digital libraries and their efforts at preservation.