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While Library Buildings Are Closed, Collaborative Digital Library Ensures Access to Books for Research, Study

book-scanning machine with open book
photo CC-BY-SA 2.0 by Cory Doctorow

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced closures of college campuses this spring, faculty and students lost access to the printed books and journals in their libraries. Fortunately, a decade-long initiative by research libraries to scan and preserve these materials means many books and journals continue to be available for research and study during this online-only period.

HathiTrust Digital Library, a nonprofit collaborative of academic and research libraries, preserves digitized versions of printed books, journals, and other publications. It provides computational access to all of the scanned materials for scholarly research, as well as offering reading access “to the fullest extent allowable by US copyright law.” Of the 17 million items in the library, about 6.5 million volumes are in the public domain and available to all users in the United States.

On March 31, 2020, the collaborative rolled out an Emergency Temporary Access Service that makes it possible for member library patrons to read digital materials in HathiTrust that correspond to physical materials held by their own library. Students and faculty at participating institutions can log in to HathiTrust Digital Library and check out copyrighted books for online reading through renewable one-hour loans.

“It is an unprecedented moment, and we needed to take this necessary step to help our libraries serve their students and faculty in this crisis,” said Mike Furlough, HathiTrust executive director. “When students can’t go to the library in this pandemic, we need to bring it to them.”

For patrons of the UCLA Library, for example, the emergency service is providing access to the digital versions of more than 5.2 million print volumes.

“As the COVID-19 pandemic disrupts access to our physical books, we are seeing a strong return on donor and campus investments in the Library’s initiative to digitize materials in our print collections,” said Virginia Steel, UCLA’s university librarian. “We have steadily worked over the past decade to be remote-ready, and this includes forming strategic partnerships with organizations such as HathiTrust.”

Housed at the University of Michigan, HathiTrust was formed in 2008 by libraries in the University of California system and the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (now the Big Ten Academic Alliance). Today, its membership includes six consortia and state systems and 164 individual institutions. Ninety Association of Research Libraries (ARL) member libraries have been approved to participate in the temporary access service.

“We entrust our digital books to HathiTrust for times exactly like these, when we need to call upon preservation to provide enduring access,” said Michelle Paolillo, digital lifecycle services manager and HathiTrust coordinator at Cornell University Library. “Our colleagues in HathiTrust dropped everything to provide emergency access within the span of two and a half weeks. The speed with which this new service was developed was phenomenal.”

About the Association of Research Libraries

The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) is a nonprofit organization of 124 research libraries in Canada and the US whose mission is to advance research, learning, and scholarly communication. The Association fosters the open exchange of ideas and expertise, promotes equity and diversity, and pursues advocacy and public policy efforts that reflect the values of the library, scholarly, and higher education communities. ARL forges partnerships and catalyzes the collective efforts of research libraries to enable knowledge creation and to achieve enduring and barrier-free access to information. ARL is on the web at ARL.org.

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