The Background of Internet Archive’s National Emergency Library; NEL History pt. 1

The Background of Internet Archive’s National Emergency Library; NEL History pt. 1

The National Emergency Library, a chime of hope or a call for chaos?

Yesterday we published a timeline of events pertaining to the Internet Archive’s infamous National Emergency Library project. Today, and over the course of the next few days, we’ll be going over this sequence of events in further detail, in hopes of constructing a resource for any person or party who is trying to wrap their head around the situation.

In order to understand what the National Emergency Library initiative actually is/was, we need to talk a bit about why the idea for something like a national emergency library emerged at all.

Life as we once knew it began to change, back in January. The reasons as to why should be obvious to any reader, but for the sake of future reference it all began with widespread cases of pneumonia being reported in China. The COVID-19 crisis which started as a small outbreak, would over the course of only a couple of months grow into a full pandemic!

Visualization of currently confirmed COVID-19 cases – Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center [1]

Grim as these past days might seem, the silver lining is that the level of international collaboration and co-operation in attempting to mitigate the crisis is monumental. Perhaps never before in human history, have so many people, from all corners of the world, worked as intensely to combat a global disaster.

The Committee welcomed the leadership and political commitment of the very highest levels of Chinese government, their commitment to transparency, and the efforts made to investigate and contain the current outbreak. China quickly identified the virus and shared its sequence, so that other countries could diagnose it quickly and protect themselves, which has resulted in the rapid development of diagnostic tools. 

From the Statement on the second meeting of the International Health Regulations (2005) Emergency Committee regarding the outbreak of novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) [2]

Educational[3][4] and governmental institutions[5][6], and even publishers[7][8] have worked to make resources available and accessible to researchers across the world, and anyone else curious for that matter. The WHO even has a neat web page where they link to a lot of these databases, as well as their own[9].

Although there isn’t yet a readily available vaccine for the disease, the research thus far has already proven imperative in monitoring the disease’s spread and finding solutions to keep it under control.

All this being said, the disease continued to spread… By early March, with over a 100 000 cases across 141 countries, the disease was declared a pandemic by the WHO[10]. Soon after; workplaces, schools, public buildings and places of worship all across the world began to shut to down, in line with social distancing policies.

The sheer scale of precautions taken worldwide was nothing short of astounding, by the end of the month more than one-third of the entire world population was under some form of isolation[11]. Much as researchers had figured out that a transition to online communication was the best option they had, so did the rest of the world who were now unable to leave their houses[12]. The office went virtual and embraced remote working, the classroom embraced distance education. But this transition did not happen overnight!

On March 13, only a few days after the WHO’s statement, a National Emergency was declared in the US[13]. Though some schools had already started closing down, following this emergency declaration, states began ordering schools to close which led to the rapid closing (of the facilities) of thousands of schools across the country[14]. Of course, this meant that if these schools were to continue their education, with limited or no access to their facilities, they would need the proper resources[15].

Another proclamation which was made precisely on March 13, was a unanimously authored public statement by librarians and copyright specialists across the US. This announcement to raise public awareness, was meant to clarify what rights educators and students may exercize during emergency remote teaching and research[16].

The United States is in a time of crisis. As of this writing, more than 200 universities and colleges have moved to remote teaching. These moves aim to promote public health by slowing the spread of the disease, while maintaining at least some of the important functions higher education plays in teaching, learning, and research. We have heard concerns that copyright may pose impediments to a rapid shift to remote instruction, or conversely, that copyright is not relevant. While legal obligations do not automatically dissolve in the face of a public health crisis, U.S. copyright law is, thankfully, well equipped to provide the flexibility necessary for the vast majority of remote learning needed at this time.

Excerpt from the Public Statement of Library Copyright Specialists: Fair Use & Emergency Remote Teaching & Research [16]

The significance of this public statement might not be immediately evident, but it is important to note that chronically it occurred right here, on March 13, and would serve as a foundation for a number of projects in the coming weeks, including the Internet Archive’s National Emergency Library initiative.

Some of our readers might be wondering who or what the Internet Archive is anyway. It’s all in the name, the Internet Archive originally started as a non-profit archive of the internet, way back in 1996[17]. Starting with websites, over time the IA has branched off into different forms of media; including old software, movies, television programs and books. Initially, the website only aimed to host public domain media, since 2010 they’ve also been running a digital lending program[18] . This has lead to them embracing something of a library identity, in fact it might interest you to know that the IA is currently recognized as a library by the state of California.

The IA’s initial response to the COVID-19 crisis, wasn’t too different from that of other libraries or archives. In February, they led the way in creating a Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) [19] collection for documenting significant news, events and daily life during the pandemic, similar to projects being run by other libraries such as the DC Public Library[20]. And similar to the BBC Archive’s COVID-19 collection[21], they’ve also been actively curating collections to help people cope with the stress of the crisis[22].

However, despite these parallels, it didn’t take long for the IA to realize the unique position they were in. While other institutions were struggling to find ways to go virtual, IA already was, for the most part.

On March 9, Chris Freeland, the director of the Open Libraries project[23] which is pivotal in the IA’s acquisition and loaning of new books, authored a “call-to-action” blog post, affirming readers that IA’s book lending would continue to operate, unaffected by the crisis and assuring any libraries, which might potentially have to close down during the crisis, who might be interested in making their collections available online that IA was ready to provide any technical support they could[24].

Returning to where we left off, after the pandemic and national emergency declarations, another significant date was March 17. IA announced a new “Share a Course, Not a Virus COVID-19 Initiative“, with the aim of promoting distance education[25].

But more importantly, later into the day, the American Library Association made a statement recommending libraries across the US to close down[26]:

It is very difficult for us to put forward this recommendation. Libraries pride themselves on being there during critical times for our communities. We are often the only institutions to remain open during times of crisis. Service and stewardship to our communities are core to our profession. 

We have weighed the situation of our country and what has happened in other countries around the world. The health of our library workers and the communities we serve is of utmost and equal importance. Libraries are by design unable to practice social distancing to the degree recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health authorities. Keeping libraries open at this time has the potential to harm communities more than help. We underscore the importance and need to come together in this crisis and commit to ensuring our libraries, which provide so many important services to our communities, do not serve as vectors for a fast-moving pandemic.

Excerpt from ALA Executive Board’s recommendation to closing libraries to the public[26].

Somewhere around this time, the IA silently increased their limit on the number of books a user could borrow at a time from 5 to 10, quite possibly for the first time in their history. Something was brewing…

One week later, on March 24, Open Libraries Director Chris Freeland would make another announcement[27]:

To address our unprecedented global and immediate need for access to reading and research materials, as of today, March 24, 2020, the Internet Archive will suspend waitlists for the 1.4 million (and growing) books in our lending library by creating a National Emergency Library to serve the nation’s displaced learners.

And so the NEL was born…

Stay tuned, for the next part where we talk about how news of the NEL became the news of the world, and what people had to say about it!

[1], retrieved June 14, 2020.


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